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How does yoga really work?

We all know that yoga is beneficial to the body and mind. But, how does yoga really work? Up until recently, no one really knew why and how yoga is so helpful to our overall wellbeing, including improving conditions as varied as anxiety, depression, chronic pain and even epilepsy. Fortunately, we now have an answer thanks to a group of researchers at Boston University School of Medicine who believe they’ve discovered yoga’s secret.

Yoga studies and research

The past few years have been exciting for yoga research as more and more studies are emerging that shed a little more light on the burning question that’s perplexed many people for years: how does yoga really work in relieving a plethora of mental and physical health problems?

In a 2012 article published in the May issue of Medical Hypotheses journal, Chris Streeter, PhD, and his team hypothesize that yoga works by regulating the nervous system. And that’s one of the best explanations on how yoga works we’ve come across so far.

As it turns out, yoga regulates the nervous system by increasing what is called vagal tone, which is the body’s ability to successfully respond to stress. Regulating the nervous system The vagus nerve, often thought of as our “air traffic controller,” is the largest cranial nerve in the body. It starts at the base of the skull and wanders all through the body, influencing the digestive, respiratory and nervous systems. It helps to regulate all our major bodily function from our breath, digestion and heart rate, as well as our ability to take in, process and make sense of our experience.

When the vegus nerve is toned and functioning properly, our moods stabilize and bodily functions operate optimally, including our digestive and heart functions. We become more relaxed and are better able to manage life’s many challenges and stressors with the right blend of energy, ease and engagement. When this happens you are said to have “high vagal tone.”

Proving this hypothesis for how yoga works

To test this theory and answer the question ‘how does yoga work?’ Streeter, PhD, and his team investigated different practices that they believed would increase vagal tone. They found that resistance breathing like ujjayi pranayama increased heart rate variability and relaxation response. More studies conducted on experienced yogis showed that practices like chanting Om out loud increased vagal tone and the relaxation response more than chanting it silently to oneself. These findings confirm to a reasonable degree this explanation on how yoga different yogic practices impact human physiology.

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