by Allison Jurjens
This piece was originally published at http://www.allisonjurjens.com/blog/health-benefits-yoga-meditation/
Mindful awareness of the body in yoga poses, and consciousness of the breath in the moment, allows the self to become attuned internally. This fosters intuition, compassion and empathy, for our selves and for others. Deep trauma held in the physical body can be released. This is the nervous system’s connectivity and integration throughout the body, bringing health. Integration is health. Integration can be understood to be the honoring of differences and promoting of linkages. This applies to not only health in the physical body and brain, but also in relationships.
Personally I use my practice of hatha/vinyasa yoga as a moving meditation. Yogic breath awareness (pranayama), and meditation in it’s various forms, are essential elements for optimal health benefits.
It’s really interesting to try all kinds of yoga, and be sure to find one that suits you. First up, I would also say, yoga is not a competitive sport. Start slow, do beginner level classes for as long as you want. Your body is precious, if you walk the line of being uncomfortable or tired or something that is unpleasant, do what you feel comfortable to do in the moment and honor your self. Do you need to extend yourself, or pull back a little? Only you know your own body in the moment, and the idea is to listen to it and focus your attention on the breath. Don’t think about your teacher or anyone else. This is your own practice. This is a process to get to know your self and who you are.
For me, a yoga session always gave me that same kind of feeling as you get after a good massage. The serotonin is flowing, and endorphins have been released (natural painkillers and mood elevators). The feeling of being content, calm, relaxed, spacious. A sense of well being and loving kindness toward life and the planet. It’s expansive, and a natural bliss.
The health benefits of yoga are not just those sensations and feelings in the moment, but also that ability to carry those sensations forward in the moments when there are all kinds of other stresses.
The health benefits of yoga are not just those sensations and feelings in the moment, but also that ability to carry those sensations forward in the moments when there are all kinds of other stresses. Can we come back to those felt feelings within the physical body and calmness of mind, when the intruding stimuli are extreme, stressful, loud, intense and distracting?
The poses themselves can also teach us to focus on our easy conscious breath, even when we may feel uncomfortable or tired. The ego and everything else takes a back seat and the attention is just on the breath, nothing else.
I’d like to uncover more research and science behind the ancient concepts of the chakras, meridians, nadis and bandhas. Maybe I need to expand my readings – let me know if you have some good materials! It’s my guess the ancient concepts are related to the neuroscience and psychology I try to bridge them with today. Certainly the brain is the control center in the body and there is an interaction internally that we can manipulate with our mind, or conscious attention.
Our nervous system is comprised of the central nervous system consisting of the embodied brain and spinal cord in the spinal cavity, protected by our vertebrae; and the somatic and autonomic nervous systems. The somatic nervous system is associated with the voluntary control of body movements via skeletal muscles (used in the various yoga postures and to transition the physical body smoothly in alignment).
The autonomic nervous system which controls our visceral organs reflexively, has three parts – mainly nerves, or neurons, that connect the central nervous system to every other part of the body. There’s the sympathetic nervous system (think fight/flight); parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and the lesser known enteric nervous system, which controls the gastrointestinal system. (Yes, your brain, thoughts and feelings, are connected to your gut). All bilaterally symmetrical mammals have this central nervous system that integrates the information it receives – voluntary and involuntary actions and signals – from all parts of the physical body, and coordinates and influences the electrochemical activity of the brain. [On a different day I might go in to the visceral afferent and efferent nerves and maybe that will give more clues about the chakras. We are so intricately complex!]
When there’s stress, the sympathetic nervous system goes into flight/fight mode and heart rate increases and heart rate variability, or changeability, goes down. In practicing yoga and meditation, we increase the practice of self control, delayed gratification and consciousness. In meditation, the parasympathetic nervous system, coordinating the vital signs, lowers heart rate and increases it’s variability.
Studies have shown that people with higher heart rate variability are less likely to give up even when unsuccessful, and have greater will power. In psychology, the heart rate variability can be a physiological measure of capacity for self control. This is another amazing health benefit in making a regular practice of yoga and meditation.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight or flight mechanism. Research shows us this impedes learning and memory, lowers immune function and bone density, increases weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease – the list goes on. Cortisol also increases risk of depression, mental illness and decreases resilience, especially in adolescence when the brain is still developing. Yoga, including poses such as Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), Salabhasana (Locust Pose), Vrksasana (Tree Pose) and Halasana (Plow Pose) has been shown to decrease cortisol levels, and this has been replicated many times over.
I like the image of a dog getting unsettled or wet, and shaking out it’s fur. Birds shake their tail feathers, letting go the stress in the moment. We as humans can get a release by physically moving, even in a quick uttanasa in the office, moving the head in the way that feels good and flubbering the lips. Yoga class may be painful to get to at times with a busy calendar, but take up a 2-minute get-up-and-move policy when your colleague is getting under your skin. A quick handstand in the office with the door closed? It’ll turn everything right side up again. Take your yoga practice to the everyday, even if you don’t have the 90 minutes plus travel time.
Immersion in yoga practice has also been known to kick powerful addictions as well. Those who have struggled with the reward/pleasure neurotransmitter, dopamine, have found life saving benefits of yoga. There are many different kinds of yoga and of course, teachers with different intensity levels. For those who suffer from addictions who have a deep commitment to change, and a solid internal motivation, yoga (especially Ashtanga) and meditation are incredible tools of change. Kundalini yoga is also an amazing and deep practice in terms of depth of emotional release, through pranayama and asana (postures). Physical movement, a sense of balance, and connection with the self along with the sangha (social group or community) can be key in yoga to allow a breakthrough in trauma and addictive behavior and create healthy new habits.
In relation to meditation, research shows observable mental activity reduces to a lower hertz – which is a unit of frequency, defined as one unit per second. Let’s take a quick look at what goes on with brain activity and explain how that feels.
Tibetan monks who’ve been practicing for decades can get down to 1-3Hz in an alert, wakened state but most of us reach this Delta state only during deep, dreamless sleep. Meditation is optimal in a Theta state, at 4-8Hz, and this state is also associated with visualization (another great tool for change you want in your life). At around 9-13Hz, we could be stepping out of a yoga session in an Alpha state. The feeling is calm, peaceful and grounded. We may feel lucid, reflective and have a slightly diffused awareness. In this state, the hemispheres of the brain are more balanced.
There are two other categories we tend to operate in and those are Gamma state at 30-100Hz, where we could be actively learning, but if over stimulated, may lead to anxiety. Generally it’s the most opportune time to retain information. Lastly, the Beta state is at 13-30Hz and where we function the majority of the day, associated with the alert mind state. It’s the working, thinking mind – analytical, planning, assessing, and categorizing. I guess this is what they mean by ‘turning down the volume’ in the mind.
A regular practice and becoming accustomed to a lower level of mental activity in the moment, can train our minds to allow us to choose our behavior reflectively, as opposed to reactively. This is one of my favorite health benefits of yoga, because it has helped me with decision making (just think about nutritional choices, as an example), as well as relational behaviors – as an individual and as a parent. When we can consciously gain more of an ability to pause, and be conscious in the moment – before we speak or do something that might otherwise be automatic. We’ll have greater response flexibility.
My favorite teacher, Dr Dan Siegel defines our minds as an “embodied and relational process that regulate the flow of energy and information”. Our minds are not just the activity of our brains. We can actually help ourselves to have greater or optimal health. Our genes, we can’t change. But genes are only a part of the story. Environment and experiences are key as well. A lot of the time we do have a conscious choice about our environment, exposures, how we experience circumstances, the time we spend in various activities, what exercise we do, and how we live. Consciousness is one of the most powerful resources we have. Observe what happens as you focus your attention on the things you do want for your own health, and the life you have, in this precious moment. Yoga and meditation are great tools. Try it for yourself!
The physical aspects of moving the body in sequenced postures with particular alignments, stretches the muscles fibers, strengthens the body and bones, and builds endurance. Where I unconsciously came to yoga almost 20 years ago for a low impact sport, I love yoga now for the integration and health benefits that it brings.
Allison will be leading a yoga session in Central Park for AWNY members on Saturday, May 31. Click here for more information and to RSVP.