Why Yoga Leaves You Refreshed and Calm
By Inner Fire Yoga Teacher Jonathan Ivry
One of the special benefits of practicing yoga at Inner Fire Yoga is that the heat helps clarify and focus your attention. When you are dripping sweat and holding a pose, it’s almost impossible to focus on anything other than your physical experience and your breathing. That peaceful, “rinsed-out” feeling you have after a class at Inner Fire is not just a physical release of tension; it’s the feeling of having washed away any leftover attention residue.
I recently came across the concept of “attention residue,” in the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport. “Attention residue” is a term that describes what happens when we switch our attention rapidly from one focus to another. It turns out that even after we have turned our attention to something new, our minds are not as quick to catch up, and part of us is still absorbed by what we were previously focused on. There is a “residue” that lingers and interferes with our ability to give our full attention to the thing (or task or person) at hand. This phenomenon of “attention residue” helps explain that slightly frazzled and distracted feeling that seems particularly acute today, with social media and the near-constant demands on our attention made by our phones and other devices.
While modern technology provides new ways to command our attention, the problem of attention residue and over-stimulation is not really new. The ancient yogis were well aware of the perils of the over-excited “monkey mind.” Meditation and yoga emerged as practices to quiet the mind and harness the power of our focused attention. The yogic term “drishti” refers to the soft, focused gaze (or attention) you bring to a pose, or to any task, really. That is why after a hot sweaty yoga class, your mind feels light and refreshed, ready to go back into your life with a clarity of focus. You are more mindful of how you want to focus your attention, of how to use the power of your drishti in the rest of your life.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a diagnostic term which first came to light (so to speak) in 1984, describes a mood affliction aggravated during the winter before subsiding in the spring. Common SAD symptoms include increased carbohydrate/starch craving, fatigue, and/or excessive sleep (or changes in sleep behavior). In my own clinical practice, although SAD can be (and is often) accompanied by other mental health issues, it can also affect any average healthy, resilient individuals with otherwise no chronic mood signs/symptoms. Women and youth are particularly susceptible to experiencing SAD.
Below is a baseline self-care strategy I commonly share with patients:
Invest in a HappyLight (Verilux) therapy lamp, which mimics natural sunlight and comes in various sizes to fit one’s living/working space. A typical unit emits 10,000 lux, the equivalent of full indirect sunlight.
Take once daily a (ideally food-based) multivitamin, which readily contains B12, folate, B6, as well as A, D, & E. While the A, Bs, and E protect nerve tissues, Vitamin D (in D3 form) has been clinically shown to alleviate SAD. It is interesting to note that D3 is critical in healthy insulin functioning, hence carbohydrate metabolism. Most people already know D3 can be naturally produced in the body via adequate sunlight exposure.
The production of melatonin, our natural sleep hormone, is heavily reliant on the contrast between full daylight and the later onset of darkness. This helps explains how/why the minimal light during the darker winter season compromises the environmental (thus biological) “cue” for sleep initiation, and the lethargy that accompanies our disrupted sleep pattern. Yoga and meditation have been clinically verified to increase plasma melatonin levels in individuals. Having grown up in South East Asia, where sunlight is available practically year-round, I personally credit my own Hot Yoga practice to be one of the most helpful tools in maintaining baseline mood & cognitive health during the trying winter months in Wisconsin (since 2002… brrr!)
Note: Please seek the assistance of your primary care physician as well as any mental health provider for mood changes/symptoms that persist despite personal effort including self-care tips as outlined above.
LIGHT EFFECTS ON CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS
Most people function on a 24 hour cycle alternating between awake and sleep periods also known as your Circadian rhythm. Factors such as feeding schedules, physical activity and social interactions can affect this cycle. However by far, the biggest influence on this rhythm is light. This is why we naturally have a tendency to sleep at night and function awake during the day when the sun is present.
Your body reacts to stimulus. When you move into a hot room your heart rate increases, pumping more blood to your outer body parts and skin so that excess heat is lost to the environment and sweating occurs. You don't need to think your body into doing this, it reacts all on it's own to maintain a stable internal environment.
You can think of light stimuli in the same way. In the morning as the sun rises, light automatically stimulates certain areas of your brain to secrete chemicals that excite your nervous system to become more active and you wake up. As the sun goes down your brain detects this and begins to secrete chemicals that promote initiation of sleep. The Circadian drive to sleep is most pronounced in the early morning hours.
If your sleeping environment is bright from a light or television on, window shades open or maybe even the color of your walls, this can have an effect on your sleep, especially in those predawn hours. Make your room darker with paint or blackout shades creating an inviting 'sleep cave'. Eye pillows can even reduce the light reaching your brain through your eyes.
Managing your light and dark settings where you sleep can have a significant affect on the duration and quality of your sleep. Something to consider if sleep is a bit elusive during those wee hours of the morning!