There’s no question runner’s high exists. Scientists concur that a sense of euphoria can flood the brain after intense exercise, despite not knowing exactly how it works. Until recently, popular belief was that endorphins reduced pain and anxiety in response to physical stress. But new research suggests more chemicals are at play. A Canadian study published in Cell Metabolism this September suggests leptin—a hormone most associated with regulating feelings of hunger and satiety—may contribute to the rewarding effects of running. The brain’s endocannabinoid system may also help produce runner’s high, reports an unrelated German study published last month.
While there’s less discussion about a “high” after gentler forms of exercise like yoga, anyone who has practiced knows it offers a distinct feeling of bliss. Yoga’s immediate physical benefits include improved posture, blood flow, and concentration, plus, nailing a pose you’ve been working on for months adds a gratifying sense of accomplishment. Neurotransmitters, like endorphins, may contribute to the post-yoga “glow”—decreasing pain and increasing elation—but other factors may also be making you extra giddy.
One theory that explains why yoga feel so good is that it fulfills all five principles of the SPIRE model, a philosophy of living in which total wellness is a result of satisfying five key aspects of life: spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational, and emotional.
Yoga, with its philosophical roots, flowing movements, student community, and capacity to aid in regulation of our thoughts and feelings, hits all of these elements to provide an overall sense of well-being.
At a physical level, the postures in yoga help stretch, strengthen, and align the body. This aids in pain relief and prevention, and helps you move with ease off the mat. “The actual asana practice of movement and aligning bones allows the energy to move through our system a lot more expediently with less obstacles,” says physical therapist and yogi Harvey Deutch, owner of Red Hawk Physical Therapy in San Francisco.
The process of linking breath with movement also provides physiological and emotional benefits. Every part of you—your brain, heart, skin, organs, muscles, nerves, you name it—needs oxygen to function and survive. “Deep, expansive breathing—with exhales that last longer than inhales—helps oxygenate our blood and lungs and purifies the blood stream by eliminating toxins and carbon dioxide,” say Dilip Sarkar, M.D., a retired vascular surgeon who serves as chairman of the School of Integrative Medicine at Taksha University in Hampton, Virginia, and is a leading expert in Yoga Therapy.
The act of conscious breathing and letting your exhales last longer than your inhales can also affect your nervous system and lull your body into a relaxing state, explains Sarkar. Within the autonomic nervous system, you have both the sympathetic nervous system, which houses the fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which calms the body to conserve energy. When the body is in fight-or-flight mode, breathing is fast and shallow, but slow and controlled breathwork helps circumvent that stress response and provides a direct line to the PNS.
Once you’ve synced up with the PNS, you have easy access to the vagal nerve—the longest cranial nerve that runs from the brain to the heart to the gastrointestinal tract. Breath is the main way to signal to the brain to lower your heart rate and blood pressure. “Om-ing, chanting, and other vibrational sounds, also help you tap into your relaxation response through a pathway that’s connected from your ear to the vagus nerve,” says Deutch.
In addition to balancing your nervous system, yoga improves emotional regulation by activating a key brain region. “The effect of yoga primarily works through the limbic system of the brain,” Sarkar says. The limbic system is a complex area that controls emotions (including fear and anger), motivation, memory, and feelings of pleasure. When activated, “the amygdala and hippocampus send a signal to the hypothalamus and the end product is oxytocin and dopamine, which [elicit feelings of pleasure], happiness, and trust hormones,” he explains.
The physical yoga practice also prepares the body for meditation, which is “the therapeutic complement to yoga,” says Sarkar. In addition to making the body more comfortable for seated meditation, the physical engagement required by yoga aids in focusing the mind and reeling in racing thoughts. This, in turn, offers additional physiological benefits. “In a state of meditation, your mind quiets down, the thought process decreases, blood sugar and cholesterol drop, the heart rate slows, and blood pressure lowers.”