Combining yoga + science for a happier, healthier me

I have been practicing yoga, on and off, for over a decade. I first started because I was a competitive figure skater, and frequently integrated a variety of additional workouts into my regimen — ballet, plyometrics, pilates, gymnastics, weight lifting, etc. It was perhaps, for this reason, that I considered yoga to be nothing more than extracurricular. While I had a true admiration for it, my regard was polite, distant, and somewhat detached.

Over ten years later, I find myself in a funny place: it turns out I’m a damned hypocrite. Here I am pontificating about non-compartmentalization, trying to accept and embrace all of the disparate and contradictory parts of myself…yet all the while, I’ve been guilty of self-pigeonholing. I had sectioned off and archived away a part of myself that I assumed to be finished, harboring the idea that “that part of my life” was over — a past chapter called Van the Athlete.

Of course, this is bullshit. There’s no reason in the world I can’t be better, stronger, faster, fitter — there’s no reason I can’t still be an athlete today. Getting “older” or having “less” time, whatever these things mean, are no longer valid excuses to me. The deterioration of my overall health in recent years has been a massive wake-up call: I don’t want my wellness to be an afterthought any longer. No amount of success or money is worth a penalty to being happy and feeling good.

And so it seems that I am finally ready to accept the benefits of yoga — both the expected and the unexpected. I’m ready to invest time, money, energy, and hope into my own happiness, but with less emphasis on results and end goals and more focus on process and exploration.

Actively linking together the physical, mental, and spiritual in a single person seems a grand experiment by any measure and, ever the scientist, I am rather fond of empirical data and systematized observation. Yoga has endured thousands of years of cultivation, so it’s obvious that humanity has found its practice valuable…but it’s nice to know that, so far, science can corroborate the benefits. Though some of the past studies have been too small and problematically designed to be definitive, we’re seeing an increasing number of randomized and controlled trials that meet rigorous research standards.

So for all my fellow hard-science lovers, here are a few of the studied benefits of yoga and meditative practices that illuminate their potential beyond obvious physical payoffs:

  • Lower cortisol levels, including as an antidepressant effect. Cortisol not only contributes to split-second stress reactions, but can have damaging long-term effects on the body in a chronic state. It can act as a barrier to effective immune function. These effects have also been studied in conjunction with specific conditions, such as for women with breast cancer undergoing radiation therapy.
  • Increased feel-good neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA.
  • Increased alpha brain wave activity. Alpha waves are present when your brain is in an idling state, or what Brown researchers have called “optimal inattention.” They are typically created when you’re daydreaming — or consciously practicing mindfulness or meditation — and have been associated with relaxation, happiness, and “positive moods.” Neuroscientists have investigated their role in reducing depressive symptoms and increasing creative thinking.
  • Increased gray matter density in the hippocampus (the part of the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory), as well as in parts of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. Interestingly, the participants of this study who reported experiencing lower levels of stress also showed decreased gray matter density in the amygdala (the part of the brain largely responsible for anxiety and stress).
  • Increased gray matter indicating an improvement in pain tolerance, the proposed mechanism of which is teaching different ways to deal with sensory inputs and the potential emotional reactions. This effect has also been studied in specific pain conditions, including in fibromyalgia.
  • Enhanced expression of genes involved in energy metabolism and insulin secretion, as well as reduced expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress.
  • Increased telomerase activity (by 43 percent) suggesting an improvement in stress-induced aging.

Next week, I’ll be starting a 200-hour certified yoga teacher training course. I’m excited for the opportunity to learn and deepen my practice. Stay tuned for more updates!


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