Anyone who has attended a yoga class or practiced at home knows the feeling all too well of relief and relaxation as they settle into savasana (corpse pose). Science on the other hand is just starting to unpack what actually happens when we practice yoga and how it benefits us.
As a practicing yoga therapist and owner of Yoga Is My Health Insurance I am able to spend a portion of my time researching and reading current medical studies and hypotheses on how yoga might work. A recent article caught my eye because it focused specifically on the effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In a nutshell the hypotheses propose yoga practice reduces the effects of psychological and physical stress by restores optimal homeostasis of the nervous system.
With chronic stress the autonomic nervous system (ANS) goes out of balance; the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) takes over, think fight or flight, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), rest and digest, takes a back seat and the gamma-aminobutyric-acid (GABA) system becomes underactive. This situation is seen with depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, epilepsy and chronic pain.
Yoga practice works to counter stress by stimulating the vagal nerves, which are thought to correct the under-activity of the PNS and GABA. How do we stimulate those vagal nerves? Why by slow breathing of course! Breathing is the only ANS function that can easily be voluntarily controlled. Slow your breathing with Ujjayi, chant a few ‘OM’s and chances have it your ANS will start to regulate.