29 March 2012
Yoga is increasingly popular in the West. It might be because people are seeking activities that unify body and mind, or it could be that people like hanging out with other people who look good in floppy clothing and think nothing of raising a foot behind an ear during the course of general conversation. Whatever the motivation the benefits of yoga are undoubted and a new review has suggested that those benefits do embrace many ailments that can afflict both body and mind.
In India, yoga is traditionally thought of as a means to understanding the relationship between one’s individual soul (jivatma) and the universal soul (Paramatman). The word ‘yoga’ means ‘union’, ‘joining’, or ‘to link together as one whole’. Yoga is the art and science of resolving the inherent opposition in all things to create a union of body, mind and soul. Meditation is an integral component, and the essence, of yoga. Yet in the Western world when we say “yoga” we tend to think of the physical form of yoga.
Physical yoga consists of ‘physical exercises’ and ‘breath-control’, and is often thought of as a static or slow moving type of stretching and relaxation. However, it can also include strenuous exercises that tone muscles, tension nerves and stimulate the cardiovascular system. Physical yoga can also manipulate internal organs and modify blood chemistry. This latest piece of research suggests that the capacity for physical yoga to alter the body and mind is quite significant particularly as a protection against stress.
The new paper is not a new study but is a review of existing research on yoga. The review was conducted by academics from the Boston University School of Medicine and members of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. As a result of their review the researchers came up with a theory as to how yoga can prevent the damage that stress can do to body and mind.
The theory goes that stress causes an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system. It causes the parasympathetic part to become under active and the sympathetic part to become over active. Stress also reduces activity of the calming neurotransmitter GABA (gamma amino-butyric acid). Low GABA is associated with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, epilepsy, and chronic pain.
The researchers say that physical yoga has been shown in many studies to increase GABA levels. They quote work that has shown twelve weeks of yoga will ease chronic back pain and decrease anxiety levels.
So by bringing balance to the nervous system and normalising GABA levels yoga can help prevent the long term damage that stress can cause in your body and mind. Forget chill-pills; try a calmer-asana.