There is no doubt that yoga is booming in popularity. Wellness is one of the world's fastest growing industries. In the UK, almost half a million Brits are taking part in yoga classes each week and in the US, 36 million Americans practise yoga. Yoga must make us feel good if we keep returning again and again, right? But, why? In this article I thought it would be interesting to discuss this.
Why does yoga make me feel so good? The short answer to that question is: The Relaxation Response.
What is the Relaxation Response?
The term 'The Relaxation Response' was coined by the Harvard professor, Herbert Benson. Benson first wrote about this autonomic reaction in 1975 alongside Miriam Z. Klipper in the best-selling book, The Relaxation Response.
The concept of the Relaxation Response builds on the idea of the Fight-or-Flight response as described by Walter Bradford Cannon in the 1920s as part of his research at Harvard Medical School. The Fight-or-Flight response is elicited when we respond to stressful and/or dangerous situations and engages the sympathetic nervous system. The body experiences:
increased heart rate
increased breathing rate
increased blood pressure
slowed digestive functioning
increased blood flow to the vital organs
increased release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline
dilating of pupils.
All of these factors enable us to fight or run away from the identified stressful and/or dangerous situation. Conversely, the Relaxation Response engages the parasympathetic nervous system and moves the body to a state of physiological rest and relaxation where your breathing rate is slowed down, your muscles become relaxed, blood pressure is reduced and digestive and hormonal functioning return to normal levels. This state of relaxation allows the body to heal, regenerate cells, digest and give our mind space to process thoughts, feelings and emotions.
Both the Relaxation Response and the Fight-or-Flight Response are normal parts of life, however, our modern society and lifestyle promotes the Fight-or-Flight response. Excessive sitting encourages rounding in the shoulders, which inhibits our ability to breath deeply, and also stimulates the vagal nerve and both these factors indicate to the brain that you are in a stressful and/or dangerous situation and encourages the brain to elicit the Fight-or-Flight Response. Our modern lifestyles encourage and value perceived busy-ness and productivity and this leads to the triggering of the response multiple times a day and the overtaxing of the nervous system. When we lived as hunter gathers stressors would be more likely to be based on survival whereas now, these stressors are more likely to be situational.
So, how does this relate to yoga and why yoga make us feel good? Again, the short answer is: yoga elicits the relaxation response in the body helping us to reduce overall stress physiologically and mentally and allows us to deal with stress more effectively.
How does yoga elicit The Relaxation Response?
Benson's research demonstrated that the Relaxation Response could be elicited by using relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, chanting, prayer, breathing techniques, acupuncture, massage, energy healing, visualisation, Tai Chi and Qi Gong. In the same way that spending an excess amount of time sat down stimulating the vagal nerve and tightening the muscles of the body tells the brain that you are in a stressful situation, relaxation techniques such as yoga can use cues to tell the brain to trigger a specific nervous system response.
In yoga specifically, there is a focus on calming the mind, slowing and deepening the breath and stretching and strengthening the muscles to allow them to relax and become less tight. Even in the most dynamic yoga class there is still the space for rest and relaxation in the form of Savasana. All of these factors tell your brain that you are in a place of safety, and therefore, the body and brain will move from fight-or-flight to rest-and-digest.
Yoga is a powerful tool to battle stress and stress-related health problems and yoga is not only a spiritual practice but also causes profound physiological changes in your body and brain. Next time you do yoga, perhaps take some time to notice how slowing the breath, quietening the mind and relaxing your muscles changes how you feel.