A year ago I was a yoga virgin, and I have to say, I gave myself up with a bit of an eye-roll. I had actually made a practice of resisting suggestions that yoga could be good for me and my escalating level of stress, because it seemed so hokey and ungrounded in evidence (please keep reading, I’ll recant this shortly).
Full disclosure: I’m a science nerd. I love understanding why things work, and I couldn’t imagine that yoga might possibly have scientific backing behind it. I was wrong.
Since that time, I’ve learned a lot about what yoga and meditation can do for our bodies and brains. Science lays out how the practices affect the body on multiple levels – from the grandest to the most miniscule. The large-scale changes are straightforward, but valuable, and are what many associate with yoga: building and lengthening muscles, improving balance and flexibility, and, for lack of a better term, working out the kinks.
But almost more impressive and affecting are the molecular changes it can bring with it. Cortisol levels fall, and the stress response is quieted. Inflammation, which researchers are discovering is a major culprit in many areas of health, is reduced, as key markers in the blood diminish. The practices appear even to change the volume and wiring of the brain. For example, after learning how to meditate, people show increases in the gray matter of the brain, in areas that govern attention, learning, and memory – and decreases in the regions involved with stress and anxiety, from which a majority of people today suffer, some of us more than others.
The science of yoga is sexy, for sure. And experiencing firsthand the shifts that it brings about can be even more startling to a beginner. It’s pretty wild to discover for yourself in the studio – or in your living room – the very same changes that researchers are visualizing on MRIs in the lab.
For me, there’s something comforting about knowing that science backs up what we discover in our own practices. It somehow gives yoga more heft and more muscle. Though generations of practitioners over millennia have known intuitively the very same things that modern science is just now figuring out empirically, it still makes me happy to understand why yoga does what it does. It doesn’t take the magic away from it – it actually makes its pull even stronger.
Do you find that understanding how yoga affects the body helps your practice?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog.