Cellular basis of Yogic Asanas: How stretching of cells through Yoga helps your body
Yogic exercises are normally done to tone the body and the nervous system. Yogic exercises come under Hath Yoga system, one of the eight limbs of "Ashtang Yoga" as enunciated by the Yoga sutras of Patanjali. Hath Yogis believe that the body toning is a result of nerve stretching. This belief may have scientific basis.
Recently scientists have discovered that cells in human body change depending on how they are stretched. They have shown that if you pull a stem cell in one way it starts developing into a brain cell. Moreover, changing the mechanical stress makes the cancer cells behave like normal cells, by far the most far reaching consequence of stretching of cells.
The Yogic exercises of stretching the nerves and toning the nervous system affect the cells mechanically and, therefore, affect the body in a very positive way at the cellular level.
Till now the biological and medical community believed that, in order to know the behavior of a cell, one needed to identify the genes, proteins and other chemical processes and pathways. The biological community considers chemical processes to be of paramount importance.
However in nature, all the forces are taken into account for a system's evolution and mechanical stress at cellular level is as important and prevalent as the chemical process.
Scientists have also discovered that though the cells in human body are subjected to mechanical stress and strain in every part of body, their native environment exerts the maximum effect on their growth and development.
For example, a cell stressed in a certain way will not convert into a nerve cell if it's near a bone. The chances of it becoming a bone cell are higher because of the physical and chemical environment of the existing bone structure.
This could be the basis of Yogic asanas which in their innumerable forms, affect and tone the nervous system. Some like Pranayama, Nauli (gut wrenching), Sheersh Asana (head stand) and focusing the eyes on the center of forehead in meditation, affect the nervous system and can help in rejuvenating the body. Production of healthy cells is the most important aspect of rejuvenation of body.
For example, in the dhyana asana of focusing the eyes on the center of forehead, the optic nerve gets stretched by about 1-1.5 mm. This stretching may help stimulate the pituitary gland since the optic nerve passes very close to it before reaching the visual cortex at the back of the brain. The pituitary gland is the master gland of the body and its secretions help in maintaining the harmony of other endocrine glands. Moreover, it secretes the oxytocin hormone (also called happiness hormone) and almost all the sexual chemicals.
Besides the Yogic exercises, general exercise regime of running, walking or aerobic exercises may also help in the cell rejuvenation. The "high" that people experience with regular exercise, is not only because of the secretion of chemicals by the brain but also because of the cell stretching.
Similarly, deep muscle massage may also help in the stretching of cells. But it should be done properly otherwise cells may convert into other harmful cells. For example scientists have also found that prior to formation of invasive tumors, the cellular matrix surrounding the regular cells becomes stiffer. This stiffening could be the result of physical or emotional stress.
Thus the change in "microenvironment" of cells with stress may be conducive to cancer formation. Scientists believe that one of the ways of curing cancer could be physical manipulation of this "microenvironment".
Yogic asanas may help in this process. This could also be the reason why the Yoga practitioners have always suggested that some of the difficult Yogic asanas affecting the deep nervous system should be done under the supervision of experienced Yoga teachers, so that the cells are stretched in proper manner.
The author is the Director and Hon. Secretary Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI). He could be reached at (email@example.com)