Why does Yoga feel so good? Most people who practice Yoga regularly know the sense of well-being Yoga can generate, but may not necessarily know all the reasons for it. Modern science plays a growing role in teasing out these benefits in greater detail.
Read on to explore 10 of the key reasons why Yoga has the capacity to make you feel so good (including the science).
1. Increased Strength and Flexibility
After practising Yoga, we walk taller and stronger. Our back feels straighter and we find ourselves looking at the world head-on. Suddenly, bending down and picking up things or tying shoelaces is much easier. We sit in our chair straight rather than slumped down.
There is ample scientific proof that Yoga makes you stronger and more flexible. This also translates to the mind and the emotional realm, making us feel – well, stronger human beings.
2. Improved Posture
Often, we underrate the importance of good posture on overall body health. Good posture supports the alignment of the spine which is also the central channel of the nervous system. A well-aligned spine allows the pathways of the nervous system and related energy flows stay strong and uninterrupted.
Overall, a healthy spine is a highly important factor in staying healthy throughout life.
Yoga practice, in general, is very focused on spine health, strength and flexibility.
Targeted Yoga poses are very helpful in mitigating spinal issues such as neck and lower back pain and sciatica. They are also critical as a preventative measure for spinal degradation issues such as hyperkyphosis or dowager’s hump.
3. Improved Energy And Clarity
Yoga practice involving a range of Yoga poses and deep breathing directly results in better blood flow and oxygenation. With more oxygen and nutrition at hand, the brain perks up and becomes more alert.
Further, deep breathing and meditation applied in Yoga practice may stimulate the HPA axis (or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). This controls the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The SNS is responsible for the so-called “fight or flight response”, keeping the body alert and cued up about its environment.
4. Improved Concentration And Focus
Research published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement indicates that meditation carried out as part a Yoga practice can significantly improve attention and focus. This includes older Yoga students. Three months of consistent Yoga and meditation were found to result in increased brain function and focus.
In addition, research carried out at the University of Waterloo shows that yoga is instrumental in helping us shift our attention so that we can better focus on the tasks at hand.
5. Elevated Mood And Happiness
GABA is a neurotransmitter that allows the brain to communicate with the body’s nervous system. It is instrumental in reducing the general activity of the body and the nervous system. Elevated GABA levels are accompanied by lower levels of anxiety and depression.
Science has shown that Yoga practice has a direct positive influence on the brain’s GABA levels. It can increase them as much as 27% over those of non-practising study participants. Surprisingly, Yoga’s positive effects on GABA levels even beats those of other activities such as light walking and exercise.
Find more information on Yoga and its effect on GABA and happiness levels in our article on Yoga and happiness.
In addition, Yoga also has a positive level on dopamine and endorphin levels. These hormones are critical to experiencing a sense of positive wellbeing. Endorphins work in conjunction with so-called opiate receptors in the body, providing both pain relief but also the “Yoga High” that many Yoga practitioners experience.
6. Improved Relaxation And Calmness
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system described above. Rather than managing the “fight or flight response”, the parasympathetic nervous system allows our bodies to “rest and digest”, and “feed and breed”. It is that part of the nervous system that allows us to calm down and de-stress.
The PNS controls many essential body functions such as the heartbeat, and the digestive and reproductive system. Therefore, if we are under prolonged chronic stress, the PNS and related body functions can become impaired.
When the body is in fight-or-flight mode, our breathing is fast and shallow. It follows then that slow and controlled breathing or “Pranayama” such as adopted in Yoga practice will slow down our stress responses and activate the PNS.
7. Accelerated Detoxification
Our bodies are designed to eliminate waste. However, the many toxins that exist in the environment – be it food and alcohol, household chemicals or personal care products – can easily overload our bodies.
Clean water and a healthy diet consisting of fresh foods and sufficient fiber is essential to the elimination of toxins. Equally important is the practice of Yoga, which accelerates the elimination of toxins through the circulatory, digestive and lymphatic systems.
Many Yoga poses support these systems by gently compressing and squeezing key organs. This supports the eliminating of waste products and increases the supply of oxygen and nutrients to our digestive organs, allowing them to replenish. Many Yoga poses also stimulate the thyroid gland which controls the body’s metabolism.
Read our article on Yoga and the Thyroid Gland for more information.
8. Increased Sense Of Body Comfort
Most Yoga classes – be it in a Yoga studio or an online class – follow carefully designed Yoga pose sequences. These sequences help strengthen, stretch and align the body. Our bodies become more nimble and supple, and points of tension and pressure disappear. We also gain significantly more flexibility and mobility and reduce the risk of injury.
Overall, this gives us an increased sense of body comfort and confidence.
9. Increased Pain Relief
Chronic pain is an issue for many people. In this context, Yoga has been found to help people with pain arising from conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine and lower back pain.
For example, a medical study found that 313 people with chronic lower back pain found more relief from a weekly Yoga class than other standard medical treatments. Another summary analysis of 1600 students found that Yoga improved fibromyalgia and osteoporosis-related curvature of the spine. It also improved mood and psychosocial well-being.
As mentioned above, Yoga practice also fosters the release of endorphins which are critical for pain relief.
10. Increased sense of connection
A sense of connection is today known as one of the best predictors of emotional wellbeing. Johannes Hari, in his book Lost Connections beautifully describes the consequences if we are not well connected to our families, friends, work and the world around us.
Similarly, the so-called SPIRE model is based on a model of living that connects personal wellness with development in five key life areas: spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational, and emotional.
Overall, Yoga plays a key role in this context. Its underlying teachings, physical exercise, deep breathing and meditation are very valuable in uncovering and re-creating missing or lost connections in our lives. It enables us to develop awareness and insight about what is going wrong in our lives. It also assists us in developing the necessary resourcefulness to find ways to address these matters.
How Can I Get All These Benefits?
As discussed at the outset, the wellbeing or “high” we derive from our Yoga practice does not necessarily derive from any individual benefit described above, but from the overall sum of them.
To maximise these overall benefits, Yoga practice needs to incorporate both invigorating and calming elements to support our opposing sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Both are essential in giving us energy and relaxation.
For example, if the style of Yoga we practise is overly vigorous or physical, we will get fit and strong, but we miss out on calming the nervous system.
Conversely, if we only practice restorative Yoga, we might be overly “blissed out” – unless we balance it with physical exercise as well.
It is, therefore, important to engage both the “Ying” (calmness) and the “Yang” (activity) to consistently get all the benefits.
Creating such a balance is key to fostering the life force. This often known as “prana” or “chi” in Chinese and forms the essence of our wellbeing.
What Type Of Yoga Should I Engage In?
It follows that when choosing a Yoga practice we choose one that is able to deliver a balance of both the “Ying” and the “Yang”. We should look for a class that provides physical Yoga postures, deep breathing and meditation in harmonious balance. If that is not possible, we can alternate Yoga classes that provide either physical fitness or a calming, meditative practice.
If you want to find out more, check our article on finding the right Yoga type.
Can Yoga make me feel happy? In short, yes it can! It does so by the same effect described under Point 5 above – that Yoga will raise levels of the neurotransmitter GABA. This is instrumental in calming the brain and reducing feelings of anxiety and depression. Read more about this in our article on Yoga and happiness.
How often do I need to do Yoga to experience these benefits? Science clearly shows that even Yoga once week can deliver significant benefits. If you do only one class a week, make sure that it encompasses a range of energising and calming elements.