Science has been increasingly coming round to the idea that, far from being the hokey, hippie practice it’s shunned for decades, yoga may actually be beneficial for people. Of course, yogis and those in the know have been aware of this for far, far longer than science has been a ‘thing’, but it’s nice to know that modern science is finally getting on board.
Plus, it can’t be denied that scientific method provides some interesting insights about yoga and meditation which we may have known instinctively, but never really examined in scientific detail before. These kinds of proofs and ‘explanations’ are fascinating to study! Here is a (very brief!) exploration of what science can tell us about yoga and meditation.
Yoga Actively Fights Stress And Depression
Plenty of people take up yoga in order to ‘relax’, but few of us really understand why it’s so good at relaxing us. Well, science (sort of) has the answer. You see, for all the incredible complexity of the human psyche, our basic ‘modes’ - ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and digest’ - are actually pretty simple. They’re still running on the same evolutionary mechanisms that they were millions of years ago, when our ancestors were small, scared, furry things. So, while yoga can alter the energies of the body to encourage a more balanced frame of mind, it can also give us the more practical skills we need to manipulate these two ‘modes’. When we mimic the ‘symptoms’ of calm and safety, our brains respond to this by switching us over from ‘fight or flight’ to ‘rest and digest’. It doesn’t actually matter whether the issues stressing us out have been resolved or not - what matters is our ability to calmly and healthily approach our lives without the kind of counterproductive, heart-racing stress and panic which tends to afflict us in such situations. Without going into lengthy scientific detail, the careful movements and measured breathing of yoga engage the vagus nerve, which in turn carries signals to the brain which inform it that the body is behaving in a manner indicative of a calm, danger-free situation. The brain responds to this by ‘switching’ us from the stress-laden ‘fight or flight’ mode to the more relaxed ‘rest and digest’ mode. From this ‘mode’, we’re more able to regulate our emotions, sort out our lives, and - crucially - are far, far less vulnerable to depression. Learning to activate the vagus nerve in this yogic manner gives people the skills to combat stress (and therefore depression) whenever it occurs. Given the serious problems which can be caused by stress, this has extremely beneficial implications by health - which may well be why more and more healthcare institutions and providers are recommending regular yoga sessions.
Meditation Is Better Than Morphine
Ok, we should probably clarify this heading a little. By ‘better’, we mean ‘more effective’ than morphine - under certain circumstances. Those circumstances being, the reduction of all emotional and certain kinds of physical pain. Morphine dulls pain receptors in the brain, and gives us a ‘high’ which masks emotional pain (emotional pain, by the way, operates in a very similar manner to physical pain, neurologically speaking). However, while opioids like morphine ultimately destroy connections in the brain, meditation restructures the brain by creating more connections. What this means is that, over time, the brains of practiced meditators become thicker - denser with neurons - in parts, which helps those parts of their brains to deal more effectively with certain things. Those who target their meditations at reducing pain (either physical or emotional) can literally build pain-fighting software into their own brains, naturally. Morphine, by contrast, provides an instant ‘hit’ of pain relief in a way that meditation can’t, but has precisely the opposite effect over time. Whereas meditation builds upon itself, becoming more effective and more powerful the more it’s practiced, morphine burns through the parts of the brain it works on, making its effect weaker, and mildly compromising the brain itself. Experiments into the effects of meditation on both physical pain and emotional pain have proven that meditation not only reduces the perception of this pain significantly (and, with pain, perception is nine tenths of the whole), but has a far greater long-term effect than chemical analgesics like morphine, due to the way in which meditation can restructure the brain. It’s all deeply fascinating, and it’s certain that a lot more remains to be ‘discovered’ regarding the science of yoga and meditation!
Thanks to Anne Foy for contributing another great blog post!