Using Yoga as therapy, first of all, it is of great use to relieve pain. Yoga is a holistic method of treating the whole person and pain is also a mind-body experience which can be demonstrated by the following research. For example, emotions can increase pain in the body (McGonigal, 2009) and that mindful self-compassion has been shown to decrease pain (McGonigal, 2009). It has also been found through MRI scans that feelings of loneliness and rejection occur in the same section of the brain (McGonigal, 2009) and it has been found that the body and brain can suppress the experience of pain (though negative emotions can prevent this from occurring) by the hormones released from physical activity such as Yoga (McGonigal, 2009). Because we know pain is a mind/body experience, this means that if we can take better care of our thoughts through mindful attention and breathing exercises, then pain can be controlled. Pain is a ‘learned over-protective mind-body response’ (McGonigal, 2009) which is based in the amygdala ‘fight or flight’ response of the brain to protect the body from future suffering. Ergo, the body becomes highly sensitised to the threat of pain. Pain is also associated with the inflammatory response of the body which can be heightened by stress which can be mitigated by Yoga breathing and relaxation techniques. Yoga, according to McGonigal (2009), neuroplastically re-wires the brain’s (mindfulness, meditation, visualisation, bhavana, and through self-compassion and gratitude which can be done by mantra, etc.) reactive response to pain.
Stress can have a significant impact on mental performance, ergo, Yoga can help to stimulate the mind. When stress predominates due to environmental factors, there is an amygdala (fight or flight fear response to threats) “high-jack” (a term coined by Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, 1995) over the pre-frontal cortex which can result in more reactive behaviour. The amygdala is the part of the brain which decides what and where memories are stored as a protection mechanism which was absolutely fine in pre-civilised societies. Yet, in today’s advanced civilisation we do not face actual physical threats just the stresses of modern existence and when faced with these, our thalamus stimulates the amygdala (Cuncic, 2018) shutting down the executive functioning part of the brain or the pre-frontal cortex which is associated with moderating behaviour as well as planning and awareness of how individual behaviour affects those around them. Daniel Goleman infers that we can de-escalate an ‘amydala high-jack’ with attention focusing exercises of which Mindful breathing can be used and is a key part of Yoga.
Furthermore, the hippocampus part of the brain associated with memory, is affected by stress also. As a result, learning and memory are seriously impaired. The vagus nerve is the main communicator of the brain to the sympathetic nervous system or fight or flight response (Goldberg, 2013). However, it has been found that the exhalation response is ‘calming and parasympathetic’ (McGonigal, 2009) because breathing is the only system which we can regulate, ergo, concomitantly, this can help to control the stress response. When we practice various pranayama, it stimulates the vagus nerve and the body relaxes reducing cortisol.
It has been found also that prolonged and chronic stress raises cortisol (the stress hormone secreted from the adrenal glands above the kidneys) and can have an affect on weight-management as well as just behaviour. When we are stressed, we are more likely to overeat because increased cortisol raises insulin levels. When this happens blood sugar drops and we tend to crave more fatty and sugary foods. Yoga reduces the cortisol by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) or rest and digest response. A review of clinical studies into Yoga and the reduction of obesity was conducted by research team (Rioux, 2013). The interventions used to reduce obesity included a combination of specific asana, pranayama, meditation, relaxation, mantra, kriya (cleansing practices), and mudras. Success was deemed to have been achieved through sustained lifestyle change and with the highest number of yogic elements, in other words, adapting Yoga as a way of life, for example, “sessions of approximately 75 to 90 minutes in length, incorporating 60 minutes of sustained asana practice, 5 to 15 minutes of breathing techniques (pranayama) and 10 minutes of deep relaxation (shavasana)” and to be done three times per week had the greatest amount of success including those programmes that had a yogic dietary and residential component. However, the studies that were considered were not those derived from a Yoga therapy point of view, where a programme is individually tailored. However, the question is, what kind of yoga is of benefit. Most American yoga obesity programmes appear to be grouped in the more vigorous category such as Hiit, Ashtanga and Power. However, a recent study conducted by at the University of California (Areneta, 2013), found that regular restorative yoga was very effective. The study compared restorative with stretch yoga and those who did the former lost 2.5 times more fat and managed to maintain that loss. Again, this was down to the fact that restorative yoga activates the rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system by reducing the stress hormone, cortisol. However, the study had one caveat that restorative yoga is “complementary …practice” to more vigorous forms of movement.
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Rioux. J (2013). Narrative Review of Yoga Intervention Clinical Trials Including Weight-related Outcomes. Available (online) at: < http://www.alternative-therapies.com/openaccess/ATHM_19-3_Rioux.pdf> Accessed 28th of August, 2018
Cuncic, A. (2018) What Happens During an Amygdala Hijack. Available (online) at: <https://www.verywellmind.com/what-happens-during-an-amygdala-hijack-4165944> Accessed 28th of August, 2018