How Yoga Works

That yoga works is obvious to those who have been practising regularly, even if only for a short time.  We tend to feel more comfortable in our bodies, stronger and more flexible, kinder to ourselves and to others and more quickly able to recover our equilibrium when thrown off balance by strong emotions or difficult life events.

How yoga works is down to a unique combination of physical and psychological effects, discovered by the ancient yogis through continued practice, observation and study, many aspects of which have now been proven scientifically to improve physical and mental health.

Firstly, yoga teaches you how to breathe properly: a full, deep, even breath which inflates your torso from collar bones to belly, in each cycle of which the exhale is at least as long (if not longer) than the inhale.  Breathing deeply and mindfully in this way helps to improve and maintain the elasticity of the muscles between your ribs, giving you increased lung capacity and a more efficient breathing pattern.  In addition, breathing deeply sends signals to your nervous system that your body can relax. 

Through a combination of increased physical fitness and improved breath control, regular yoga practice can lower both blood pressure and heart rate.  In this state your body is more able to be efficiently at rest.  The experience of stress is necessary for humans and has helped us to survive as a species, but it is supposed to be a temporary state – for too many people it has become a permanent way of being.  Practising yoga helps you to switch off the responses of your sympathetic nervous system (which releases catecholamines such as adrenaline) and stimulates the side of your nervous system that lets the body rest and digest efficiently – in this state your muscles relax fully, your mind becomes more calm and your breath deeper, your digestive system works optimally and the quality of your sleep is improved.  There is also some evidence that regularly calming your body, mind and breath in this way improves the function of your immune system. 

As you learn how to maintain deep, even breathing patterns when your body is under stress in your yoga practice (when working hard through vinyasa sequences, for example, or when approaching postures that you find physically and mentally challenging, such as handstands), you learn how to remain calm in all stressful situations.  This has positive benefits for your health and your relationships with others, but it also increases the chances of your remaining calm under pressure and maintaining your mental clarity during difficult situations.  Life is sometimes difficult and uncomfortable - breathing well through stress/ upset/strong emotion can transform your experience of those difficult moments.   In addition, as I have discussed here before, when you are happy and at peace with yourself, you are more likely to be kind to other people, which improves your relationships with others (see here for more on this subject).

Yoga helps us to learn how to feel emotions without repressing them or letting them consume us.  Yoga teaches us to sit with what is, to accept it as part of the process and to be kind to ourselves (and others) while it passes through.  Taking time to reflect on why we behaved a certain way in a certain situation helps us to act more wisely in future and to minimise the pain that we cause ourselves and others.  Krishna Das describes how yoga has helped him to handle strong emotions, so that when he feels anger these days, it surges up over him and ebbs away again, where it used to engulf him entirely.  Taking time to constantly observe our patterns of behaviour in this way helps us to be more wise in the future, turning away from behaviours that cause pain and towards habits that benefit us and those around us.

Yoga gives us the tools we need to observe ourselves and to notice patterns that lead us away from contentment.  The simplest advice I ever heard for living well came from the Dalai Lama in his book The Art of Happiness: find out what makes you happy and make sure you do it.  By becoming more sensitive to ourselves we learn that the temporary pleasure that we get from a gin and tonic or a new car (nice as those things are) is not the deep abiding contentment that we are seeking.  As the Tibetan saying has it: ‘Seeking happiness outside yourself is like seeking the sun in a cave facing north.’

Life is so busy and only getting busier, when we carry our e-mails, computers and telephones everywhere with us; everything is always in motion and the world is so noisy... this busyness can be dynamic and wonderful, but it is important for our well-being that we find time to stop; to be still.  It is in the midst of this quiet that we are able to see more clearly what is, and to confront ourselves honestly.  The answers don't come straight away, but in silence and with patience, resolution, forgiveness and peace come.  Distracting ourselves with chatter, noise, stories and more possessions does not take away or resolve difficult emotions and situations; it does not bring understanding.  Understanding comes from silence.  Yoga helps you to develop the habit of silence.

We think so much, that it is easy to come to the view that your body is just the vehicle for carrying your brain around.  Yoga practice reminds us that our mind does not define us  -  there is something much deeper and more important that is really who and what you are.  In your yoga practice you get to reconnect with it every time you come to your mat in whatever form your yoga practice takes.  Humans have found many different words to describe the feeling of deep contentment and joy that exists within, but words fall short of the experience.  All I know is that regularly turning my attention towards that deep, quiet centre of myself helps me to live better and be kinder - and that's all I'm really trying to do with my life.

So your joints get more flexible, your heart gets stronger (literally and metaphorically), your lung capacity improves, you find the deep seat of peace inside yourself, you reconnect with your body, you discover deep reserves of compassion within yourself and realise that they are unbounded, you get to know yourself, you get to reconnect with others, you emerge calmer, kinder, more resilient... You might as well go and do some practice now.

"Start where you are and with what you have and watch your horizons broaden"
Julie Gudmestad, Summer 2010


  1. Wow, that was great to read - very uplifting, Vanessa.

  2. Little story on this. The Dentist is easily the most stressful thing I ever experience and I had to have two small filings, for cracked teeth, this morning. So as the needle goes in I notice that my leg and foot have suddenly constricted as a reflex and then I remembered this post and how yoga might help. So the next 20minutes were still stressful but eased considerably as I focused on breathing and sensing my breathing. It wasn't meditation but it was a really powerful, soothing exercise.


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