By Cheryl MacDonald BA Hons CYT E-RPYT
The fact is that yoga actually makes you happier. The ‘love hormone’ Oxytocin helps you to relax and reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels. Yoga is now well recognised as one of the ways to encourage the body to release this amazing hormone and built in anti-stress mechanism.
When the various limbs of yoga are practised, oxytocin is released. Deep breathing warms the body, and warmth is one of the key elements that allow us to release Oxytocin. By taking the body through the practice of yoga asana (postures) we warm the muscles and joints, make the physical body more comfortable and relaxed. By then continuing the practice with savasana (deep relaxation) and meditation, we encourage the production of oxytocin even further.
What is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is that magical hormone that rushes through the body when we first fall in love. Oxytocin can take us to the dizzy heights of a love sickness that makes food and sleep seem so much less important than looking into the eyes of our new found love.
Some of oxytocin’s main functions are preparing the female body for childbirth, stimulating milk production and ‘let down’ so that baby can nurse, and encouraging the bond between mum and her newborn baby.
The hormone is also plays an important part in sexual arousal and is released when you have an orgasm. Its important in nonsexual relationships too and presence of the hormone has shown to increase trust, generosity, and cooperation. It can also create a nurturing aspect within males and females who are not parents.
Why does Yoga make you happy?
Yogic breathing (of course!) When the vagus nerve is inflamed your breathing becomes more shallow. Your body has gone into fight or flight mode and you have started to panic. Stop right here and allow yourself to breathe deeply. Pranayama (or yogic breathing) encourages to take time to just stop, and focus on the breath.
Pregnancy and motherhood can bring a lot of huge physical, emotional and environmental changes that can be difficult to adapt to. Taking some time each week to just BREATHE during yoga class, bringing your attention to the breath, focusing on the breath alone, not worrying about anything else, can allow oxytocin to be released and deepen that relaxation. Slow steady breathing is all that you need. Sometimes we get so caught up in ‘getting the posture’ that we forget to breathe. Check yourself and make sure you ARE actually breathing (you’d be surprised.)
Warming the body through the practice of Asana
It is important to warm the body before undertaking the physical practice of yoga (asana) so as not to damage any joints and to ease the body gently into the postures. This is especially important for pregnant and post natal women, whose bodies are and have undergone physical stress and growth over a period of time. During the practice of asana and pranayama, the body generates heat and warms the body inside and out. Extra bonus? When we are warm and relaxed, the body releases more oxytocin…
Chilling in Savasana
At the end of class, don’t just jump up and run out of class. Savasana, deep relaxation at the end of class is your reward for all of your hard effort earlier on. Learn to enjoy the relaxation, be aware of any random thoughts that go through your mind – and just let them go. This is known as ‘monkey mind’ (What will I have for dinner? What did she mean by that?) – acknowledge these meaningless thoughts and really take time for yourself – just focus on the life force – the breath. That’s all you need to do. And enjoy the scrummy feeling of the copious oxytocin rushing through your body. Sigh.
Why is Oxytocin so important for mummies
In a study of 65 women with depression and anxiety, the 34 women who took a yoga class twice a week for two months showed a significant decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms, compared to the 31 women who were not in the class.
Oxytocin helps birthing women through labour encouraging surges or contractions as well as providing pain relieving endorphins and an altered state of consciousness or bliss (known as labour land) that makes most of childbirth seems ‘dream like’ or surreal. As soon as baby is born, it makes mum fall in love in the greatest way possible, with their newborn baby.
In the first few moments after giving birth, a mother receives the largest rush of oxytocin that she will ever experience in her lifetime. Oxytocin flows between mother and child every time baby is breastfed which encourages bonding and attachment.
During birth we can encourage the release of oxytocin by making sure that mum has privacy, feels safe and comfortable, has a dimmed room and is left in peace. Yogic breathing and practice of adapted savasana during childbirth can aid the release of this special hormone.
Antenatal and Postnatal Depression
Yoga helps to balance hormones and stabilizes the endocrine system. By practising yogic relaxation techniques, we can balance cortical activities and the nervous and endocrine systems, reducing the body`s reaction to stress. As a result, the body produces less adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, (all stress hormones) and mum feels much more balanced and stress free.
Also, prenatal depression studies indicate clinical depression alleviates by half if only we can talk to a friend who listens to us and oxytocin is shown to increase when we receive empathy. The social aspects of getting out to perinatal yoga classes either before or with baby help mum and baby socialize with other mums around them.
Remember oxytocin is about being personal in ways that give our time together significance and shape moments of laughter and pleasure. Follow the instinct to reach out and strengthen ties with invitations to share together and enjoy your pregnancy and life.
There is ample evidence, that oxytocin and another hormone known as vasopressin are critical for the bonding process, especially as it relates to social and reproductive behaviour. Both chemicals help encourage bonding and maternal behaviour.
Cheryl MacDonald is the founder of YogaBellies® which specializes in perinatal yoga and natural birth preparation. She is the creator of the Birth ROCKS® childbirth preparation method and has trained YogaBellies® teachers across the world. Cheryl has been working with pregnant and birthing women for almost ten years. She is mother of one lovely three year old buy and lives with her husband in the west end of Glasgow.