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Have you heard of yoga before? Have you heard of its super-awesomeness?
By this point, we've all been informed; I've been informed, many times. But the idea of doing something so hipster and female has been so ridiculous to my subconscious mind that I had never actually consciously considered doing it.
I'm a man. I like sports & beer . Yoga? Not unless it's to pick up chicks. (Actually I like dancing and piano… but I am a man!).
Forward to three weeks ago, and I was contorting my body to the words of Esther Ekhart on YouTube.
It was inevitable. I blog about happiness; every tenth article I read or person I talked to mentioned yoga.
And then I stopped.
Curious as I am, I wanted to know what exactly yoga was doing for me.
Yoga is awesome. It:
- Boosts mood
- Increases flexibility
- Builds heart strength
- Tones your muscles
- Creates weight loss
- Reduces stress
- Improves pain management
Still, I don't need flexibility, and I work on my heart strength and muscle tone enough – I exercise every day. Levitation would be kind of cool, but I imagine that takes years of disciplined practice.
The benefit that mattered to me was the stress reduction. I thought that my yoga and meditation practices were redundant. Thinking that there was no need for both, and that meditation is a more powerful method to reduce stress, I kicked out yoga.
But my curiosity got the better of me.
What specifically about yoga is relaxing?
Is it the breathing in sync with your movements? The mental focus required to hold physically challenging poses? An emergent property of exercising the entire body in slow sequence? Something to do with oxygen or CO2 levels?
The results surprised me, and, more than that, gave rise to additional possibility.
Resources on the web and my local Yogi were surprisingly ambiguous and unhelpful. I guess for most people, if it works, who cares why? That's why I turned to The Science of Yoga, by William Broad.
As you can guess, it has nothing to do with chakra.
More surprisingly, it has little to do with oxygen – our bodies are extremely good at regulating our breath and overall nervous system to optimize blood oxygen levels. Normal breathing provides arterial blood with 98-99% oxygen saturation. I've confirmed this several times in my life; even when I was stressed or breathing shallowly the finger pulse oximeter monitor reported back 98 or 99%.
Yoga exercises the nervous system.
It has much more to do with the strategic stimulation of the sympathetic (flight-or fight) and parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous systems. Certain yoga poses and activities stimulate the flight-or-fight response, while others stimulate the relaxation response.
Switching back and forth between poses and activities that stimulate the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system allows for deeper relaxation that just relaxation on its own. I believe this is one of the driving forces behind a new form of meditation which incorporates aerobic exercise.
In addition, just like the strategic stimulation of your muscle fibers is really really healthy (it's called exercise); the strategic stimulation of your nervous system can be really really health – it's just another form of exercise. This exercise; rather than making your heart stronger and reducing your resting heart rate, makes your nervous system stronger and reduces your resting stress levels.
What this all means is that yoga and meditation are not interchangeable – they are in fact separate exercises.
This also means that some of the benefits of yoga can be attained through non-yogatic activities; all that's required is the back and forth stimulation of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
This means that I can re-arrange the activities in my life to weakly mimic yoga. Although my version of yoga may never be as powerful as real yoga itself, I won't have to actually go back to the practice to get some of the benefits.
The most stimulating activity in my daily routine is exercise. The most relaxing activities are meditation and laughter.
I'm now going to throw in bits of meditation and laughter in-between my exercise. Run one lap; laugh a little. Run another lap; meditate a little.
What do you think? Does that sound as ridiculous to you as it does to me?