How yoga really works

How really yoga works

Yoga for the science-minded student. By Jax Pax

I gently bent over into a ‘Standing Half-Forward Bend’, extending my spine, hoping to give space to my thoracic organs and be soothed once again, as I so often am, during yoga practice. But my practice was interrupted by the chuckle of a middle-aged man standing behind me at the park. He strutted off chuckling, turning back only once he had gained enough distance from me to feel he could get away with remarking: “That’s my favourite move.” Unfortunately, it seemed this man had never experienced yoga. But it’s moments like that we yoga practitioners become all too familiar with if we are brave enough to practice in public spaces.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve alarmed the public. Just a month earlier, I was approached by two police officers while I was practicing yoga at a dog park. “We’ve had complaints that you’re coming here every day and hanging around.” I looked around and saw dozens of other people, at the park, hanging around. “Isn’t that what parks are for?” I replied. “Who knows what people are thinking,” was the officer’s response.

And to this day, I still do not know quite what people were thinking. Perhaps that I had some strange sexual fetish and felt compelled to get some practice time in while I was outdoors. Or did they think I was a religious fanatic preparing for an unthinkable event? I’ll never know.

Art form
What troubles me though, is that this wonderful art form I have discovered, that has given me so much relief and good health, is so wildly misunderstood in mainstream society. By now, you’d think people would understand yoga is not some crazy ritual. But somehow the message has been lost.

In my studies in medical engineering and physiology, I gained a deep enough understanding of human physiology and biomechanics to see how yoga was perfectly sound scientifically. So, I have set out to find a way to communicate this to a wide audience as efficiently as possible. That has been the short story behind my very short book, How Yoga Really Works.

To understand how yoga works we must first understand some basic principles from biological science. Fortunately, these are all easy to understand. I’ll go through each relevant concept and we’ll see how it all comes together.

James-Lange Theory
To put it simply, the James-Lange Theory of emotion basically suggests that our brains are constantly monitoring our bodies and constructing emotions based on the nature of our physiological state. It turns out that this is at least partly true. While there may be more to the story — in that emotion is partly determined by cognition, awareness and perception also — nevertheless it is true that our bodily state does play a part in the construction of emotions. A big part. When individuals are unhealthy this function may be more chaotic or misaligned.

There are studies showing that when people sit upright it enhances positive emotion. It has been found also that muscle tone, i.e how tight your muscles are, affects anxiety levels. Yoga involves bodily gestures that exude confidence and openness such as the Warrior asanas and open-armed asanas and it also leaves you with better posture throughout the day. All this contributes to a sense of freedom and resilience.

To wing your course along the middle air;
If low, the surges wet your flagging plumes;
If high, the sun the melting wax consumes 
—Daedalus to Icarus

Homeostasis means literally, similar-state. The body must maintain an equilibrium in order to function optimally. Body temperature, fluid balance, blood sugar levels, and many other factors need to be maintained at near optimal levels so as to avoid dysfunction and toxicity. As the body works to maintain a healthy balance chemically and physiologically this is called maintaining homeostasis.

However, the body cannot simply hold these factors statically at the optimal levels. Instead, it must maintain equilibrium by moving up and down around a baseline. 

If we want to understand how yoga works, the concept of homeostasis is important in many ways, but most evidently, in regard to the nervous system. Put simply, if the nervous system is very turbulent, with energy swinging up very high and down very low, the individual will experience heavy mood swings.

Extreme moods not only tend to lead to painful experiences but also tend to coincide with distorted perceptions, and a tendency to seek drama or to see drama where there isn’t any. Let’s call it, adrenalising.

So, all things considered, it’s often best to maintain a relaxed physiology — and yoga provides an excellently effective way of doing that.

Weight loss is not about willpower: yoga stops you reaching for the fridge
During chronic stress, glucocorticoids (basically the stress hormone) circulate in the body. At these times, when glucocorticoid levels are high, it has been found, both in humans and in rats, that some individuals become hyperphagic under stress while others become hypophagic under stress. Hyper-phagic means the individual is driven to eat more, while hypo-phagic means the individual loses their appetite.

But increased appetite is not the only change that can result from raising glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids stimulate appetite preferentially for foods that are starchy, fatty and high in sugar.

By reducing stress levels, yoga lowers the presence of glucocorticoids circulating throughout the body. The result is that you now have less to fight against. Your cravings change — you want junk food less and salad more. See, it’s not a matter of willpower or self-discipline, the cravings simply aren’t there anymore. You no longer feel the need to be rescued by cake.

Changed cravings in combination with raised whole-body-awareness and suddenly the junk food doesn’t seem so appealing. The cola might stimulate your tongue but it will burden your heart. When you are stressed you feel as if you’re exercising your freedom by eating tasty junk. But when you are relaxed, radiant, and lucid after a yoga workout, the sweet junk foods feel as if they are overly forceful, pushing your physiology to behave in a predictably reactive way rather than allowing the body to be responsive to the actual situation of the day.

A body-mind practice
The practice of yoga is a time-tested and very effective way of recalibrating the body toward health and a lighter, freer way of living. Many of the outcomes of yoga practice are surprising to most people and the function of yoga is not so woo-woo after all. In fact, any good physiologist can see, rationally, how the myriad benefits of yoga would come about. Embedded in the core philosophy of yoga is an intelligent respect for the interaction between body and mind, though, put more accurately, they are not truly separate phenomena. It is not body and mind, it is body-mind.

Yoga is a practice that developed independently of any religion and can be tailored to the individual and his or her lifestyle. Its potential for recalibrating the nervous system and resetting (habitually determined) stress levels will be of great interest to many.


How yoga really works, the new book by Jax Pax is out now. Available on Amazon.

How yoga really works Jax Pax

Om Magazine

First published in November 2009, OM Yoga magazine has become the most popular yoga title in the UK. Available from all major supermarkets, independents and newsstands across the UK. Also available on all digital platforms.