Updated: Oct 16, 2019
Here is another question people ask me all the time – why do you or why should I practice yoga?
I love this question because it invites me to talk about yoga and all the amazing aspects of it (side note: check out our blog “What Is Yoga Anyway?” to learn about the many aspects of a yoga practice). There are so many reasons to practice yoga – ranging from the scientific to the philosophical; from the personal and psychological to the relational and communal. All of us who practice have our own unique perspective on what draws us to the practice and all of us enter the practice with different motivations and intentions. The “why” may also evolve across time – perhaps we come to the practice during a time of physical challenge, or because our emotions are stirred up, or our relationships are failing …. Or perhaps we seek grounding, calming, and present-centeredness. Better yet, maybe we seek no particular outcome, but a lifestyle. The “why’s” are as varied as the practitioners (check out our blog “Who Does Yoga?”). From an ancient wisdom perspective, the Yoga Sutras offer us yoga as a systematic path to alleviate suffering and promote wellness; as a moving meditation that focuses on empowering the practitioner through inviting curiosity, awareness, and choice. That’s a pretty wonderful reason right there.
These days, few simple answers to the question about why to practice come straight from the research literature: Yoga has amazing (evidence-based) health and mental health benefits. In fact, the positive effects of yoga have been documented for a range of physiological, musculoskeletal, and mental health symptoms through clinical trials – carefully controlled experiments – as well as case studies, surveys, and other means. Yoga has a profound impact on several human systems that affect day-to-day functioning, wellness, relationships, and resilience. For example, yoga optimizes autonomic control, regulates endocrine and immune function, shapes adaptive emotional and behavioral responses, and downregulates reactivity. It enhances executive functioning and working memory, increases pain tolerance, and facilitates adaptive emotions and behaviors. Yoga increases resilience in body, emotion, and mind and brings about self-regulation that supports adaptive responsiveness to the environment and in relationships.
If you are curious why and how yoga can do all this from a scientific perspective, the research literature about the mechanisms that make yoga so amazingly helpful has answers for this question as well. If you are not curious about the why and how, skip the next section with its three paragraphs …
The Mechanisms of Change Inherent in a Yoga Practice – The Scientific “Why” and “How”
Most of yoga’s salutary benefits arise because yoga affects and integrates bottom-up and top-down pathways in the human brain for coping with internal and external demands, while it recalibrates the nervous system and maintains homeostasis in body and mind. Top-down mechanisms or pathways are those that arise from the cerebral cortex of the brain and are conscious and intentional. They promote self-regulation through mechanisms such as cognitive appraisal, reframing, goal-setting and follow-through, attention, intentionality, and planning. They decrease the level of reactive engagement of the sympathetic nervous system, decrease habitual emotional and behavioral reactivity, enhance working memory and attentional stability, improve executive functioning, and make stress perception more accurate.
Bottom-up mechanisms modulate activity in the lower regions of the brain, via ascending pathways that reach from the brain stem, through the limbic system, to the cerebral cortex, including the anterior cingulate and insula. Inputs into the bottom-up circuits arise from somatic, sensory, visceral, cardiovascular, and immune receptors in the body and affect immunity, psychological health, and physical wellbeing. Bottom-up inputs also arise from the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Bottom-up mechanisms contribute to self-regulation not via conscious and intentional cognitive processes (as is the case with top-down processing), but via unconscious responsivity to the perceived demand characteristics of a particular environmental stimulus, event, or input.
A crucial player in top-down and bottom-up functions and integration is the vagus (10th cranial) nerve or polyvagal system. The vagus nerve is the primary conduit for communication about the internal state as perceived through various sensory systems to the brain. It relays physical, mental, and environmental sensory input (from the bottom) via the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula to the prefrontal cortex (to the top). It integrates emotion, cognition, and conscious deliberation about sensory input from the top to the bottom, creating a network and integration across brain structures for an integration/collaboration of the top-down and bottom-up pathways. Top-down bottom-up integration facilitates balance in the vagal system, allowing for a calm, integrated, and resilient response.
But What Else Is There? Yoga is so much more ancient than this research evidence, after all …
As you can see, research tells us yoga is an amazing practice for our physical, emotional, mental, and relational wellbeing. It would be easy to stop right there. It is certainly enough of an incentive to start a practice … But you know nothing is ever that simple. It would be reductionist to practice yoga because western research has tested and documented its effectiveness. For one thing, ancient yoga has been known as healthful and transformative for millennia – we did not need western researchers to tell us this (though research does give us the language to bridge previously-thought insurmountable barriers between soul and science, lending an air of legitimacy that permits even skeptics to support integrating yoga into modern healthcare and mental healthcare settings – which has been a boon to holistic health; but I digress into #sciencemeetssoul).
The view of yoga as being worthy of practice because it is a healthcare strategy is reductionist because yoga is so much more. Yoga is complexity embodied; it is a lifestyle – a commitment to ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, our world of sentient beings, our environment, and our planet. Yoga brings to our lives clarity of purpose that is larger than our own small world and self-centered perspective. It instills a passion for making our complex world a better place, for being engaged and feeling responsible for the betterment of society and the earth. Yoga, based on its ancient roots, draws us inside to make us better people on the outside by teaching us how to utilize the wealth of resources we already possess. It is a practice of mindfulness and insight that invites us to transcend narrow and reactive views; that challenges us to take broad and less biased perspectives; that prompts us to be loving, kind, compassionate, joyful, equanimous, and generous; and that reminds us that there is a greater connection and interdependence than we may even be able to fathom. Yoga is a practice that places us squarely into the present moment – transcending the past and transforming the future.
What Is My Reason to Practice?
For me, the most honest reason to practice yoga is that – every single day – it gives me a way to be present and mindful enough to become a better person, to be an agent for change, to fulfill my existential imperative to leave the world better than I entered it, to transcend my shortcomings and grow. Yoga guides me to live moment to moment, breath by breath, as a living, evolving, and growing human being. It anchors me to the present, the here-and-now to help me recognize my habits, transform my reactivity, and stay open-hearted and open-minded. If my personal health and resilience improve as a result, that is the icing on the yogic cake. If I am a kinder more loving person in my relationships, that is a relief for my soul. If I am at least able to recognize when I screw up and am hurtful, less than peaceful, or not as generous as I could be, then I have already benefited from the practice. Even the word “benefit”, though, can be dangerous. Daily I remind myself that I do not practice to reap a benefit or achieve a particular outcome. Yoga is not a means to an end. Yoga is the end in and of itself; my commitment to the practice – to being present and engaged – is the end in and of itself. Anything that arises from there, is a gift and miracle. And for that I am grateful every day – even if sometimes I forget ...
So Why Practice Yoga?
If a “why” appeals to you, keep practicing or get started. There are so many wonderful resources to help you develop a yogic lifestyle. Check out the eight limbs and realize that your yoga really happens most profoundly off the mat. But coming to the mat helps you remember this – over and over and over again… Share your experience of the “why” that inspires your yoga practice. It will be great to hear from you.
With awe about and gratitude for the daily practice of yoga – on and off the mat – and with great love and affection for my fellow yogis,
About the Author:
Christiane Brems, PhD, ABPP, E-RYT500, C-IAYT, is the Director of YogaX, a clinical psychologist, registered yoga teacher, and certified yoga therapist. She has practiced yoga for over 40 years. You can read more about her on the YogaX Team page.