How Does Yoga Work?


A big question. I can’t pretend to even touch the surface of this huge topic in a simple and quick blog post. Likely I will write more about it in future. However, I do think I’d like to advance a few ideas.

Probably everyone with an interest in yoga has asked themselves what makes yoga effective, and recently, a variety of people from outside the traditional yoga circles, especially medical and psychological researchers, have been trying to discern the mechanisms involved. In the last few years there has been a big move toward evidence-based practice when it comes to health and wellness and that generally is a good thing in my opinion. But there are some drawbacks to trying to extract the potent pieces from a larger system and still have the same effects.

One of the strongest theories on how yoga works is that it increases vagal tone. Vagal tone basically is a fancy word for the part of the nervous system that is involved in the relaxation response or its parasympathetic branch, measurable by markers such as heart rate variability. When vagal tone is high, digestion improves, hearts function optimally, and moods stabilize. Studies with specific populations such as people who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and epilepsy have provided support for the theory that yoga has a beneficial effect on vagal tone. See this link if you are interested: But significant questions remain – for instance, in the studies, what practices (specific postures, breath work, chant, etc.) were included in the yoga, did respondents have to practice regularly, what bearing did the healing relationship amongst teacher and the students have on the results? And if the relationships in a yoga class accounted for a sizeable part of the benefit, does that mean we should give up yoga classes and just hang around in pubs with other people?  Add to that the sizeable problem that improved vagal tone cannot be the only main benefit of yoga because it does not fully explain improved bone mass, balance, and attention, amongst other things.

pose9Some yoga poses known to evoke the relaxation response are not accessible to all students. Take shoulderstand, for instance. Shoulderstand is known in yoga circles as “full-body pose” or Sarvangasana in Sanskrit and also is often called the “mother” or “queen” of asana. B.K.S. Iyengar, the late yoga master known best for his meticulous attention to alignment and use of props, wrote in Light on Yoga, “The importance of Sarvangasana cannot be over-emphasized. It is one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages. . . . It is a panacea for most common ailments . . . glands . . . blood flow . . . body gravity . . . soothing effect of the pose on the nerves,” and so on. I think I would add that the attention to detail, cultivating the courage to invert, perseverance to perfect a position, challenge to knowing where the body is in space also count as mechanisms or benefits to working with a pose like shoulderstand.

Lately, though, shoulderstand has come under much scrutiny for the potential danger it can pose to the cervical spine and associated structures in susceptible individuals. Some would say we should just not bother practicing it. I tend to argue that while we should not blindly practice some rigid version of the pose in a ritualistic fashion as is the case in some schools of yoga, we also should not just abandon it without considering what we might be sacrificing in the process. There are a variety of ways it can be practiced and obtain most of the benefits. But we can lose some of the advantages, too. If we decide to practice a variation on shoulderstand, we should know how we will replace the effects displaced by the change with some other yogic practice.

Last week in a retreat I attended, I heard a complementary health provider and occasional practitioner of yoga state that, in the interest of safety, if yoga teachers wanted to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (Iyengar’s soothing effect of the pose on the nerves and probably the vagal tone stimulation about which I was writing at the beginning of this post), we should avoid questionable or controversial yoga poses such as shoulderstand and simply have our students lay on their backs with an eye pillow over their closed eyelids. I had to work hard at not being insulted or appearing incredulous. Like an eye pillow would be enough, if mobilizing the relaxation response could be that simple! We know that inability to relax is one of the biggest scourges of human life. For a significant proportion of the general population, laying still with no distractions is nigh impossible (perhaps more impossible than doing shoulderstand!). And to add to the difficulty of such a flippant “solution”, another retreatant with a professional understanding of disorders of the eye cautioned against having much of the weight of an eye pillow on the eyeballs. Her reasoning might be different, but this article sheds some light on some of the issues with using an eyebag:

Reductionism such as implying that a simple remedy taken from the mainstream could substitute for a “problematic” yoga pose or even yoga practice generally seems to be a simplistic attempt at avoiding the real issue at hand – that we do not fully know how yoga gets the results. As a dear teacher I know says, “It’s not that simple!” The larger practice of yoga includes a whole set of attitudes and philosophies such as those described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. We are called to practice with zeal (tapas, abhaysa) and detachment (vairagya) while also avoiding harmful (ahimsa), ego-building (asmita) activity in order to build desirable qualities such as discernment or discrimination (viveka).

Personally, I have found that the real benefits of yoga come when I faithfully, compassionately and mindfully return to my yoga mat day after day with curiousity about what I will find out, relinquishing any need to experience specific results. Perhaps this type of mechanism cannot be quantified.

How to Overcome Difficulties


I have a confes­sion to make. This is very hard to admit, especially since I make my way through the world as a yoga therapist, healthy-for-life coach, spiritual director, wife and mother.

The difficult admission is this:

Sometimes I am floundering and afraid. Actually, not just sometimes. Often.

During those frequent times, I­­’ve noticed what happens.

I’m in crisis. Anxiety fills my awareness – the tight muscles, restricted breath. As to what to do next, a million tasks and projects come to mind. Sometimes I just rush to do something productive, anything, to keep myself from spiralling into a funk of inadequacy and overwhelm. When I am able to be with the terrible sensations, my very capable mind frequently spins stories in which I am the central character: mistreated or overlooked, subject of hard-luck situations and terrible disasters, feeling like all is hopeless. Or I am the best supporting actress in a tragedy – struggling valiantly but vainly to allay the inevitable calamity that is oh-so-obvious.

When I am able to drop into my yogini frame of mind, though, I see clearly the human condition for what it is. The fear and confusion drop away. I am able to make conscious decisions that come from a very deep place with seemingly limitless vision.

It’s not that the situation has changed in anyway. All that has changed is my way of being.

The various yoga practices help be to get to my “yogini frame of mind.” Yogic lifestyle elements of proper diet and activity and daily self-care counteract the tendency I have toward blaming myself for not living properly and provide me with good physical health to meet daily challenges. Practicing poses and hand gestures helps me to fall into my body, breathe on purpose, get some oxygen and space in the tissues. Breath work and chant aid in meeting my mood and energy level and then balancing them. Meditation and prayer shine lights on how I dig my own ruts of discouragement with clinging to faulty beliefs (see Richard Miller’s Five Pointer Sisters / mistaken beliefs:, accessed 2014/10/06), reminding me that I am not only redeemable but infinitely valuable just as I am, and quieten my mind enough so that spontaneous wisdom often arrives on my doorstep. And imagery and intention help me to move forward as I acting on my new-found understanding.

Practice makes perfect, though. When I don’t practice my yoga, I am not so readily able to access the tools. So how do I continue to practice yoga, in spite of what seem like insurmountable barriers sometimes?

I like what Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, has to say about dealing with difficulty. One analogy she learned from her teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche:

IMG_1050Well, it’s like being in the ocean when the waves are really rough and high. They knock you over and you find yourself on the floor of the ocean with your face in the sand. The sand is getting in your nose and your mouth and your eyes and the waves are holding you down. But then the wave recedes and you stand back up and you walk until the next waves comes in and knocks you down and the same thing keeps happening. And each time you just stand back up and after awhile it seems to you that the waves are getting smaller and smaller. (, accessed 2014/10/06)

And blogger, Leo Babauta, says

I realize that I’m far from perfect, and that the guilty secrets I hide inside myself are no different than anyone else’s. You guys are just like me, in the inside, and while we all share the commonality of failing to live up to our better nature, we also share the bond of being able to start again.

So start again.

(, accessed 2014/10/06)

This profound teaching from Eckhart Tolle also sustains me:  “Accept whatever arises in this moment as if you had chosen it, and your whole life will be miraculously transformed.”(, accessed 2014/10/06)

Viktor Frankl, concentration-camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, made the best of atrocious circumstances.  He remembers, ” . . . I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom.  I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.”

And frankly, I think the paramount example of how this works is Jesus Christ’s entire life; it is a testament of how to carry on despite great odds, and multiple conflicting demands so that one’s life fulfills the greatest purpose.

So how will you practice your yoga today?

Helpful Yoga Tool for Headaches and Tension


Mahashirsha mudra is a hand, or hasta, position that has as its core quality HEADACHE RELIEF, although it can also reduce muscular tension from the entire body, especially from the neck, head and jaw, as well as generally reduce stress.  There are not many people who would not benefit from using this tool.

An affirmation, or sankalpa, thmahashirsha mudraat can be used with this mudra is My exhaling breath allows me to release stress and tension from my entire body.

Mudras are hand, face, or body gestures that promote health on the physical, psychological and spiritual levels.  Each one has its own quality.  You likely are familiar with non-verbal communicative expressions.  Mudras are amongst these but they are used consciously, and they express qualities that are difficult to communicate using language.

Listen below

for a guided meditation read by me from Joseph and Lillian LePage’s Mudras for Healing and Transformation.  I hope you find great benefit from this yogic gem!



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