The Neuroscience of How Yoga Affects Pyschological Health – Part 3

By: 
Kristine Kaoverii Weber

With this article, Subtle Yoga founder Kristine Kaoverii Weber continues her blog series about a research paper exploring how yoga affects psychological health. This is Part 3 of the series. To read part 1 and 2 click here: Neuroscience of yoga.

What neuroscience is revealing about yoga is exciting because essentially it’s starting to catch up with yogic lore – yoga makes you stronger, healthier, more relaxed, able to self-actualize. That’s what I learned and began to experience 25 years ago when I started studying and practicing yoga seriously, but now neuroscience is backing it all up. So the next step is connecting with the medical community and starting to educate them. Yoga teachers hold key information and skills to helping mitigate the catastrophic health outcomes we are seeing in our society – don’t keep it to yourself! Get it out there!

I’m having fun breaking all this stuff down and also it will be a part of my book on yoga and mental health (it’s helping me rev up my New Year’s resolution/samkalpa machine to get some serious writing done).

I’m trying to offer more easily digestible, key concepts; the first blog was an intro to the intersection of yoga and neuroscientific research. The second went into the idea of top down processing.

My intention here is to give you some useful understanding and tools to talk about the profound implications for yoga on mental health – so you may want to read those blogs as background.

Today, we are going to look at bottom-up processes for self-regulation. I realize that sounds like a British drinking game, but actually it’s a useful term for describing how what’s going on in your body affects your mood, thoughts and behaviors.

The idea that your brain is only in your head is so 1990s. Your brain is constantly interacting with, responding to, and changing because of your body. Now we know that there are lots of neurons around the heart and digestive track (if you are thinking anahata and manipura, yes! I’m going there too! But that’s another blog/book). Since I have no risk of alienating myself from the scientific community to which I do not belong I will just go ahead and say it: Your brain is not just in your head, it’s in your whole body.

That felt good.

You’ve probably heard the term proprioception – the capacity to feel where your body is in space. But there are a whole spectrum of other “ceptions” in the perception universe including interoception, neuroception, baroreception, mechanoreception, cardioception, chemoreception, equilibrioception, nocioception…and probably scientists are busy naming others as I write this.

You get the gist here – processes from the periphery inform your feeling state. They tell your brain how your body is doing out there – whether you are safe, warm, comfortable; or in pain, threatened or having a bad “gut” feeling about something.

The most important response that we need to understand in terms of bottom up processing – one you are most likely well aware of, is parasympathetic activation. Think of coming out of a great s’ava’sana or Yoga Nidra and then getting in your car. How much less likely are you to offer a rude mudra to the guy who cuts you off in traffic after yoga than you were before?

If you can easily access your parasympathetic (or “relaxation”) response, then you have a better opportunity to heal. According to the authors of this article, yoga helps you access the response not only in the short term, but also in the long term. It “shift(s) a physiological set point for baseline reactivity over repeated, long-term yoga practice.” In other words, after practicing regularly for a while, you are less likely to offer the aggressive driver that mudra before class too.

The largest nerve of the parasympathetic system is the vagus (“wandering”) nerve. Lots of good science has taken place around studying this nerve in light of yoga. The vagus can lose tone and when that happens, you are more reactive and less able to inhibit your stress response. Just like the rest of your body, your vagus nerve needs to shape up. A floppy vagus nerve (no, that’s not a technical term) indicates poor heart rate variability – which translates into having a less resilient, more stress prone nervous system. (Here’s a quick primer on HVR if you’re interested in more detail. And here’s a short blog I wrote on the vagus nerve several years ago.)

The nervous system has a harder time doing what it needs to – you have less ability to slow down and heal – which is what the parasympathetic nervous system facilitates. Pranayama or deep breathing is one way to improve vagal tone. The article also theorizes that slow, mindful movement helps the body to have a better sense of itself – to know where it is and how it feels, which means it can feel safer more often, and therefore relax.

I often draw attention to the pause between the poses as an important part of yoga practice. This pause gives your brain a chance to integrate vicerosomatic information (what your gut and the rest of your body are telling you). Here’s why this is so important: Your body tells your brain you are safe, the brain responds by releasing happy neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine and endorphins) rather than precursors to cortisol and adrenaline, the body responds by sending more safe, happy signals to the brain. The brain smiles back. The body smiles more. And on it goes. This practice induced loop can change people’s health – and ultimately their lives.

Okay, sorry that was so long, but I’ve only scratched the surface of this article’s gold mine! Next is the integration of top-down, bottom-up mechanisms (which I just hinted at in that last paragraph). Hope I can get that one out by Christmas.

Enjoy improving your vagal tone – this is a good season for it!

To contine reading Part 4 of Kaoverii's blog click here.

Reprinted with permission from subtleyoga.com.


Kristine Kaoverii Weber is the founder of Subtle Yoga in Ashville and Charlotte, North Carolina. She has been a student of yoga since she was introduced to it in sixth grade. Kaoverii has been teaching yoga for more than twenty years. And her work these days focuses on providing yoga teacher trainings on the 200- hour and 500-hour level. Kaoverii is the director of Sarva Health, an organization which provides holistic yoga-based trainings to enhance community health infrastructure. In particular, Kaoverii developed the first RYT 200-hour training program specifically for mental health and substance abuse treatment professionals to be offered by a major continuing education institution. She is a frequent contributor to national magazines and the author of Healing Self Massage which shows how to use massage as a complement to yoga practice to relieve stress, neck and back pain, insomnia, and anxiety. 

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