I first started doing yoga in 2007 and for me, and lots of other people, I know that it “works”. There is a large body of evidence that supports the efficacy of yoga for wellbeing, particularly for stress, musculoskeletal problems and pain management, amongst other health issues. As a GP, I’m often recommending it to my patients as an adjunct to medication and other treatments.
But why do we keep coming back to yoga? People practice yoga for a multitude of reasons, some of them physical – for example, wanting to help back pain or improve athletic performance. Others are more interested in the psychological effects of yoga and find it helps to manage stress and anxiety. Some people use yoga for wellbeing, and just find it helps them feel better generally but aren’t sure why. We all have our own reasons, and these may change over time, and perhaps from day to day.
Whatever your reasons for practising yoga, you will no doubt (unless you are doing intense fitness-yoga style classes) find that you will usually finish the class feeling more relaxed than when you started. There are often several reasons for this but the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system that occurs as a result of the combination of breathing practices, mindful movement and Savasana (relaxation) is usually a key factor, and why it “works” for us, and is why we keep coming back to it, even if it’s many months since we last took a class.
For most of us the majority of our time is spent in sympathetic response. The sympathetic nervous system is vital to our survival; it drives the fight or flight response. Modern day stressors fortunately tend not to be the immediate life and death scenarios our primordial ancestors faced. We tend to be under much more chronic low-level stressors e.g. work, managing multiple projects at home/work, or lockdown stressors as we are currently. This can mean that we are constantly in a state of high stress, which has not only a psychological impact on the body, but also a direct impact on our physical health, and I see this on a daily basis through my work.
When we access the parasympathetic state, which is meant to be our default mode, the easier it is to feel relaxed, make clearer decisions and enjoy day to day life. The more we can drop into the parasympathetic mode of rest, digest and restore, the more efficiently the body can function in terms of digestion, sleep, and immune function. That great night sleep you have after an evening yoga class? That’s usually because the nervous system has shifted into the parasympathetic mode. For athletes, more parasympathetic activation means improved muscle repair and recovery and ultimately reduced injury risk.
The more we practice yoga and mediation, the more we get to experience the subtle shift into parasympathetic mode and how it benefits our mind and body.
Like most things, it gets easier to achieve over time the more we do it and as we learn more techniques to add to our toolbox that help us to relax and balance the nervous system.
For me personally, the stresses of lockdown and the slower pace of life are simultaneously highlighting the need for more time to rest and relax, and I’m trying to build this into my day to make it into a longer term habit, with more time for restorative yoga and relaxation in the evenings
Why not schedule an online yoga class (details here! ) or try a mediation app and see how you feel afterwards? Or maybe you have another way to drop into the relaxation state, such as music or art ? Just noticing the change in your body and mind is the first step to being able to access this on a more regular basis and reap the benefits.
Let me know what works for you! How do you relax? Do you use yoga for wellbeing, or for other reasons?