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One Simple Thing

Musings on yoga and an open mind.

I originally picked up this book (A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life by Eddie Stern) when I finished my yoga teacher training, thinking it would help me consolidate some of the ideas I learnt there. And it did help do that, but I also found it fascinating how some of the science we now have correlates with yogic practices that have existed for thousands of years.

Yoga has gained so much popularity lately, I believe, as whomever practices it, no matter age, culture, gender, race or body type; all seem to experience remarkably similar benefits. Yoga trains our autonomic nervous system, which rules a lot of our survival mechanisms such as heart rate, digestion and respiratory rate, and specifically, our parasympathetic nervous system which can be summarised as our 'rest and digest' mode. With modern lives we are often overstimulated, stressed out, overwhelmed and anxious. No wonder we reach out for a remedy! The physical aspect of yoga attracts people, and then many people become hooked when they discover the mental benefits also.

In the past, I have held a healthy amount of scepticism for ideas such as chakras, energy pathways etc. Trained as a scientist, I found them difficult concepts to believe in, and yet ironically, I didn't know enough of the science behind yoga in order to make sense of these. Ever heard of the vagus nerve? I certainly never had until I went to yoga teacher training, and I dare say unless you are medically trained in some way, you likely haven't.

The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve (and correlates with one of the main energy pathways, the shumumna nadi, described by yogis) and carries mainly parasympathetic nerves. It connects to the larynx, pharynx, heart and lungs, as well as the stomach, pancreas, liver, spleen and intestines. Just one example of what it does: exhalation actually slow down the heart by activating what is known as the 'vagul' brake. High vagal tone (function) is associated with the reduction of inflammation, better cardiovascular health, improved digestion, better sleep and positive mood regulation.

Simply put, the practices of yoga, including postures, meditation, breathing practices, chanting etc. all tone the vagus nerve, helping it to function better. So ever wondered why you feel better after a yoga class when you entered feeling all sorts of awful? Through tapping into and improving our relationship with our parasympathetic nervous system, we gain the steadiness of mind, equanimity, be more resilient and lead happier and more fulfilled lives.

These ideas have also been an important lesson for me; why write off thousands of years worth of practice for the 'reason' that it does't fit modern science? Yoga has been practised that long for a reason. Whilst some ancient theories and old wives tails may not be true, of course, at the very least they merit investigation. Which is what I was not prepared to do initially with the ideas of energy and chakras! An open mind gives a lot of gifts.

Is there anything that deserves a second look in your life? Maybe that's giving yoga another go (and finding a teacher you click with)? Or maybe it's something that a little bit more open-mindedness might help with? Life usually isn't black and white, and as humans we do like a simple black-and-white concept. The truth usually lies in the murky grey depths!


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