Science and self-health have revolutionized the yoga movement into its modern state. The body of knowledge continues to grow and confirm the therapeutic benefits of yoga. I am inspired by yogis and scientists alike that research and help others using the system of yoga – breath, postures, and meditations. Yogis like Beryl Bender Birch, William Broad, Loren Fishman, and many more are doing work to promote the science of yoga and heal the bodies and minds of those in need. Yoga practices such as Yoga Nidra, pranayama, and asana have shown helpful in facing and overcoming the control anxiety, depression, traumas, and bodily pain. Research is finding that the benefits are linked to real, physical phenomenon within our bodies. On the cellular (and chemical) level, yoga creates and encourages the development of healthy patterns within our brains and our bodies.
Therapeutic Benefits of Yoga Nidra
Yoga nidra is a powerful practice that draws upon the limb of Patanjali’s yoga called Pratyhara, or sense withdrawl. It is sleep with a trace of awareness (Kumar, 2010). An instructor of yoga nidra leads students to get into a comfortable lying down position, setting the intention not to fall asleep but to maintain awareness of their voice. The instructor often uses body awareness, attention to the breath, and visualization. While the instruction may vary, the end result is the same: the neurons of the brain act at a lower frequency (Birch, 2014). Essentially, the brain waves are the same as when a person is asleep without actually falling asleep.
This practice goes beyond simple relaxation techniques. Rani, et al (2013) state:
“… it has been reported previously that Yoga Nidra involves deep relaxation techniques. The relaxation response is characterized by a decrease in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system that results from conditioning and training. During this response, there is a decrease in oxygen consumption, HR [heart rate], BP [blood pressure], and respiration rate; and an increase in α-waves recorded on an electroencephalogram. The relaxation response is not just simple relaxation. In simple relaxation, changes in the rate of respiration, oxygen consumption, and α-wave activity do not occur.”
Further research at Stanford University School of Medicine illustrated that the drop in blood pressure that is experienced creates lasting effects throughout the day (Ashram Yoga, 2015).
Using brain scanning technology, the researchers at the State University Hospital in Copenhagen assessed brain usage patterns throughout a yoga nidra session for 7 yoga instructors. The results show a “high degree of concentration without effort.” In effect, they pronounced that meditation is a fourth major brain state in addition to sleeping, dreaming, and wakefulness (Nilsson, 1998). Using imagery (often from nature) and visualization, a practitioner is able to navigate to the subconscious mind, where suppressed memories are stored. These impressions can have a lasting effect on our mood and daily habitual patterns. Through the process of yoga nidra, these memories are released from the subconscious mind, without even having to think about it!
For this reason, yoga nidra is helpful for patients who suffer from many different afflictions. Birch (2014) uses the technique to help veterans suffering from PTS, wherein the soldiers report that the practice is incredibly helpful. Other studies have shown that this sort of practice can (1) decrease levels of guilt and regression (Kumar, 2010), (2) slow breathing patterns in children with behavioral issues (Jenson, et al 2011), and (3) relieve pain from menstrual issues (Rani, et al, 2013). Each of these studies used varying durations and techniques. Even so, they were all successful in achieving the target improvement.
Therapeutic benefits of Pranayama and Asana
While we all take it for granted, human breathing is not a simple process. The lungs and muscles are working to create ventilation – taking in and releasing air from the lungs. At the same time, gases – oxygen and carbon dioxide – are exchanged between the blood and air within the lungs. To a large extent, breathing happens automatically. Our brain detects the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood and tells the lungs to breathe more (or less) to create balance between the gases. However, our breathing is also controlled by our emotions and stress. This is called behavioral control. The link between the automatic breathing and behavioral breathing is not clear (Novotny and Kravitz, 2007).
Through yogic breathing, or pranayama, we can control this once thought involuntary process and influence the exchange of gases, most specifically the amount of carbon dioxide that is released from the blood and lungs. Slowing down the breath, like an Ujjayi breath, decreases the amount of carbon dioxide released from the bloodstream; in effect, the blood is able to distribute its oxygen throughout the body more readily (Litchfield, 2003). The result: the autonomic nervous system shifts toward parasympathetic dominance and the body relaxes. Employing pranayama creates a sense of awareness and releases stress.
Yoga asana – or postures – can also be a healing practice. There are many different systems of yoga in the modern movement. Some yoga poses or entire systems are certainly much safer than others. But, the whole body of work by Loren Fishman indicates that yoga asana is healing to the body when employed in the right way. In addition, Broad (2012) reports two studies that show a relationship between asana and chemical responses in the body. Practicing yoga asana, any style, increases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is a neurotransmitter that, in low quantities, is related to anxiety and depression. So, an increase in this chemical bodes well for mental health. The more a yogi practiced, the higher the levels rise. Also, increases in testosterone for male and female practitioners have been recorded after doing poses like cobra and bow. Testosterone is a hormone that highly affects sex drive, and increases of these levels can be a cheap and beneficial supplement for those who suffer from low libido.
When breath and meditation are used in conjunction with asana practice, many subjective responses indicate an overall sense of well-being. However, the scientific link to the benefits is less elucidated on this account. Several studies find that yoga nidra and pranayama are effective for relaxation and mental health with or without the practice of asana (Kumar, 2010 and Markil, et al, 2012).
More studies using yoga postures, breathing techniques, and relaxation have shown positive results in alleviating symptoms of Post Traumic Stress (PTS). Staples, et al (2013) worked with veterans suffering from PTS. The yoga program (based on the yoga tradition of the Krishnamacharya Healing and Yoga Foundation) led to decreases in PTS hyper-arousal symptoms and improvements to sleep. Descilo, et al (2010) worked with survivors of the 2004 South-East Asia tsunami. The study used a yoga program called Breath Water Sound enhanced with Sudarshan Kriya; the preliminary results indicate success in relieving symptoms of PTS and depression. In both cases, the test subjects anecdotally reported that the yoga was helpful. Some indicated an overall improvement the “quality of life” (Staples, et al 2013); and others reported “relief from anxiety, insomnia…and depression” (Descilo, et al 2010).
The science of yoga repeatedly confirms therapeutic benefits, especially in enhancing mood. The practices of yoga are a useful therapeutic tool and can be an alternative or adjunctive method to conventional western medicine, especially for treating such afflictions as behavioral disorders, hormonal issues, high blood pressure, PTS, anxiety, and depression. With more and more studies showing success, clinicians are more apt to employ yoga methodology. For this reason, Verrastro (2014) suggests that physicians wanting to use yoga as an intervention become more familiar with different styles of yoga and what will be most useful for patient needs. Yoga nidra and pranayama are clearly successful for alleviating mental stress; and asana is found useful for bodily healing. Yoga practice as a whole can be used for overall health of the mind and body.
Ashram Yoga. 2015. Yoga Nidra. http://ashramyoga.com/swamis-corner/yoga-nidra/
Birch, B.B., 2014. Yoga for Warriors: Basic Training in Strength, Resilience, and Peace of Mind. Sounds True: Boulder, Colorado.
Broad, W.J. 2012. The Science of Yoga. Simon and Schuster: New York. 298 p.
Descilo, T., Vadamurtachar, A, Gerbarg, PL., Nagaraja, D, Gangadhar, BN, Damodaran, B., Adelson, B., Braslow, LH., Marcus, S., Brown, RP. 2010. Effects of a yoga breath intervention alone and in combination with an exposure therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in survivors of the 2004 South-East Asia tsunami. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 121. p. 289-300.
Jensen, P.S., Stevens, P.J., and Kenny, D.T. 2012. Respiratory Patterns in Students Enrolled in Schools
for Disruptive Behaviour Before, During, and After Yoga Nidra Relaxation. Journal of Child Family Studies. Vol. 21, p. 667-681.
Kumar, K. 2010. Psychological Changes as Related to Yoga Nidra. International Journal of Psychology: A Biopsychosocial Approach. Issue 6, p 129-137.
Litchfield, P. 2003. A Brief Overview of the Chemistry of Respiration and the Breathing Heart Wave. California Biofeedback. Vol 19, No 1.
Markil, N., Whitehurst, M., Jacobs, P., and Zoeller, R. 2012. Yoga Nidra Relaxation Increases Heart Rate Variability and is Unaffected by a Prior Bout of Hatha Yoga. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Vol. 18, p. 953-958.
Nilsson, R. 1998. Pictures of the brain’s activity during Yoga Nidra. Bindu 11. http://www.yogameditation.com/Articles/Issues-of-Bindu/Bindu-11
Novotny, S. and Kravitz, L. 2007. The Science of Breathing. IDEA Fitness Journal, 4(2), 36-43.
Rani, M., Singh, U., Agrawal, G., Natu, S., Kala, S., Ghildiyal, A., and Srivastava, N. 2013. Impact of Yoga Nidra on Menstrual Abnormalities in Females of Reproductive Age. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Volume 19, Number 12, p. 925-929.
Showronek, I., Mounsey, A., and Handler, L. 2014. Can yoga reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression? The Journal of Family Practice. Vol 63, No 7.
Staples, J., Hamilton, M., Uddo, M. 2013. A Yoga Program for the Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Veterans. Military Medicine, Vol. 178, p. 854-860.
Verrastro, G. 2014. Yoga as Therapy: When is it Helpful? Journal of Family Practice. Vol 63, No 9, p. E1-E6.