Yoga and meditation are two mind-body practices that benefit our overall health. Not only are both of these practices very much accessible, but they are also quite effective at bringing the body and mind into an optimal state of balance. Yoga and meditation induce several neurophysiological mechanisms helping to promote parasympathetic dominance, calming many of the body's systems, including the mind. This article will discuss how yoga and meditation can benefit overall health.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is an ancient practice that involves moving the body into different poses and exercises that help to promote balance. This practice originated in India, and it means "to unite," referring to the alignment of the mind, body, and spirit. Yoga helps to release stagnant energy in the body, cultivating renewed energy between the body and mind and having notable implications for our physical and mental health.
Yoga helps us be more mindful of our breathing pattern, or Pranayama, which positively affects our body and mind. By bringing awareness to our breath, we can help to slow down the body, enabling us to focus our energy on renewing and restoring. Yoga can also increase vagal tone, which may explain its mind-body benefits in terms of homeostasis or balance among the body's systems. Vagal tone refers to stimulating the vagus nerve, the largest component of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Yoga has been found to support stress, inflammation, digestive and metabolic health, and immunity. This practice has also been found to improve interoceptive awareness and feelings of connection.
What is Meditation?
Meditation involves focused awareness on a particular activity, like our breath, a mantra, our environment, or any activity that engages our five senses. The effects of meditation are regulated largely by the nervous and endocrine systems. A significant component of meditation is mindfulness. Mindfulness is bringing non-judgmental awareness to the present moment. It has also been referred to as “paying attention on purpose” and has been found to improve self-regulation and functioning among various brain circuits that influence brain health. Neurophysiological mechanisms are also involved in meditation, which results in altered states of consciousness.
Meditation practices work on improving the default mode network (DMN) in the brain, an interconnected group of brain structures working synergistically. Improvements in the DMN can help shift the amount of time we spend on specific thoughts. For example, meditation can reduce the rumination of thoughts and even the stress response. Meditation also activates brain regions regulating negative emotions, mindfulness, and self-compassion.
Mental Health Benefits of Yoga and Meditation
Yoga and Meditation practices have been found to exert physiological effects on both the body and mind. This could be primarily due to their significant role in modulating stress on a physiological level, having vast implications for our health in terms of immunity, inflammation, and mental health. Yoga and Meditation help our bodies get into a restful and restorative state by promoting Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) dominance, reduced cortisol, and increased activity in certain areas of the brain that all impact how we feel in our body and mind.
Psychoneuroimmunology is an emerging field of research that looks at the interconnectedness of the nervous, immune, and hormonal systems in regulating stress and immunity. Yoga has been found to be a modality that can support our relationship to stress and its impacts on our health in terms of body and mind. More evidence of yoga's modulating effects on the mind-body connection is cited in studies of IBS and other conditions related to the gut/brain axis.
Meditation helps to increase self-awareness and self-regulation and has implications for our brain health, including areas that form key regions of the default mode network (DMN). Alterations in DMN function have been associated with several mental health conditions, which can explain why meditation is supported in the literature in terms of supporting this area.
A number of studies highlight the mental health benefits of meditation and yoga. In this 2014 study, a significant decrease in state anxiety and the somatization of stress was observed, among improvements in sleep and quality of life in 70 participants that engaged in yoga for stress reduction. In this 2020 study, yoga-based interventions improved attention, memory, and executive functions among the elderly. Finally, in this 2015 study, mental health professionals that participated in yoga reported a significant reduction in work-related stress and significant improvement in their adaptation to stress as evidenced by measurements in heart rate variability (HRV).
In addition to improving (HRV), yoga has been associated with increasing GABA, and vagal tone, whereas meditation increases default neural networks in the brain that influence our mental health. Increased vagal tone has been suggested to support our health in several ways, as it is the primary component of the parasympathetic nervous system. Mood, inflammation, and GI motility have been studied in terms of increased vagal tone, all of which support our mental health.
Overall, evidence supports that mindfulness and yoga may serve as effective adjunct complementary therapies to utilize in conjunction with one's mental health treatment.
Types of Yoga and Meditation
Various types of yoga and meditation can be tailored according to one's bio-individual needs and preferences.
This type of yoga is for the purpose of restoring the body and mind. It consists of long-held positions supported often with props, gentle movements, and sustained stretches for optimal body and mind restoration.
Hot Yoga is a way to amp up and optimize the benefits of yoga. This form of yoga includes doing yoga in increased temperatures, which can boost the body and mind. In fact, one study found an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in hot yoga participants, which can support our mental and physical health.
This type of yoga focuses on awareness of the breath, which has extensive benefits to our health, including harmonizing body and mind. In yoga, being mindful of our breath helps us to optimize prana or vital life force. Pranayama can be done sitting or lying down as long as one focuses on taking deep breaths. There are various forms of pranayama based on factors such as nostril or mouth breathing, length of the breath cycle, and volume.
Yoga Nidra aims to induce deeply relaxed states of consciousness, having profound relaxation benefits for the nervous system and other aspects of our health. This ancient yogic practice promotes deep physiological and psychological relaxation while maintaining mental alertness. Yoga Nidra usually takes place lying down for full benefit. It has been suggested to promote inner awareness and stillness, having extended benefits for wellness, including measures of physiological and mental health measures.
Mindfulness Meditation involves bringing non-judgemental awareness to one's present moment. This type of meditation has been suggested to increase self-regulation and have a host of benefits on several brain circuits, including the default mode network (DMN). Mindfulness meditations may include bringing awareness to one's environment, such as nature, the five senses, or even one's body in terms of a body scan.
Deep Breathing Meditation
This meditative practice is similar to Pranayama in yoga but with less full-body engagement. Both practices significantly benefit the body and mind as they help induce parasympathetic dominance. Our breathing is naturally more shallow when we are stressed. Taking the time to focus on our breath can help to restore the body and mind.
This type of meditation has been found to evoke many health benefits related to anxiety, immunity, stress, and hypertension. It includes reciting a mantra, a word or phrase that one resonates with. The mantra is repeated throughout the meditation. It can be repeated silently or through chanting or humming. By focusing on the repeated word or phrase, it helps to steady the mind.
This involves bringing awareness to how your body feels as you walk. This type of meditation can also be adapted to a particular path to walk, such as the forest or park. While it is natural to take in the external senses, the purpose of this type of meditation is to bring awareness to the sensations you feel as you walk, such as the earth beneath your feet. This type of meditative practice may be best for those who find themselves more interoceptive or highly focused on their internal bodily processes, as it allows for awareness outside of oneself. There have been several health benefits associated with this type of meditation.
Depending on our baseline default mode network (DMN) in the brain, different meditation types may be more beneficial. For instance, we may naturally be more aware of our internal processes in our body and mind, referring to interoception. On the contrary, we may naturally be more aware of our external environment or exteroception. If we tend to focus our attention inward (interoception), we may want to engage in a meditation practice that encourages us to focus our attention outward, such as a walking meditation in nature engaging our senses. If we instead tend to focus our attention outward (exteroception), we may want to engage in a meditative practice that focuses our awareness inward.
When to See Your Functional Medicine Physician
While yoga and meditation have many benefits to your health, you may still feel like something is out of balance or not quite right regarding your overall health. Or perhaps you've begun implementing these practices, and while finding value in them, you want to continue improving alignment in your mind and body. In either case, you may wish to see your functional medicine physician to dig a bit deeper into other aspects of your health to promote and restore further balance in body and mind; You know your body best.
Some reasons why you may wish to see your functional medicine physician could be related to imbalances in the body, such as gut or hormonal health. Assessing variants in particular genes that make one more susceptible or prone to different health conditions or deficiencies could also be a reason to seek a functional medicine practitioner. You'll reap the most benefits by utilizing these yoga and meditation practices in conjunction with nutrition and other lifestyle factors in addressing your bio-individual needs from a root cause perspective.
Yoga and Meditation can induce significant benefits to our overall health. Physiologically these practices can induce benefits to our physical health, helping to modulate several important processes in the body, as well as in the brain, having significant implications for mental and emotional aspects of health. These practices can be done anywhere, and can be modified to address our unique needs best to reap optimal benefits.
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