Why does yoga make us feel good?
Why do we always feel better at the end of a yoga class or after home practice? Calmer, more centered, more relaxed? Science is now catching up with what yoga practitioners knew all along, so we can learn what actually happens in our bodies that makes us feel better not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally after our practice.
It’s easy to think of emotions as existing purely in the mind, but we know that experiencing emotions is associated with physical sensations. Fear makes our hearts beat faster, stress makes us tense up, embarrassment makes our face turn red. Emotions are closely connected to our physiology, and, in fact, we understand and experience emotions through tuning in to the physical sensations they create in the body.
Being disconnected from this feedback that our body gives can negatively affect our emotional health, and even lead to depression, when we are unable to understand and therefore process unpleasant feelings we may be experiencing. Being aware of internal sensations helps us more readily connect to our emotions. Often just naming and acknowledging how we feel in the moment can take the edge off and help us stay present and simply feel emotions move through our body as we become conscious of physical sensations that are present.
Our ability to understand and respond to the body’s internal signal is called interoception. Sometimes called “the sixth sense”, interoception is the sense of the internal state of the body.
It helps us understand and feel what’s going on inside the body. We notice if the heart is beating fast, or if you need to take deeper breaths; we know when we are hungry, full, hot, cold, thirsty, etc.
Interoception includes signals from all the internal organs: the cardiovascular system, lungs, gut, bladder, as well as the skin. Our organs are constantly communicating with our brain, and most of these signals process below our conscious awareness (for example, we are not aware of communication between the organs and the brain that help to stabilize blood sugar levels). But many of these sensations, like awareness of the breath, muscle tension, clenching of the stomach, or the heartbeat can be perceived consciously. The ways we perceive and interpret these sensations have important consequences for our wellbeing.
Scientists now recognize “interoception as a key mechanism to mental and physical health, where understanding our body’s signals helps us understand and regulate emotional and physical states…[research has] shown that our sensitivity to interoceptive signals can determine our capacity to regulate our emotions, and our… susceptibility to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.” - (The Guardian)
By practicing different aspects of yoga, including mindfulness, breath awareness, yoga nidra and movement/postures, we are learning and practicing interoception. Connecting to the breath while being still as well as during movement, coordinating movement with breath, sensing into the body while it moves/stretches and when it’s at rest, all of these practices increase our interoceptive awareness. When we are under stress, having good interoceptive awareness will help us better handle this stress.
Tuning in to our bodies and reading its signals is a skill we can call on in moments of stress. We can develop and improve interoceptive awareness over time, with practice. But there are also immediate effects we can experience from yoga. When our nervous system receives interoceptive feedback from muscles being used, it is also receiving messages of strength, ability to deal with threats, and resilience. When it receives feedback from calm breathing, it receives signals of safety that promote optimal function of all systems in the body.
Interested in learning how yoga therapy can help you feel better in your body and mind? Book a free 30 min consultation call with Asya.