How Yoga Heals

This article was written for the Shuttle, a local newspaper in Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy Neighborhood.

“Inhale, raise the arms. Exhale, lower them.” Perhaps you’ve experienced these yoga moves. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed moving and stretching in yoga class, feeling the heart rate gently increase as the body becomes warm and supple; feeling the body’s strength and power and how easily the breath flows. Then there’s that quiet, blissful state at the end of class – everything slows down, way down. You become deeply still inside.

While you may know how great yoga feels, you may not know how yoga is working on the inside to heal the body.

Yoga facilitates healing on multiple levels: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. The word yoga means “union” or “to yoke.” It yokes the power of the mind to the body; it brings into union both breath and movement; it yokes our deeper sense of spirit to our mundane actions. Yoga is an ancient body/mind practice, but when it moved to the West, the physical practices came to the forefront. Traditionally, yoga was concerned with the mind and higher states of consciousness. Yogis sought to achieve and sustain the calm that we now associate with meditation. Now through contemporary neuroscience and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we see how deeply entwined mind and body are.

Yoga works through four main activities: breathing techniques, movement and poses, meditation, and deep relaxation (savasana).

One of yoga’s many breathing techniques is especially effective in reducing anxiety. Diaphragmatic breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the calming part of the autonomic nervous system. The belly expands on the inhalation. On the exhalation it either softens or pulls in toward the spine. In yoga, we use the breath to either calm or stimulate the nervous system. The breath is the connector, yoking our awareness to the body.

For many, yoga is just about movement – stretching, strengthening, finding balance and increasing circulation. Healing occurs through this increased circulation, which feeds cells and tissue with fresh nutrients and oxygen. Yoga’s physical practice keeps the heart and lungs healthy, and its inversion poses help the lymph system clean up debris and pathogens. Certain poses help the digestive system to stay regular, and circulation reduces inflammation, as in arthritis. Even gentle, easy movement accomplishes this, which is one reason why yoga is making its way into medical settings.

Meditation is the oldest aspect of yoga. Meditation is an exercise in reducing external stimulation and watching what’s happening internally. It strengthens concentration and cultivates a compassionate witness to all we experience. Beginning meditators find this very difficult because the mind seems like a wild beast, going off wherever it wants. But using concentration practices begins to tame the beast and direct the mind toward calm awareness. Once achieved, that meditative state slows the heart rate, slows brain waves, reduces muscle tension, lowers stress hormones, and, for some, decreases blood pressure.

All yoga sessions end with a few moments in savasana. Here the student rests in a profound state of quiet, calm awareness as the teacher directs the relaxation of different body parts. It is typically a deeply restful experience, not intended for sleep, though many do fall asleep. Physiologically speaking, the body enters a hypometabolic state in which its energy goes into repairing and restoring tissue.

If you are interested in beginning yoga, look for “gentle” or “beginners” or even “chair” yoga. Be sure to tell the teacher that you are new to yoga. Or you can try a yoga app at home. Here are a few: Yoga Studio, Fit Star Yoga, and 5 Minute Yoga. Make sure you listen to your body and honor your limitations. And keep breathing!

A Relaxation Revolution

I just started reading Dr. Herbert Benson’s book, Relaxation Revolution. I’ve been excited about Benson’s work for a while now and first wrote about him in an earlier post, Meditation and the Relaxation Response. In the 1970s, Benson started researching the physiological changes that happen during meditation and these changes are collectively known as the relaxation response.

The relaxation response is the opposite phenomenon to the stress response, more commonly known as fight or flight. Research has shown a multitude of benefits that arise from the relaxation response including reduced pain, reduced hypertension (high blood pressure), improved sleep and reduced anxiety.

What I was most surprised to learn in reading Relaxation Revolution is that the relaxation response can change gene expression. If you have a gene that would predispose you to a certain condition, such as cancer, you can affect your internal environment through consistent practice of the relaxation response to reduce the chances of that gene expressing its particular behavior. If research continues to show this, it could mean a radical shift in health care and how we approach healing.

Here is a link to Dr. Benson’s instructions on how to elicit the relaxation response. Basically you are practicing concentration – giving the mind a simple task like repeating one or two words over and over – and letting all other thoughts dissipate. In a state of quiet concentration, the brain sends signals to the body that say, “everything is okay; we can relax; all is well.” The body then lowers its heart rate, relaxes muscle tension, and reduces production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

This is significant in regards to any need for healing. The relaxation response can support the immune system simply by turning off the stress response. Consistent practice will program a new message to the body, all is well. Medical researchers continue to investigate this profound shift in mind-body medicine in order deepen our understanding of its healing potential.

Earthing

Just as I was considering taking some of my yoga students outside to do standing poses barefoot in the grass, my friend Kevin Starbard, a Qigong teacher, sent out a blast about “Earthing.” Earthing is the practice of grounding yourself by walking or standing barefoot on the earth and Earthing enthusiasts purport that it has numerous health benefits. From the Chinese perspective, it is absorbing the earth Qi through the Bubbling Springs point (Kidney point #1) located on the sole of the foot. From the modern Earthing view, it is filling the body with electrons to neutralize free radicals in the body, and most importantly eliminate or reduce chronic inflammation.

For more information on Earthing read this article by Dr. Andrew Weil.

Kevin will be teaching outdoors in Fairmount Park on Sundays 10am to 11:30am. To study with Kevin and learn more about Earthing or Qigong, contact me and I will connect you to him.

Meanwhile, kick your shoes off and wiggle your toes in the fresh spring grass!