I recently blogged about the possibility that yoga, like good sex, causes the human body to produce drugs that cause immense happiness. The science behind this hypothesis is explored in a popular book and an interesting scientific article in Psychology Today, both published in 2012:
- Book – Meet Your Happy Chemicals by Loretta Graziano Breuning
- Article – The Neurochemicals of Happiness by Christopher Bergland
Breuning’s book focuses on four chemicals:
- Dopamine – the joy of finding what you want, which motivates you to keep seeking rewards.
- Endorphin – the oblivion that masks pain, which motivates you to ignore physical pain.
- Oxytocin – the safety of social bonds, which motivates you to build social alliances.
- Serotonin – the security of social dominance, which motivates you to get respect from others.
Bergland’s article addresses seven neurochemicals, including Breuning’s four:
- Endocannabinoids – “the Bliss Molecule”
- Dopamine – “the Reward Molecule”
- Oxytocin – “the Bonding Molecule”
- Endorphin – “the Pain-Killing Molecule”
- GABA – “the Anti-Anxiety Molecule”
- Serotonin – “the Confidence Molecule”
- Adrenaline – “the Energy Molecule”
Both Breuning and Bergland approach this subject from the perspective that humans (and other mammals) are programmed so that they feel happy when engaging in activities that are conducive to their survival. To create this feeling of happiness (and encourage this behavior), the body produces various chemicals during those physical activities.
Unfortunately, as life has become more sedentary, the chemicals aren’t being produced as much, with a deleterious effect on happiness. The authors suggest that certain physical activities can reverse this trend. Because Bergland’s background is as a self-described world-class endurance athlete, his focus is primarily on how these neurochemicals can be produced by athletics:
Endocannabinoid: sustained running produces a runner’s high.
Dopamine: the high resulting from setting a goal and achieving it.
Oxytocin: skin-to-skin contact, lovemaking, affection and intimacy.
Endorphin: strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse, and orgasm.
GABA: yoga is much better than reading a book.
Serotonin: actions that increase self-esteem and reduce insecurity.
Adrenalin: distress and fearful situations.
Based on these findings, yoga could easily be helpful in producing endocannabinoid, dopamine, endorphin, serotonin, and especially GABA. And there is a subsequent study in Psychology Today reporting that yoga helps produce oxytocin. That leaves only adrenalin unaffected by yoga, and, personally, I am willing to avoid the high produced by escaping a fearful situation. No parachuting for me.
The connection between yoga and oxytocin is the most interesting to me. Breuning describes the function of oxytocin as follows:
- When you have a good feeling about someone, oxytocin causes it. When you feel you can trust a person, or you enjoy their trust in you, oxytocin is flowing. The feeling of belonging, and of safety in numbers, is oxytocin too. Social trust improves survival prospects, and it feels good. The brain motivates you to build social bonds by rewarding them with a good feeling, and thus promotes survival.
The social component of yoga is undeniable. I have commented to several friends that I select classes to attend primarily on knowing which of my classmates are attending which classes. We visit some before class and often afterwards. And during class, there is a ubiquitous reference to sharing your energy with those around you, especially when the practice gets physically demanding.
Breuning says, “Touch triggers oxytocin,” and although our Lifetime Fitness classes don’t often involve touching, earlier this year I attended a special practice conducted by a master teacher from Minnesota, and preached lots of touching. First he placed our mats only a couple of inches apart and then twice had us introduce ourselves to our mat mates (the second time was to demonstrate how often an introduction is forgotten within minutes). Later in the practice, we held our mates arms and feet to help with balancing poses. And finally, after we were all sweated up, he had us give our mat mates a big hug. That is touching, big time.
I suspect the master teacher’s routine hasn’t been adopted in SA because many of my classmates aren’t ready for that level of familiarity. In lieu of that, for the past few weeks I have been taking baby steps in that direction by shaking hands with those on adjoining mats immediately after practice and thanking them for a great practice and sharing their energy. I believe that is oxytocin talking.
And after one especially demanding practice a couple of months ago, I mentioned to my two mat mates that the practice felt like a religious experience. That, too, was the oxytocin talking. And that’s a good thing.