Have you ever gotten that post-yoga high? You know, that feeling that nothing can get you down, that you’re the epitome of relaxation, and that you’re basically two downward dogs away from enlightenment? For many of us, it’s this feel-good sensation that gets us hooked and keeps us coming back to the mat. But have you ever wondered what causes that feeling? Turns out there’s a whole science to the yoga high, and why yoga makes you feel so good.
Yoga tells your body to chill the eff out
Humor me for a second and think back to your high school biology class. Remember learning about fight or flight? No? Well here’s a quick summary. The fight or flight response is something our ancestors handed down to us through evolution. Fight or flight is an automatic response to perceived danger that prepares our body to either run or fight for our lives.
Like most unrequested hand-me-downs, it’s not nearly as useful for us as it was for them. The flight or fight mechanism is activated by any perceived threat, and does not distinguish between physical danger and psychological stress. In other words, an impending work deadline is going to trigger it the same way a cheetah chasing you would. And due to the number of perceived threats in our lives these days, most people spend the majority of their day in the fight or flight mode. Thanks a lot evolution.
The fight or flight response also goes by the (much less catchy) name, “sympathetic nervous system.” And it has a sister-system. The “parasympathetic nervous system,” which also comes with its own catchy nickname: rest and digest.
The rest or digest system is in charge of bringing us back to balance. It allows the body to rest and encourages healing by telling the muscles to relax, triggering the release of digestive enzymes, decreasing the heart rate, and regulating other helpful body functions. This system is activated by stillness, deep breathing, and silence. And where do we find stillness, deep breathing, and silence? That’s right. Yoga.
When you practice yoga—particularly savasana, breath control, or any meditative poses—you’re triggering the parasympathetic nervous system and telling your body that it’s safe. Which means it can finally chill out and take a much-needed break.
Yoga acts like a chill pill for your brain
Triggering your parasympathetic nervous system is something you can do through a variety of practices. Taking a bath, drinking some calming tea, lying down in the grass; basically, anything that helps you breathe deeper will help trigger the rest and digest system. Yoga just happens to be one of these things. But there are specific ways in which yoga benefits the brain and makes you feel better. By increasing your GABA levels, for example.
GABA is a neurotransmitter that communicates between the brain and the nervous system. It is specifically important for inhibiting the activity of neurons involved in fear and anxiety. When your brain gets overwhelmed with fear or anxiety, GABA comes in to save the day. Schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders have all been linked to low levels of GABA.
Yoga, on the other hand, has been shown to increase the GABA levels in your brain. Those with a regular yoga asana practice have been shown to have approximately 27% higher GABA levels than the non-yogis among us. Yoga isn’t the only thing linked to increased GABA levels—taking a walk and light physical exercise have long been associated with increased GABA levels. But a study conducted by psychiatrist Chris Streeter and colleagues found that yoga is the leader of the pack, with yogis showing higher GABA levels than regular exercisers.
In summary, increased GABA levels are linked with better mood regulation and lower levels of anxiety and depression. So basically, yoga makes your brain happy.
Yoga is like boot camp for your stress response
One of the most common reasons people do yoga is to reduce stress. We all know yoga helps manage stress, but few of us know why. Part of it has to do with what we’ve already mentioned; when you trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, and increase your GABA levels, you are likely to feel less stressed. But there is another way yoga helps us manage stress, and that has to do with the way yoga retrains the brain to respond differently to stress.
Before we can understand how yoga retrains the brain, we have to understand neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself based on experience. Everything we do changes the structure and chemical composition of our brain. Habits (whether bad or good) reinforce certain pathways, and the stronger a pathway gets the harder it is to break away from it.
Say, for example, you are trying to build a habit to drink a glass of water first thing in the morning. Maybe you set an alarm to remind you at first, but after a while you won’t need that alarm. You will just automatically grab a glass of water when you wake up. This is the effect of neuroplasticity; you have trained that pathway in your brain, so even if you are not thinking about it, your brain automatically goes into “get a glass of water” mode when you wake up.
Now let’s connect that with yoga. Imagine the last time your teacher held you in a prolonged chair pose.
Your arms and legs started shaking, your thighs started to burn, you were drenched in sweat; it was a pretty stressful situation. Meanwhile, your yoga teacher has been holding the same pose with a serene look on her face, telling you to take deep breaths and sink into the posture.
In the moment, you probably wanted to throttle her, but she was actually doing something really helpful for your brain. She was training it to remain calm in stressful situations.
We have already established that deep breathing triggers relaxation throughout the body. And now we know that when we do something over and over again, it becomes easier and more automatic for our brain. So if we keep putting our body through stressful situations while using our breath to keep calm (which is exactly what we do in yoga), our brain will eventually learn that, when faced with a stressful situation, it should remain calm.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
Even on their own, each of these effects are pretty cool. An off switch for the flight and fight system? I’ll take it. Increased ability to handle anxiety, depression, and fear? Sign me up. A brain that retrains itself to stay calm in the face of stress? Yes please. But it’s the culmination of all these awesome effects that makes you feel so good when you practice yoga.
Frequent deep breathing encourages you to spend less time in the stressful sympathetic nervous system. Increased GABA levels help you so that when you are stressed, the stress does not totally debilitate you. And neuroplasticity makes it all stick, and continues to help you, whether you are on or off the yoga mat. When you put it all together, you get a blissed-out brain with the ability to keep calm no matter what stress you throw at it; aka, the yoga high.
A simple breathing exercise to decrease stress and bring on that yoga high
Now that you understand how it all works, let’s get it working. The following breathing exercise will help you trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and encourage a calm, stress-free state of mind.
- Situate yourself in a comfortable seated position. This can be cross-legged, on a meditation cushion, on a chair, or even lying down. What matters is that you are comfortable and that you can stay there for a while.
- Close your eyes. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Begin to take deep breaths through your nose, feeling your hands rise and fall with the rhythm of your breathing.
- Count the second of your inhales and exhales for a few rounds of breath.
- For the next five rounds of breath, try to make your inhale and exhale last for four seconds.
- Continue to add one second to both the inhale and the exhale after every five rounds of breath. Make sure you are still breathing comfortably; if at any point you are forcing the breath, back off and return to a shorter inhale and exhale.
- Continue this pattern for as longs as you would like.
- When finished, open your mouth and let the last exhale exit from your mouth.
- Enjoy the peaceful feeling that follows!
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Illustrations by Ksenia Sapunkova