The Therapeutic Effects of Yoga
Osteopath Tim Goullet explores and explains the long term benefits of a regular yoga practice.
The therapeutic effects that yoga creates in us are far reaching and in proportion to the quality and consistency of practice. From a holistic perspective, yoga offers a complete mind body discipline which includes many of the following features:
- Bandha control – the use of subtle muscular actions to harness energy
- Breath control and focus – the use of the nose to modulate air flow and breath as a means of concentration
- Asana – physical movements and positions which nurture awareness, concentration and physical attributes like balance, flexibility, etc
- Drishti – a direction or point of gaze to assist concentration and body position
- Internal focus – the mindful yogi practises with an internal focus based on some or all of the above
- Underlying theory based on the concepts of chakras, nadis, prana, mantras, mudras, and kundalini energy
Yoga and the Respiratory System
Yoga places a high degree of attention on the breath. Different methods of breathing can have very different effects on the body, both physically and mentally – a thoracic (chest) breath tends to stimulate the nervous system whereas an abdominal breath tends to calm – each method has its own merits and different styles of yoga adopt different methods.
A calm but full breath repeated during a yoga class boosts energy levels by oxygenating the blood and all our organs, tissues and cells. With each breath the diaphragm is literally massaging the internal organs as it moves up and down like a piston in the rib cage. The expansion of the body on inhalation also stretches the trunk muscles from the inside out and can even help create space between the vertebrae of the spine.
The Benefits of Savasana
Savasana at the end of a yoga class acts like a sponge, the body absorbing and integrating the benefits of the practice. This deep relaxation offers many benefits:
- It rests the body and mind and allows for true rejuvenation
- It relaxes the spine by allowing the benefits of asana practice to consolidate as the body cools down with spinal discs and joints unloaded
- Lying prone on the back rests the cardiovascular system, facilitates the return of venous blood from the legs and gradually lowers heart and breathing rate
- Lying in Savasana at the end of a practice can help reduce excessive spinal curves in a front to back direction e.g. over arched lower back and/or rounded upper back
- Never rush your Savasana otherwise these benefits may not be fully felt and a calm mental state not fully achieved
Yoga and the Cardiovascular System
The vertically upright posture of humans has many challenges. In terms of blood flow, venous blood has to be constantly pumped back up the legs to the heart while at the same time, the brain requires sufficient arterial blood and oxygen to maintain mental faculties and, ultimately, consciousness.
Inversions reverse this arrangement – venous return from the legs is augmented due to gravity, the heart beats faster and stronger to deal with this additional surge of blood resulting in a rise in blood pressure in the head and neck. Once this increase is detected, the brain then sends a message to the heart to slow down its rate and force of contraction which helps to normalise blood pressure. This can take a minute or more which is one reason why inversions are more therapeutic in terms of lowering blood pressure when maintained for 2 minutes or longer.
At the other end of the scale, those with low blood pressure may find that the sun salutation can improve the body’s ability to deal with this as the cardiac reflexes can also work in the opposite way – increasing heart rate and blood pressure to maintain good blood flow to the brain as the body moves sequentially into the horizontal plane from the vertical plane and back again.
Regular practice of the sun salutation improves the “efficiency” of these reflexes, enabling moving from lying to standing without disturbances in blood flow to the brain.
The Nervous System
The nervous system has essentially two modes of operation – the Para Sympathetic System and the Sympathetic system. Most of the time we are predominantly using the parasympathetic system which works during sleep, rest, digestion, etc The sympathetic system is activated in response to danger (flight or flight response), stress or intense exercise – the heart rate increases, adrenalin is released and blood diverts to the skeletal muscles and away from the abdominal organs.
Generally speaking yoga practice will nurture the parasympathetic system and create a calm state of mind.
The sympathetic system will operate to some degree during the more strenuous elements of a class but the overall effect should be a calming one.
Take care not to breathe too forcefully or squeeze your “mula bandha” (root lock/muladhara chakra) hard as this is associated with sympathetic activity.
- Yoga practice can improve the alignment of the spine by balancing the left and right sides as well as the front and back of the body
- Standing forward bends and inversions help to decompress the discs of the lower spine
- All movements of the body, particularly deep stretches, stretch nerves too (in a healthy way). As spinal nerves exit the spine between the vertebra, many go on to form nerve plexuses (networks) which correspond with the location of chakras in the body
- As the spinal nerves exit the spine, joint stiffness may compress part of a nerve and have a detrimental effect on the plexi/chakra and therefore organs to which they supply so keeping the spinal nerves free moving as they exit the vertebral column is important and is facilitated by a regular and mindful yoga practice
Tim Goullet has taught at the British College of Osteopathic Medicine for over 20 years and is co-author of Healing Yoga. Tim has practised yoga for 15 years and martial arts for 35 years. He runs regular workshops on biomechanics, therapeutic exercise and health.
Join Tim Goullet at his forthcoming workshop The Abdomen in Perspective: using it, losing it and getting it back again on Saturday 19th January at RHY. For further details and to book your place click here.