Just recently I had a student come up to me at the end of class. She looked visibly moved and it became obvious that she was in fact very close to tears.
“Breakthrough?” I queried, smiling.
“That was devastatingly terrific”, she said quietly, still very emotional.
She went on to explain that such was the intensity of her experience of shavasana (corpse pose) it had left her speechless, utterly overwhelmed and smiling from ear-to-ear.
It is always wonderful to hear these stories of post-yoga bliss, and it got me thinking about trying to clarify the high that keeps people returning to class. Even if you haven’t yet experienced a profound state of bliss you will have noticed that you feel better when you walk out of class than when you walked in.
The question then is why?
Well of course one reason yoga practice leaves you feeling so good is thanks to the focus on stretching out the musculature, whilst maintaining a calm even breathing pattern. This naturally
stimulates parasympathetic nervous, the part of your nervous system that slows us down and is responsible for telling our muscles to relax. The parasympathetic nervous system also normalises blood pressure, lowers our heart rate, supports the immune system and allows us to enter deep restorative sleep.
Conversely the sympathetic nervous system controls the 'fight or flight' response and is responsible for, amongst other things, adrenaline secretion. Many of us have lifestyles that promote an overactive sympathetic state through our non-stop activity filled lives or by sitting in traffic or feeling stressed at the office! When this system is overly stimulated, we can experience health consequences such as ulcers, migraines, and heart disease.
However, stimulating the parasympathetic nerve fibres acts to counteract stress-related symptoms and other unwanted by-products of our modern, fast-paced existence. In addition to this the organs necessary for long-term survival, including the digestive, reproductive, glandular, and immune systems, are nourished, giving the body the chance to heal the damage of modern life.
Recent studies have also shown that after one yoga session, levels of the chemical GABA, increase in your brain. GABA is essential to the function of brain and central nervous system. Low GABA levels are associated with depression and other widespread anxiety disorders (Anti-depressants work by boosting GABA levels), whilst higher levels promote a state of calm within the body.
Tests have also shown that post-yoga the body experiences reduced levels of cortisol (the so-called ‘stress hormone’), whilst the slow deliberate bodily movements involved stimulate the production of dopamine (the so-called ‘feel good hormone’). In addition to this both the left and right hemispheres of the brain are stimulated (usually one is dominant), giving your whole brain a big wake up call and leaving your mind feeling sharp, clear and at ease.
However, the feel good factor of yoga can't be entirely credited to chemical rebalancing.
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