When I speak with those who I’ve either introduced yoga to, or who have recently started a yoga practice, I often hear the same expression: ‘I’m hooked on yoga!’.
While it’s not surprising – given the huge physical, mental and emotional benefits yoga helps us to realise, there’s a wonder as to why this word ‘hooked’ comes up over and over again.
Do we find the dreamy post-savasana state of mind addictive? Or is it just the fact that we’ve forgotten how good it feels to simply move our bodies? We know that the culture and practice of yoga has exploded, and research in to what yoga can do for us has been conducted literally before scientists split the atom in 1932 – but what is it that keeps us and the other two hundred and fifty million people world-wide coming back to the mat?
Well…. Just one of the reasons we may decide to stick with yoga after our first couple of classes has a lot to do with chemical reactions happening within the body, especially those all-important feel-good hormones we all love so much; Endorphins!
So first of all – what are endorphins, and how do they effect us?
In the 1970s, researchers and scientists were conducting experiments to find out how opiates like morphine, codeine and heroin actually effected the brain. They found that when the substances in these drugs reacted with receptors within the spinal cord and brain, they created that euphoric feeling most associated with narcotics.
What they then noticed was that our body actually produces a similar substance that reacts with these receptors, reducing sensations of pain, alleviating anxiety and depression and actually boosting our immune system. We now know these substances to be our very own endorphins; neuro-tansmitters within the brain that aid in the healthy function of the nervous system. Your personal healthy alternative to narcotics….
These endorphins are often referred to as our ‘feel-good’ hormones, and are something we subconsciously search out every day, in the form of exercise, food, sex, nicotine or alcohol, often all related to ‘addiciton’*.
(*Interestingly, more and more yoga programmes are successfully being organised to help people overcome serious and damaging addictions – another example of yoga’s powerful ability to help heal the body and mind.)
So why are we ‘hooked’ on yoga?
The production and release of endorphins could be one of the main reasons we’re loyal to our practice, as many of the things we do in a yoga class massively boost the release of those all important feel good neuro-transmitters!
Pranayama: Breathing Techniques or exercises
Yoga practices encourage conscious, often deep, breathing, which is something we actually rarely do properly in every day life. Holding on to emotions, concentrating on getting a work load finished, and feeling tense or anxious throughout the day is when we often actually hold our breath without realising – which only adds to the tension!
Taking deep, full and conscious breaths helps the nervous system to relax, and thus moves us away from the perpetual state of stress many of us live in*. When the nervous system relaxes and we’re breathing fully, the body switches on the parasympathetic nervous system (the system related to resting, digestion and balance). When we’re in this more relaxed state, we can tap in to a powerful self-healing tool and our chances of falling prey to illness actually drops, as well as the ability to reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Deep, diaphragmatic breathing also increases the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart and eyes, and gives a powerful release of endorphins, so we may literally feel our eyes ‘light up’.
(*Consider just one of the reasons people become addicted to smoking – because it’s the only time they breathe deeply!)
Asana: Physical Postures
The act of stretching and ‘opening’ muscles and fascial structures within the body increases the production of endorphins helping us to feel happier, stronger, calmer and more confident. When we’re moving in a dynamic way, this then stimulates the endorphins to release – combine the two and you’ve got a pretty good chance of feeling amazing!
When we stretch and lengthen muscles, we’re also boosting our circulation and opening up subtle energy channels within the body, allowing the ‘prana’ or ‘life force’ to flow freely and unblock any emotional tension that often translates in to physical pain.
Challenges and new experiences
If you’ve ever been in a yoga class and attempted a difficult, new or ‘exciting’ pose, there’s a chance you’ve felt a little exhilarated afterwards. This feeling is down to the release of endorphins we usually get when we take on a challenge that we find enjoyable. New and enjoyable experiences also help to boost our mood, which is why it’s great to try a few different styles of yoga to see what truly works for you.
If you’ve attended a Kirtan before, you’ll know the feeling of positive energy which seems to radiate throughout the room as everyone sings together. The vibrations felt throughout the body as you produce sound, coupled with the deep breathing required to hold those notes, and the feeling of being surrounded by others who are also in a positive state of mind is all a recipe for endorphin release! There’s no wonder many yoga events worldwide include ‘ecstatic chanting’.
Some classes will end with a short time of chanting, so the next time you feel too shy to chant ‘OM’ with the class, remember just how good creating that sound is for your body.
Satsang: ‘True company’ or community
Being surrounded by likeminded people is also helpful when we’re searching for an endorphin release. When we’re in the company of others who we share some things in common with and whom we can relate to, our stress responses drop dramatically and we’re more easily able to generate the production of happy, healing hormones. Of course everyone could practice yoga at home, but most people will agree that nothing beats joining a class of people who are all there to breathe, move and learn together!
The best thing about releasing endorphins with a yoga practice?… There are no side effects! Goodbye morning hang over, hello early morning yoga class….
The next time you’re searching for a way to feel good and release those endorphins, what will you choose?