While there is much investigation into the physical and mental health benefits of yoga, there is another aspect of the yoga experience often overlooked but known by anyone who regularly joins a class. This is the social aspect, an area that is now being given some serious study.
A few years ago, a study by Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, showed that activities such as yoga can positively impact people with social anxiety disorders, to ‘literally change the way people perceive the world’. The research demonstrated that people who do yoga regularly view the environment in a less threatening and less negative way. Yoga activates a key feature of our nervous system, what American scientist Dr. Stephen Porges calls our ‘social engagement system’, vectored by the Vagus Nerve through its effect of informing and transmitting signals of safety, trust, and relaxation. Safety, as Porges explains, is like the ‘preamble’ to social engagement. It gives us the sense of security to engage with confidence.
This social engagement system can be activated singularly and then reinforced by a group, or activated within a group and reinforced singularly in a feedback loop. By attuning us more to our own nervous systems, yoga performed alone can help us to more skillfully interpret and demonstrate social signals to develop a more connected and coherent orientation of self in relation to others. These benefits can be further actualized and reinforced by a group of other practitioners, serving as a grounding template for our interactions throughout the day.
During periods of leisure our ancestors gathered together to eat, play and relax–to share a common experience of calm and trust. Group yoga harnesses the essential mechanisms of such activities on our nervous systems. Moving our bodies together in a shared space, while synchronizing the breath and posture, can enhance our social intelligence and help us to feel more connected to the people in our lives. We can foster this experience of connection on our mat at home by activating our sympathetic nervous system through the slow mindful movements, breathing techniques and concentration practices of yoga. This science of the nervous system helps to explain the spontaneous feelings of goodwill and loving-kindness that we can experience during our practice even when others are not around. As Albert Einstein beautifully put it:
“Although I am a typical loner in my daily life, my awareness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty and justice has prevented me from feelings of isolation.”
Yoga, therefore, not only helps to build a bridge between the body and the mind, but also between ourselves and others.