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How does yoga work? Is there a benefit to doing a bunch of postures, breathing, and meditation techniques while being crammed in a room full of Lululemon Athletica? A group of interdisciplinary researchers gathered at Kripalu Yoga center to discuss the potential mechanisms associated with yoga practice in contemporary settings, while also acknowledging the traditional, historical framework of ethically-motivated practices.
The manuscript (LINK) specifically poses a novel theoretical model of the potential self-regulatory mechanisms by which yoga facilitates adaptive reactions to physical and mental stress.
To give you a sense of what this model is depicting, I summarize below:
This systems network model includes the major limbs of yoga, represented as a skillset of four process tools: ethics, meditation, breath regulation, and sustained postures. As depicted in the model, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and autonomic output in response to a stressor is modulated by a number of regulatory processes (yellow boxes) proposed to be influenced by the process tools (limbs of yoga, blue boxes). A stress response is often accompanied by cognitive, emotional, and behavioral output that includes emotional reactivity, negative appraisal, and rumination. In addition, autonomic output such as vasoconstriction, pain and/or tension, and inflammation often accompany maladaptive stress responses; (see solid black arrows). In chronic forms of such stress responses, negative, long-term consequences on health across bodily systems are often the result.
Our model proposes that yoga facilitates adaptive output (dotted lines), including long-term psychological and physical well-being, musculoskeletal strengthening, and prosocial behavior, through four primary factors in the context of stress: (1) an emphasis on interoception (body awareness) and bottom-up input (processing of information coming from the external and internal senses), (2) more efficient bidirectional feedback and integration with top-down (cognitive) processes, (3) increased phasic inhibition (red lines) of maladaptive forms of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral output (e.g., reactivity, negative appraisal, rumination) as well as autonomic output (e.g., vaso- and pulmonary constriction, inflammation, and muscle tension/pain), and (4) perceptual inference (using perceptual information from the body) rather than active inference (cognitive processing) for improved prediction (of the world) and Error Correction (less bias from previous mental habits). These four factors optimize self-regulation and improve the communication and flexibility by which top-down and bottom-up processes inform behavioral output in the context of physical and emotional stress. Through repeated yoga practice, there is a resulting skillful optimization of autonomic control in response to stressors on and off the yoga mat – keeping arousal at lower levels during stress-mediated challenge, maintaining positive appraisal and reinforcement, helping the practitioner stay relaxed with less effort, and facilitating rapid recovery of bodily systems under stress. A number of cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and autonomic mechanisms are proposed along with the underlying high- and low-level brain networks that support such mechanisms.
The takehome point: Yoga facilitates improved stress response modulation on and off the mat.
Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, & Self-Transcendence (S-ART): A Framework for Understanding the Neurobiological Mechanisms of Mindfulness
I wanted to take this space-time to introduce you to an integrative systems-based neurobiological model and theoretical framework for understanding the mechanisms by which mindfulness functions to reduce attention-specific and affective biases related to self processing and creates a sustainable healthy mind. The model attempts to integrate findings from the extant empirical literature related to mindfulness with our growing understanding of the mechanisms for neurocognition and with traditional Buddhist systems from which contemporary practices of mindfulness originate. The paper in which this framework and model are discussed at length was recently published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. [Link]
Our method for understanding mindfulness has been to focus broadly on the goals of mindfulness as it is described in the early Buddhist suttas and in the Western medical model: To decrease mental suffering and create a sustainable healthy mind. In this context, we operationalize mindfulness in two ways: 1) As a broadly defined method for developing self-awareness, self-regulation and self-transcendence (S-ART); 2) As a continuous discriminative attentional capacity.
Our second formulation is one critical skill in a multidimentional skillset that is developed and strengthened through specific meditation practices. Other skills are described to function along with mindfulness to support S-ART.
To be clear, this is in no way a new definition that is meant to disparage Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s widely disseminated description: “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” – but more so an attempt to dismantle the concept into component parts so that we can better study it in the laboratory.
I discuss the framework in a recent talk given at the 23rd annual Trauma Conference in Boston, MA
The lay press for this theoretical framework can be found at:
Psych Central [Link]
Science Daily [Link]
Boston Globe [Link]
Medical Express [Link]