The Science of Why Yoga Quiets the Mind: Fitness Industry Hype Obscures Yoga’s True Benefits

Matt Nisbet


I had been practicing yoga for a decade, but it took an unexplained injury to push me toward turning yoga into a daily routine. I had spent a brutally cold winter battling unexplained nerve pain in my legs, which doctors after a series of diagnostic tests eventually characterized as related to “muscle tension.”

For years as a professor and writer, my days were spent at a desk chair, slouched over a computer. I always prided myself on staying in shape, taking breaks to run and lift weights. But now it seemed the years of sitting at a computer, pressed to meet the next deadline, had taken their toll. As I worked with a physical therapist, I began to notice that the nerve pain I felt in my lower legs appeared to be connected to chronic tightness in my hamstrings and hips, and this tightness would intensify after sitting at a desk and/or under conditions of stress.

I switched to a standing desk, which helped considerably, and I quit exercising as intensely as I did when I was twenty-five years old. But it was yoga that seemed to make the most difference. As I recovered, I carefully worked my way back to an hour-long yoga practice. After a few weeks of practicing each morning, I noticed that not only did my nerve pain start to subside, but my posture, sleep, and mood improved. In comparison to any other exercise routine I had previously done, yoga was far more effective at putting my mind and body at ease. Yoga helped me become “non-reactive” to any pain I might be feeling, fending off resulting feelings of anticipation and worry, which by inducing stress would often result in increased pain.

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