The science and art of feeling good
While clean living, good exercise and nutrition provide a steady baseline for physical health, they do not automatically ensure a rapid and complete bounce back of emotional and mental wellbeing following periods when these habits are interrupted.
Flexibility, contortionist tendencies and a hot body have become synonymous with yoga and may be a recognisable side effect of regular practise for some but are metaphorically just icing on a rich cake. The practise of yoga, when done with awareness, provides regular access to states of wellbeing and supports equilibrium of mental, emotional and physical health.
Despite the somewhat warped and limited understanding of Yoga that stems from how it is widely recognised and portrayed in the Western world today; in its full glory (not the watered down, mass media version) it remains a powerful method for the optimum knowledge and management of self – both body and mind.
While clean living, good exercise and nutrition provide a steady baseline for physical health, they do not automatically ensure a rapid and complete bounce back of emotional and mental wellbeing following periods when these habits are interrupted. Lack of sleep, recreational drug or alcohol use and overwork disrupt our body’s internal pharmacy however well we usually take care of ourselves. Even the things you do for enjoyment can leave you depleted and feeling low when they’re over. Supplements such as 5-HTP are hugely beneficial as a support at these times and especially when used in conjunction with yoga.
Often, external factors take the full blame for stress or low mood – our environment, nutrition, relationships etc –and though these can certainly be causative and must not be overlooked, you have much greater agency in how your body and mind responds to influences outside of you than you may realise.
Current research in neuroscience and health gives clear empirical evidence of how yoga alters the body’s chemistry as effectively as some pharmaceutical interventions*. Any stressor, whether it be real or imagined, increases cortisol levels in the body responsible for the flight/fight/freeze response) Elevated levels of this hormone leads to reduced dopamine and serotonin – the feel good chemicals. Chronic or sustained stress of any kind overstimulates the sympathetic nervous system and compounds this situation often leading individuals to seek treatment for depression, anxiety or a whole host of other physical ailments.
But rather than reaching immediately for painkillers, antidepressants or the next available distraction, there is a way to utilise the body’s own natural processes to resume the state of ease and balance that leads to feeling good again and that also provides a solid foundation for handling the rough times well.
Real yoga is a transformative, simple yet profound practise that consists of many elements. There now exists plentiful western medical evidence that supports what yogis have known for aeons. Practice makes you feel better on every level.
Yogic breath control (Pranayama) has been studied specifically in relation to one particular nerve in the body – the vagus nerve. This cranial nerve, originating from the base of the brain, travels through the mouth and throat and down to all the major organs. It carries two way traffic - signals from body to brain and brain to body** that help stimulate or pacify the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic is in charge of resting, digesting, social bonding and sexual activity or the relaxation response.
Conscious and specific exercising of this nerve results in good “Vagal tone” helping to regulate the major bodily functions such as temperature, blood pressure and heart rate. Yoga helps tonify this nerve and the processes it is responsible for.
The more regularly this relaxation response is activated, the easier it becomes to emotionally and physically self-regulate. (A toned vagus nerve increases heart rate variability which represents a marker predictive of long life+.) Thus the conscious practice of yoga helps change physiology keeping the body’s neurochemicals balanced which in turn positively influences emotional and mental states and aids a strong sense of equilibrium that can be returned to again and again.
Although there is a profusion of yoga instruction available now, much of this is taught as a purely physical form of yoga-inspired exercise which has its place but is a far cry from the true roots of yoga – the eightfold path (Ashtanga). Far beyond body movement and breath awareness, the eight limbs of yoga consist of practicing and cultivating: observances and behaviours, self-discipline, movement, breath, control of the senses, the cultivation of single pointed attention, meditation and states of expanded consciousness. Yoga itself means union, the full integration and acceptance of all elements of self and the subsequent alignment with that which is greater than us yet which is also an integral part of who we are (– the Universe, the Divine, God) One of oldest yoga texts explains the purpose of practice as a means to the alleviation of suffering. Even in its most basic form yoga holds true as an excellent map for navigating the human experience with all of its fluctuations.