Updated: Jan 12
Yoga is a profound tool to enhance the relationship between our body and mind.
Our emotions originate in our bodies and then travel to our brain through the nervous system. Thus, the state of our physiology and the balance in our nervous system can determine our psychological state.
Practicing yoga can increase our body awareness, this increases our ability to recognise and manage emotions (important markers of emotional intelligence)
Yoga allows us to change the state of our body and reduce the activation of the stress response in our nervous system.
Yoga also ensures we are able to effectively switch between “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” states, this ensures we can be energetic or calm when needed.
To be most effective we should focus on the consistency and timing of our practice, as well as giving mindfulness and the breath proper attention.
Yoga is a physical practice that has significant flow-on effects into our mind (psychology) and the way we live our life (philosophy).
WHATS THE BIG IDEA?
Let’s talk about a practice that can simultaneously give us control over our physical and mental state.
We are talking about yoga.
Too many people dismiss yoga in their life as they look past its deeper benefits. Yoga isn’t just a relaxing form of exercise, it is a practice that trains the relationship between your physiology and psychology with amazing results.
We are saying that the mind and the body are connected and work together. We have all heard this statement before, but have we ever stopped and explored what this actually means? Unfortunately for many people this powerful idea has become a cliched idea and lost its meaning. In this blog we are going to explore exactly how this relationship impacts our daily life and explore how yoga enhances this relationship. We will explore:
How yoga allows us to become more aware of our emotions.
How the nervous system in our body directly impacts our mental state.
How we can use yoga to positively influence our overall experience of life.
We will learn to shift our body and mind to a state that is primed for focus and happiness.
2. WHAT’S THE EVIDENCE?
So, what’s this mind body relationship all about?
A major influence on the quality of our moment to moment experience is our nervous system activity. What happens in our brain is heavily influenced by the signals our nervous system picks up from around our body. The feelings that arise in our mind actually first appear as emotions in our body, they then travel along our nervous system and only later enter our conscious awareness. Thus, emotional experience and our thinking is heavily impacted by our physiological state and what messages the nervous system relays from the body to mind. This phenomenon has been extensively analysed under a new branch of science known as Polyvagal Theory.
In our daily life we can become disconnected from our bodies. We are drawn into our heads through sedentary lifestyles. We engage with technology or work with screens for the majority of our day and fail to connect with our bodies through movement. We are not living like the embodied creatures we are, and as a result we often miss out on the crucial information our body can communicate to us. We are talking about “body awareness”. Your degree of body awareness determines how well you are able to identify with the emotions coming from your body and ultimately your ability to anticipate, regulate and even influence these emotions. If we become disconnected from our body, certain emotions can go unnoticed, growing in strength until they reach a boiling point in our physiology and burst into our mind. They can then express themselves as stress, irritability, fatigue, intense anger, anxiety or depression. We must learn to reconnect with our body so we can balance the emotions we are experiencing in each moment of our lives. To do this we must build our body awareness. Yoga is proven to increase body awareness due to the element of mindfulness that occurs during the practice. The intense concentration during physical movements helps us identify subtle changes in our physiology. Yoga can significantly improve our emotional intelligence in this way, helping us recognise our emotional state in the body before it unsettles our mind.
How do we then influence our physiology, respond to emotions at their source, and ensure our mental state remains clear and balanced?
This can be answered by exploring the effect yoga has on our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS regulates the homeostatic functions within our body and is incredibly important to our overall sense of wellbeing. It has two main branches, a sympathetic state which is responsible for the flight or fight response, and the parasympathetic state which induces the rest and relax response.
A healthy body and peak mental experience will involve a balance between the two systems. We sometimes need the bursts of energy available in sympathetic states, and other times we may need a calm and relaxed focus that comes when we are in a parasympathetic state. In our society today so many aspects of our lifestyle throw off this balance, ultimately inducing an internal chaos. Many people face the chronic stress of an overactive sympathetic system in which we feel unable to switch off, tired but wired, and burnt out. These states are all too familiar and quickly erode any hope of feeling good or preforming well. During these times our body often tries to slow us down to replenish our nervous system. However, we often take this as a cue to up artificial stimulation with caffeine, alcohol or sugary food, a harmful cycle that can aid the development of chronic conditions. It is also a dangerous if our parasympathetic system goes into overdrive. In this state, our body is often completely taxed and goes into a shut-down mode where we are plagued with feelings of low mood and emptiness. We can see that it is very important to manage the activity within our nervous system and balance these two driving forces. Balance in in this system is key to maintaining an experience of calm alertness, happiness and peak performance.
In his book on polyvagal theory Dr. Steve Porges describes the three states our physiology can be in and details how each impacts our subjective experience. The diagram below gives a summary of his findings and highlights the implications the nervous system has on our life.
Yoga helps us balance our ANS in three ways and the effects on our life are profound.
Yoga turns down our Sympathetic activity. Yoga doesn’t just work by relaxing our muscles. There are sensors in our body called “mechanoreceptors”, they are situated within our joints, layers of tissue and between our muscle facia. They constantly communicate with the brain in relation to the movement, tightness and tension present in the body. When we stretch and release connective tissue, these sensors inhibit the stress response and activation of the SNS. This ensures our nervous system is not overheating, and as a result our anxiety, nerves, stress etc. are drastically reduced. Gentle yoga puts the body in a state of relaxed flow and the mind follows.
Yoga also ensures we efficiently shift between the two systems. Active yoga classes such as a vinyasa or hatha class combine the use of gentle and active styles of stretching; by doing this the class shifts from heating up the SNS with more active stretches (backbends, twists and inversions in which muscles are very stimulated) and engaging the PNS with slow stretches (forward folds and bends) to cool down our nervous system. This enhances our ability to switch between the two states and to feel in control and at ease through these fluctuations. We begin to sense how this up-regulation and down regulation of our system feels and also how we can influence the process.
The controlled breathing during yoga influences our physiology. The deep diaphragmatic breathing we are instructed to do during a yoga practice also play a huge part in calming our nervous system. The effects of this type of breathing are so impactful that we are saving this information for a post of its own! Stay tuned for that and sign up for updates.
The effects of yoga on our body and mind go very deep and are still being vigorously explored by science. Many experiments are being undertaken to explore how restoring homeostasis in the ANS alleviates symptoms of many medical conditions such as depression, epilepsy, anxiety and PTSD. Yoga also works to stimulate the Vegas Nerve, enhance our GABA systems (essential for calm, sleep, stress reduction), and also increase our heart rate variability (an important marker of overall health) 1.
3. HOW TO MAKE THE CHANGE
What does it take to incorporate this into our life?
It only takes 10-60 minutes!
Research suggests that there is no optimum time for yoga and benefits can be felt in as little as 10 minutes.
Repetition and consistency is key. Doing yoga frequently is powerful. No matter what happens through our day or week, we are supported as our mind and body know that we will eventually return to these critical moments of calm and clarity. This increases our resilience, courage and motivation. Repetition will also make the practice a part of who we are. What we do frequently becomes engrained in our mind through neuroplasticity, every time we practice yoga we enhance our ability to optimise our nervous balance and remain in a state of calm flow.
At Alive our top quick tips are:
Practice at least a few minutes in the morning. Our bodies are stationary and our minds adrift for 8 hours a night. Yoga warms up the body and orientates the mind towards the present moment, a great combination to ensure a happy, productive day.
Top up your yoga throughout the day. Don’t think it always needs to be part of a formal practice. Whenever we feel ourselves slipping out of our desired state (starting to feel anxious, tired, distracted etc), we can take some deep breaths, gently stretch, and become more mindful. This can quickly shift us back to a state of calm.
Use a guide. There are countless free sessions available on the internet, it doesn’t need to take a lot of time or money to practice effectively. We have linked our favourite sources below.
Stay present. Don’t go through the motions, the mindfulness component is just as important and beneficial as the physical movement. When your mind wanders from the present gently bring it back to focus on the movements and your breath. If you want to know why mindfulness matters and understand the host of benefits it can provide see our blog on the neuroscience of mindfulness.
Practice with a friend. This is great for commitment and it’s great to share your experience with others for your own learning and theirs.
Another important factor is to match the style of yoga we choose to the time of day. We can consider incorporating more active stretching and breathing sessions into our morning routine to maximise our readiness for the day. Then use more passive and gentle stretching at night to shift our bodies into a state of rest and rejuvenation for sleep. This provides a great trigger for our circadian rhythm and allows us to make the most of the time we spend awake and asleep. Peak performance and states of flow only occur when our body and mind are aligned with whatever activity we are undertaking. Varying our yoga practice in this way creates powerful cues that shift our body and mind into a state that best serves what we are trying to achieve.
4. LIVE YOUR NEW EXPERIENCE
At ALIVE we analyse concepts that positively compound over time. We want the ideas we share to be the most impactful they can be. We only choose concepts that continue to reward us in an upward cycle, long after we put in the initial effort to get the ball rolling.
One of the best things about yoga is that the more we practice the greater the benefits become. This is because there is a crucial link between flexibility and the nervous system. We have shown how we can use stretching to control the nervous system, however we haven’t yet considered how the nervous system controls our stretching. When we max out a stretch it isn’t because the muscle isn’t “long” enough. Although our physical tissue is important here the majority of our flexibility is controlled by the central nervous system. This system can recognize when a muscle is in an unfamiliar range of motion and quickly contracts the muscle as over flexing can be dangerous. However, if we calm our nervous system our body realizes we aren’t in any danger and muscles can extend a little further. That’s why when we go slowly into a stretch and breathe deeply we are able to push our flexibility further. This gives our practice positive momentum. Yoga enhances our relaxation, and our relaxation enhances our yoga. This cycle repeats and each time we practice yoga we get more value from it in a shorter amount of time.
Another way yoga provides us with positive momentum is that it improves our self-control. When we have balance in our nervous system we are far more conscious of our behaviour and can thus regulate what habits we choose to maintain. Having greater self-control will flow through into so many areas of our life and also just increase our ability to keep practicing yoga! Sounds good to me
At Alive the foundation of our teaching is to showcase how our mind, body and life are connected. How we think influences how we feel, how we feel influences how we act, and how we act can influence how we feel. The connection between these fields is deeply wired within us. A summary of the links is seen below.
The links between yoga and our psychology are clear. This effect we have discussed around lowering anxiety, boosting focus and increasing flow are profound. It’s amazing to consider the impact all this has directly on our long-term mood. Studies have found that yoga significantly increases positive emotion, reduces anger and hostility, and combats depression in regular practitioners (2). We can’t think ourselves out of negative emotional states, trying to do this doesn’t help and can leaves us feeling out of control. However, if we start in the body and focus on changing the aspects of physiology we can control, our mental state will follow along.
We will now explore how yoga breaks into the philosophical realm. How does a movement practice change how we act or what we value? Yoga is an ancient and deeply spiritual practice; its teachings are intended to be a wholistic guide for life. The practice has provided a fulfilling way of living for billions of people for centuries. This diagram summaries the 8 limbs of yoga, these provide principles for living life beyond the yoga mat. We have put some links to further readings below if you are interested.
You don’t need to dive this deep into the traditional teaching to reap the benefits we discussed earlier. However, there is undoubtedly a lot of value to be taken out of yoga’s philosophical grounding. At its core, consistent yoga practice promotes discipline, self-awareness and self-control; these factors are critical to living live with intention, acting with integrity and staying true to our personal philosophies and character principles.
How does this all contribute to a new experience of life?
We have established that yoga isn’t just great for limbering up and relaxing. We have covered how yoga allows us to be more self-aware by connecting us with the physical side of our feelings and recognizing our emotions as they originate in the body. We have also learnt that yoga is a powerful tool for shifting our body into different physiological states, allowing us to spend more time in a zone where we are calm, focused, and experiencing flow. Not only is anxiety, stress and burnout now firmly under our control, we are also able to switch on and gain more energy when we need to as well. We are more effective throughout the day, we are present with our friends and family, our brain fog is gone, and physical fatigue isn’t a problem for us. At night we are able to unwind, switch off, enjoy our downtime, and sleep well to wake up refreshed. We feel the momentum of our practice driving us forward and understand how yoga is supporting our mental state and life philosophies.
Enjoy your practice.
Read: The Yoga Sutra, widely regarded as the authoritative text on yoga, is a collection of aphorisms, outlining the eight limbs of yoga.
Watch: A summary of polyvagal theory by its original founder Dr. Steven Porges
Listen: A podcast from Stuff to Blow Your Mind featuring Ann Swanson Author of The Science of Yoga
Do: A self-guided questionnaire to assess body awareness and nervous reactivity (assess what state you're currently in): https://www.stephenporges.com/body-scales
Free guided yoga lessons: https://www.youtube.com/user/yogawithadriene/videos