Yoga is gaining popularity as an alternative therapy for a variety of physical and mental health problems. There are studies on the benefits of yoga for chronic back pain, cancer side-effects, mental health disorders and stress-related symptoms (fatigue, insomnia, musculoskeletal pain, etc.), to name a few. Outside of hospitals or clinical studies, yoga studios are packed with people practicing yoga on a regular basis – I myself have become committed to yoga several years ago as I understood it as a mind-body discipline.

yoga and the mind-body connection

To me, the mind-body paradigm becomes particularly clear after I understood how the nervous system is organized. In many ways, the body is connected to the mind through the brain, which is part of our nervous system. The brain, together with the spinal cord, forms the Central Nervous System and consistent with its name runs along the centre of the body. On the other hand, there is the Peripheral Nervous System, which consists of the nerves that branch off of the spinal cord into the most remote places in our body, in other words, into the periphery.

These nerves allow us to receive information from inside and outside the body, move our body voluntarily, control body functions (such as organs), and allow us to sense internally and externally. Much of these actions within the peripheral nervous system is directed by the brain and connected through the spinal cord connections. Basically, everything that we experience (including thoughts and emotions) and perceive is possible thanks to the connection among our mind, body, and brain.

know your brain

Our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are possible thanks to the biological bases of our mind: the brain. Our brain allows us to communicate with other brains and to form relationships and, for some of us, it can also make us feel more connected to nature, the universe or other ways of describing spirituality.

I have been particularly interested lately in learning more about why people practice yoga and the benefits they experience from their own practice. When reading scientific literature, I learned there are only a few recent articles in which yoga has been studied in healthy people (i.e., not people diagnosed with some illness, condition, or disease).

scientific studies

One study, a survey of yoga practitioners, published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, showed yoga improved several important aspects of well-being including: happiness (86.5%), energy (84.5%), social relationships (67%), sleep (68.5%), and weight (57.3%). Researchers also found that the more the people practiced yoga, the more they believed yoga improved their health.

Another study , published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine, was done before and after participants took a 4-week beginners yoga program. Before the 4-week yoga program started, 92% of participants viewed yoga primarily as an exercise activity and 73% as a spiritual practice while 50% thought of it as a way to manage health conditions.  

After the 4-week yoga program, 81% of participants said they now practiced yoga to improve general wellness, 80% viewed it as a physical exercise, and 73% for stress management. I thought it was interesting to learn that people begin to experience benefits of wellness and stress management within only 4 weeks!

the nervous system

The benefits of yoga, as it relates to the central nervous system, has a lot to do with how functions performed by different parts of the nervous system highlight the mind-body-brain connection present in yoga. For example, when someone reports practicing yoga to get into shape or for stretching, they are referring to the physical practice of yoga, which happens thanks to the a division of the peripheral nervous system known as the voluntary nervous system. The voluntary nervous system allow us to do what it says: move our body freely, voluntarily.

People who say yoga makes them feel relaxed, stress-relieved, or even more energetic, are experiencing functions of their autonomic nervous system, another division of the peripheral nervous system, which regulates the stress response.  Those who report feeling happier, better at controlling their mood, or even more spiritually connected, are experiencing various functions of their brain (i.e., part of their central nervous system).

how to make this relevant to you

To summarize all this information, and most important, make you think about the benefits of yoga and the realm of possibilities that activate your mind, body, and brain, I encourage you to write down what you experience after a yoga class, whether it’s your first one or you’re a regular practitioner, and then try to classify each experience. What benefit have you noticed? Is it physical (i.e., musculoskeletal) benefits (flexibility, body alignment, etc.), as well as to feel calmer and relieve stress, or is it to experience happiness and manage mood swings better?

We experience feelings of happiness and general wellness thanks to our brains, and yoga has the potential to improve these positive experiences. By practicing yoga we strive for optimum health for our body, mind, and brain, and for our entire nervous system. All the benefits people report from taking yoga are manifestations of their nervous system. So, I encourage you to consider how yoga is a practice in understanding your own nervous system and know yourself!