Your Brain on Yoga

yogaI recently overheard a student comment to a teacher before class that “Yoga is the only thing that makes sense right now.”

It was a simple yet powerful statement that most of us can relate to. We’ve all been there at some time in our lives. Life becomes so busy, overwhelming, crazy, problematic, or stressful, and yoga provides a kind of virtual sanctuary that allows us to rest, recharge, and refuel on a deep internal level.

Physiologically, when we experience stress, anxiety, frustration, or other negative emotional states our breathing is impacted. Our breathing rate increases as our depth of breath decreases. This change in our respiration has a direct impact on our heart rhythm, which in turn affects our entire body.

When we go to yoga we are asked to do something very simple. We’re asked to turn our attention to our breath.

When we consciously lengthen and deepen our breath, such as through Ujjayi pranayama, we are actually changing our heart rhythm and thus the neural patterns that are sent to the areas of our brains that regulate our emotional and mental functioning.

Effectuating positive change on the level of the breath, the fourth of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, we find ourselves better equipped to face our inner and outer worlds after an hour of yoga.

On top of this breath awareness we layer asana, the postures we practice and the third limb of yoga. Asana has been shown to raise our brain’s GABA levels. GABA is a neurotransmitter in our brains that has a calming effect on our central nervous system.

It makes me wonder what would happen if we practiced all eight limbs of yoga instead of just the two most common ones, breath and posture.

The phenomenal thing about yoga is that it never changes. We change.

The poses don’t change, the breathing doesn’t change, the process doesn’t change. Where we are in our lives changes, where our body is at changes, what we’re experiencing on emotional, physical, and spiritual levels changes.

Your first down dog at the beginning of class doesn’t feel like your last one. Tomorrow’s hip or heart openers may be easier or harder than today’s. Each movement and each breath is a doorway into your present moment, your present body, and your present state of being.

Yoga brings us home to our bodies, although I find it’s sometimes more like a vacation home than a real home. I visit it when I do yoga and sometimes leave it uninhabited when I head back (literally head back) out into my “real” world.

“It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

Through our body and through our breath we tap into deeper, freer levels of being that get buried under the stress or busyness of our lives.

This is unmapped and uncharted territory that requires vulnerability, compassion, courage, and a willingness to meet ourselves where we are on any given day.

Our yoga practice brings us to the doorway of our body and welcomes us home. How long we choose to stay is up to us.

Originally published on YogaOneBlog.

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