As we continue to delve into the roots of yoga and all that it encompasses, scientific research increasingly validates this simple finding: yoga works. But how can we begin to understand what it means for this ancient science to work for modern lifestyles? And work how?
Among numerous documented healing benefits for individuals to engage in a regular yoga practice, two seem to be fairly universal: 1) Yoga can play major roles in calming the nervous system, leading to reduced levels of stress. 2) Yoga can enhance our ability to understand—and ultimately integrate that understanding (of)—the systems present within our own bodies.
Understanding the nervous system, and how yoga can help it run smoothly
If we are to grasp its functions, peeling back a multitude of layers comprising the human body’s nervous system can be a daunting task. In an article appearing in Medical News Today entitled, “All About the Central Nervous System,” News Editor Tim Newman offers one accessible definition: “The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord. It is referred to as ‘central’ because it combines information from the entire body and coordinates activity across the whole organism.”
Newman says, of nervous system function that “it controls our thoughts, movements, emotions, and desires. It also controls our breathing, heart rate, the release of some hormones, body temperature, and much more.”
One phenomenon seems to gain steam among published narratives of medical professionals and wellness experts: Yoga can help to reduce high levels of stress.
Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine offers one such viewpoint. In an article entitled, “The Scientific Basis of Yoga Therapy” published by Yoga Journal, he states that among its many beneficial effects, “yoga has been shown to increase strength, flexibility, and balance; enhance immune function; lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels; and improve psychological well-being. One of yoga’s most prominent effects, of course, is stress reduction.”
While stress reduction is certainly an optimal reason to get curious about yoga, self-awareness is another profound benefit that can result from regular yoga practice.
Understanding introception, and how yoga brings overall awarenesss
According to Sue Van Raes, Nutritional Therapist and Health Coach, and Founder of Boulder Nutrition, “Interoception is the process of receiving, accessing and appraising our internal bodily signals. [It is] how the awareness and attentiveness of the sensations arising within our bodies influence how these signals are interpreted by our minds and the actions that follow.”
Van Raes suggests that if we are not in tune to the nuances of deeper emotions and bodily sensations, we can miss out on valuable data that could provide insight as to how we might navigate various life circumstances.
She goes on to say that interoceptive awareness, on the other hand, “means developing a curiosity toward the sensations arising within the body.” It is Van Raes’s view that if we harness the skills of physical self-trust and enhance our awareness within, we can float through day-to-day concerns with more grace.
A regular yoga practice can aid in the development of interoceptive awareness by challenging individuals to observe, for one, the breath. Through the utilization of breath techniques before or in tandem with a physical practice, yogic tools help us to further understand how to manage controlled breathing, which can open us up to other discoveries in the body, allowing us to answer questions like: How do I feel after eating this meal? What is the emotion I am experiencing in this moment? What is the quality of my breath, and what might be contributing to this quality?
McCall, Timothy, M.D. — “The Scientific Basis of Yoga Therapy,” Yoga Journal. April 5, 2007.
Newman, Tim — “All About the Central Nervous System.” Medical News Today. Dec. 22, 2017.
Van Raes, Sue – “Interoception: Yoga and the Mind-Body Connection.” Hanuman Festival home page. N.d.
Zimmermann, Kim Ann – “Nervous System: Facts, Functions, & Diseases.” Live Science. Feb. 14, 2018.