by Catherine Carrigan, Honorary Board Chairman, Holistic Depression Network Author, Healing Depression: A Holistic Guide (New York: Marlowe and Co., 1999) President, Total Fitness Talk Presented at Emory University, April 29, 2000
I am very honored to be able to come to speak with you today, not only to talk about yoga, but also to speak about one of my favorite subjects – the heart.
I am always saying that once very intelligent people come to understand the physiological importance of the heart, if they are very, very smart, they will understand the importance of living their life literally from the heart – from the highest intelligence we posess, because modern medical science has found that we have a brain in our heart, a literal brain and nervous system of its own, and that the largest nerve in the body, the vagus nerve, connects the heart to the brain.
If your body were an orchestra, the heart would be the conductor. The vagus nerve directs the heart to direct the brain, so that the brain follows the heart – not the other way around.
Again, here we are at one of the top universities not only in the South, but also in the country. And very, very intelligent people who understand the heart know that if the heart is the conductor — if the electrical rhythms in the heart are indeed 30 to 60 times more powerful than the electrical rhythms in the brain — then we will be smarter, healthier, our hormones will be more balanced, our blood will flow more easily, we will even be more intuitive and easily access the flow state of highest performance in all endeavors of our lives — if we live our lives through our heart.
I like to say that I have put some of this into practice in my own life, because I have three rules for my business, which is called total fitness — No. 1, everything I do must be good for me and good for my students and clients, No. 2, everything I do must be of total integrity, and No. 3, everything I do must be fun. I am a personal fitness trainer, private yoga instructor, honorary board chairman of the Holistic Depression Network, and, for fun, I teach yoga about five days a week at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Buckhead.
I am also a very devoted student, and one of my favorite places to have studied has been the Institute of HeartMath in California. Their scientific research has shown that when we go into certain breathing patterns, and certain patterns of focusing our mind’s attention on the heart, we can dramatically and scientifically lower our stress hormones and dramatically and scientifically raise our own levels of DHEA, which is the master hormone of the body, sometimes called the Fountain of Youth by naturopaths. Because DHEA is the master hormone from which all our sex hormones and stress hormones are made, when we generate more DHEA, we can not only look younger and thinner and feel sexier and have more energy, we also have more gas, if you will, with which to continue our lives.
I will let the other experts talk about why stress is bad for the heart — I am an extremely practical person, and what I want to do is how you can activate this healing mechanism for yourself.
The answer, from my own personal experience, is to practice yoga daily — as Dr. Dean Ornish recommends in his programs for heart patients – and to practice the techniques of HeartMath, either through heart-centered meditations, and most especially by continuing these techniques by understanding the importance of loving what we do, of loving everyone around us, and of focusing our lives on heart-centered service to others. This, in essence, is why I love being a yoga teacher — when I teach yoga, I have to do these things as a matter of course.
Many people are afraid of yoga for various reasons, so let me dispel some of the common misconceptions for you straight off. One, yoga is not a religion. Hatha yoga, which is the physical practice of asanas, or poses, is exercise. Within hatha yoga, there are many styles – I always say there is no bad yoga, only yoga which is best suited for the temperament of the student. I teach White Lotus yoga, which is a vinyasa style, which means that I teach a very flowing and graceful style. My yoga can be adapated for any level of student. I teach power yoga to beginner, partner yoga and restorative styles.
Going back to the misconceptions, many people think they can’t do yoga – or they are afraid to make a fool out of themselves. I tell my students that part of doing yoga is learning HOW to do yoga! Beginners rush through to the end of the pose, becoming easily frustrated if they can’t get the whole enchilada right away. The experienced student takes the pose one step at a time, learning to be patient with his or her limitations, learning to be calm even in the most challenging poses. Take that self-acceptance into the rest of your life and you’ve really learned something!
Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty and talk about why yoga is good for your body, not just your philosophy.
Yogis say that the physical practice of hatha yoga benefits the body on 10 levels:
1) Circulatory. The heart. In yogic tradition, there are energy centers in the body called chakras. The heart chakra is the most important chakra, not only because its electrical activity is 30 to 60 times more powerful than EEG brain waves, but also because it is the center for breathing and balance, and it moderates between the lower, survival and higher, spiritual centers of the body. Specific postures actually direct circulation to the heart – especially chest openers like cobra and the fish, and the headstand gives the heart an actual opportunity to rest, reversing the blood flow and giving you a natural face lift. Even if you take years to master the headstand, so what! Inversions, such as standing forward bends, give the heart a rest and are known to calm the sympathetic nervous system and lower blood pressure. Yogis tend to have beautiful complexions because of all the inversions bringing blood to their faces. Unlike other forms of exercise, which mainly exercise the muscles, yoga actually gives the internal organs a workout. Many people don’t realize that the internal organs are supposed to move, and in fact have a natural rhythm of their own. When we tighten up, our internal fascia become restrictive and the internal organs are unable to move naturally. If people really understood how beneficial this all was, instead of going to the gym to lift weights all the time, they would say, “I’m going to yoga class to give my spleen and pancreas a workout so my blood sugar will be more stable,” or, “I’m going to yoga to give my liver a good squeeze so it can detoxify better!” Directing circulation to specific organs through specific postures makes the heart’s partners work more easily in concert with it.
2) Muscular. Yoga of course makes you strong. In fact, many of the yogis that I know are incredibly strong because they have exceptional balance, which means they have good core strength, meaning they have rock-hard abs and incredibly strong backs. It increases muscular efficiency. If you’ve ever tried to run with structural imbalances, you’ll know what I mean. In private training, the majority of my clients come to me with at least one major muscle imbalance, which would make even walking slightly out of balance. Yoga develops your muscles in a balanced way, making you more efficient, which also benefits one-sided sports like golf and tennis. The more muscularly efficient you are, the faster and easier you can run or walk. Need we say also that the heart is a muscle??? Many people say, “I don’t want to do yoga, I want to do aerobic exercise,” and I invite them to a power yoga class. The average 130-lb. woman burns 250 calories in 68 minutes of yoga. My regular yoga students are strong, centered, and very fit. Unlike weight training, which produces stress hormones called cortisol, yoga builds muscles without breaking anything down. Recent scientific research shows that different exercise has different affects on the body. Yoga is scientifically proven to lower cortisol, while still engaging the muscles and developing neurological integrity and efficiency.
3) Skeletal. Yogis measure a person’s age by the flexibility of their spine. I explain this to my client’s every day. No matter what your primary mode of exercise, be it weight lifting or running, rock climbing or hang gliding, the minute you let your spine lock up, the minute you start aging because tight vertebrae restrict the flow of blood and nerve energy to every major organ system in your body. No matter what your form of exercise, the benefits yoga provides for your spine make it the perfect compliment to do even just once a week. Yoga stretches every joint in your body and strenghtens your bones. After the age of 23, the venous supply to your discs naturally atrophies. Yoga pumps fluids to the spine, and may save you a fortune in chiropractic adjustments.
4) Respiratory. Yoga provides probably the most advanced system of breathing in the world. Research shows that yoga is beneficial for people with breathing problems, including asthma. Also, from research out of the Institute of HeartMath, we know that when people go into ujayii breathing, the main breath we perform in hatha yoga, our heart EKG goes into this beautiful, coherent, sine wave pattern. When your heart EKG goes into this beautiful sine wave, as opposed to how it looks when you are aggravated, anxious, or otherwise stressed – it looks like an earthquake — you produce your own DHEA and lower your stress hormones. One of the keys to relaxing an overanxious heart is to relax and deepen your breathing. When you go into this deep breathing pattern, you increase your alpha brain waves and you go into a flow state. Going into alpha is medically proven to get people out of pain.
5) Endocrine. In addition to exercising the internal organs, various yoga postures stimulate the major glands of the body. Shoulderstand, for example, and fish posture, which also opens the heart, are known to stimulate the thyroid gland. In addition to balancing hormones by raising DHEA through deep breathing and stimulating the endocrine glands, yoga also helps to balance the body chemistry by raising your level of serotonin. Again, different kinds of exercise are known now to have different effects on the body chemistry. When you are tired and depressed, you tend to have low levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Yoga raises your serotonin and relaxes and overactive and overstressed sympathetic nervous system – the part of the nervous system that tells you the dinosaurs are still chasing you.
6) Mental. Yoga stimulate the cerebrospinal fluid, bringing more to the brain. When you are stressed out, the electrical activity is literally stuck in the reptilian back of the brain. By stimulating the CSF, you bring electrical activity to the frontal lobes, where you can think logically, produce your own natural antidepressants – namely GABA. For this reason, yoga is great for ADD kids and hyperactive adults – it helps us to focus. In addition, according to research out of my book, Healing Depression: A Holistic Guide (New York: Marlowe and Co., 1999), yoga is proven to be more effective for healing depression than group psychotherapy.
7) Nervous system. Yoga releases pressure and impingement on the nerves and balances the spinal cord. Different yoga postures alternately stimulate and relax the nervous system. Sun salutes, for example, are very balancing because they alternately stimulate the sympathetic nervous system with postures that open us up, and activate the parasympathetic with forward bends, that close, calm and relax us. Many people ask me why it’s so hard to relax. Understand this — physiologically, it’s an uphill battle. Every nerve in your sympathetic nervous system is connected to at least 20 other neurons. Every nerve in your parasympathetic nervous system — the part that lets you know the dinosaurs are no longer chasing you, that everything is hunky doory — is connected to only 1 in 5. We are programmed to survive — not to feel wonderful. Come to yoga class and teach your nervous system how to relax. Studies have also shown that long-term overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system will literally alter your body chemistry. Dr. Dean Ornish says one of the best ways to activate the relaxation response is by contracting the muscles and then relaxing them. That’s exactly what yoga does.
8 and 9) Digestive and Eliminative. Yoga keeps the body clean through various postures that stimulate the largest organs of digestion and elimination – namely the skin, lungs, kidneys, and intestinal tract.
10) Pranic. In yogic tradition, the flow of life energy is called prana, or chi. Now here’s the weird part — it’s a scientific fact that if you have a vertical electrical current — which you do in your body when you stand up and you are vertical – there is a magnetic field perpindicular to it. At Stanford Medical School, medical researchers have proven the existence of what New Agers have called “your aura.” According to research out of the Institute of HeartMath, your electrical field can be measured up to 8 to 10 feet away from you. Each cell holds a potential charge of about 1.17 volts and the overall flow of current amounts to about 76 amperes. In yogic tradition, when you release the tension you hold down deep, you literally free up more energy with which to run the rest of your life.
Finally, I have found that practicing yoga every day brings us to have greater respect for our physical body, and no matter what our spiritual tradition, the practice of saying, “Namaste” at the end of a yoga class brings us to have greater respect for others. Namaste means, “The Divine in me honors the Divine in you.” Understanding the heart connection and what yoga can do for you is a large part of coming to a place of wonder and awe of how marvelously we are all put together.