Yoga and Meditation: This is Your Brain on Yoga

Yoga and Meditation: This is Your Brain on Yoga
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Originally posted on The physical benefits of yoga are undeniable, and many people know that yoga is good for flexibility, posture, strength, weight loss and more....

yoga and meditation
Originally posted on

The physical benefits of yoga are undeniable, and many people know that yoga is good for flexibility, posture, strength, weight loss and more. What many people don’t realize is that yoga is also good for your brain. Yoga is a form of meditation and can be practiced purely mentally or in combination with traditional poses. The practice of yoga promotes relaxation and even beginners report feeling increased mental stability and clarity during and after practice.

Everyone feels tension from time to time and many yoga poses are associated with relieving stress and anxiety. Various yoga poses and the practice of meditation can be beneficial to everyone. No matter the source of your stress, the calming nature of practicing yoga can decrease the feelings of stress and anxiety in the mind as well as the body. The stretching of various muscles also helps relax the body and gets rid of muscle tension, which also signals the brain to unwind.

The idea that a healthy mind and a healthy body co-exist dates back at least 2,000 years, and the benefits of exercise beyond physical health is not a new idea either. The New England Journal of Medicine said in 1887“Exercise sustains and improves bodily health [and] may contribute to brain growth and to the symmetrical development of the mental faculties.”

An article by Harvard University indicates that practicing yoga can help you combat stress, anxiety and depression. For many people yoga may be a relatively low-risk, high-yield approach to managing symptoms. The scientific study of yoga demonstrates that mental and physical health are not just closely allied, but are essentially equivalent. The evidence is growing that a regular yoga practice improves overall health including your brain.

While no one knows the optimal dose of exercise it takes to maintain our brain health, it is not likely the answer will ever be a one-size-fits-all “prescription.” With yoga, as in any exercise, it’s important to listen to your body.

Emotions run through our bodies and take up residence, affecting our behavior and our mind in both positive and negative ways. It’s wonderful when the rush of emotions is all good. But when bad emotions take over, it can be hard to focus, get work done or even have logical conversations.

When we consider how yoga affects the brain, we look at how yoga can be a key component to psychological and emotional healing as well as resolving issues with self-confidence, relationships, family problems, work issues and more.

Here are some specifics about yoga and the brain:

  • Calms the nervous system. Yoga moves you from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system, or from flight-or-flight to rest-and-digest. You typically have less anxiety and enter a more relaxed state. As soon as you start breathing deeply, you slow down out of fight-or-flight and your nervous system calms down.
  • Yoga boosts brain power. Not only do yoga poses like downward facing dog relax and de-stress you, but practicing three times a week may actually increase brain function in sedentary adults. Just three 20-minute yoga sessions each week improved focus and information retention, according to a study by the University of Illinois. The study showed improved performance on cognitive tasks that are relevant to everyday life.
  • Yoga can increase happiness. Living in the moment boosts your mood, according to psychologists. On average, we spend almost half of our time planning ahead or contemplating the past. Yoga helps us focus on the present by providing both physical and mental exercises to stay in the here and now.
  • Yoga can help with cognitive decline. In a 12-week study, yoga participants improved memory and mood to a greater degree over those who did conventional brain training. Scientists from the University of Waterloo found that just 25 minutes of daily yoga can significantly improve brain function. Scientists found that participants performed much better in executive function tasks after yoga and meditation.
  • Yoga can stave off aging-related mental decline. A study of older adults with early signs of memory problems had better results from yoga and meditation than the equivalent time spent on brain training exercises and activities.

Thanks to sophisticated brain imaging technologies, neuroscience is proving what teachers and practitioners have known for ages—that yoga and meditation can literally change your brain. But what exactly is going on up there?

The frontal lobe is located near the forehead and constitutes two thirds of the human brain, playing a vital role in motivation and memory. It is the hub of higher cognitive functions used everyday to make decisions and carry out higher mental processes such executive function, attention, memory, and language. Here is some of yoga’s effects on the brain:

  • Emotional regulation. Yoga encourages self-compassion and non-judgmental self-reflection. Breath work and yoga poses help influence emotional regulation at a physiological level. The involuntary nervous system operates largely on autopilot; we cannot easily consciously control reactions like heart rate or how fast we breathe.
  • Cortisol. Yoga also impacts our hypothalamic pituitary adrenal or HPA axis by down regulating the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Research shows that even a short-term yoga intervention has a positive effect on endocrine responses, reducing inflammation linked with chronic stress.
  • GABA. A recent groundbreaking study was the first of its kind to look at changes in GABA levels as a function of yoga. GABA is sometimes referred to as your body’s “chill out” neurotransmitter that is involved in regulating communication between brain cells. People who practiced yoga were found to have increased brain GABA levels and are thus more chill. In fact, after yoga, our GABA neurotransmitters produce a calming effect similar to drinking alcohol but without the harmful side effects.
  • Increased gray matter. Gray matter is located in the cerebral cortex and subcortical areas of the brain. Decreased gray matter can lead to memory impairment, emotional problems, poorer pain tolerance and decreased cognitive functioning. People who regularly practice yoga have more robust levels of gray matter. The study also found a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, the area of the brain linked to fear and anxiety.

Yoga is universal, is for everybody, every individual, and every condition. Research is confirming almost daily that particular yoga poses and meditation can help relieve the symptoms of many ailments without negative side effects. Here are just a few ways yoga’s positive impact on the brain helps with numerous health issues:

  • Bipolar disorder. The Journal of Psychiatric Practice suggests that yoga can help people manage bipolar disorder since the extreme emotional states of this problem are often aggravated or even triggered by stress. People surveyed who had bipolar disorder called yoga “life-changing.” The synchronized breathing while getting in, staying, and getting out of the poses calms the body as well as the mind.
  • Immune system. New research published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine suggests that yoga can be a helpful way to boost your immune system and decrease inflammation in the body.
  • Migraines. While there are various contributors to a migraine, many are caused because there is not enough blood being supplied to the brain. If your migraine is caused by this, certain postures can provide relief from the symptoms. According to a 2014 study, people with chronic migraine who practiced yoga five times a week for six weeks reported significantly fewer episodes and less intense migraine symptoms.
  • Digestive disorders. Yoga has a well-documented helpful effect on the involuntary or unconscious nervous system thus addressing the brain-gut connection in digestive problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Yoga and meditation counteract stress, which is a major contributor to IBS symptoms.
  • Stroke and balance. A stroke or “brain attack” occurs when part of the brain stops getting the steady supply of oxygen-rich blood it needs. It’s the leading cause of serious long-term disability in the United States and oftens results in difficulty with balance and increase the risk of falls. A study in the journal Stroke shows that practicing yoga can improve balance in patients, giving them more confidence to handle day-to-day activities and potentially reducing disability.
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This painful reliving of events is a common symptom of PTSD, a chronic anxiety disorder that can develop after someone is involved in a traumatic event. A study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences indicates yoga may be effective in the reduction of PTSD symptoms.
  • ADD/ADHD. Studies and surveys show that yoga and meditation has been shown to reduce to the symptoms of ADD/ADHD in adults and children by upping dopamine levels and strengthening the prefrontal cortex.
  • Addiction. Yoga is increasingly being used in substance abuse treatment programs and throughout recovery to help prevent relapse, reduce withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings, and provide a healthy outlet to cope with potential triggers and daily life stressors.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder. Studies suggest that yoga can be of significant benefit to children with ASD. Benefits observed include increased social-emotional skills, language and communication, body awareness, self-regulation, focus and concentration and a reduction in anxiety, impulsiveness, obsessiveness, aggressive behaviors.

Compared to other species, humans have the largest brain to body size. Although it may appear small, and is on average a measly two percent of the human body’s weight, the brain is mighty and uses about 20% of the total oxygen and 20% of the blood circulating in the body.

With symptoms of stress and anxiety at an all-time high, people are searching for ways to take care of their very important brains and improve their mental health. Yoga is a natural place to turn, with more studies backing its effectiveness and people everywhere singing its praises.

Evidence suggests that yoga can protect the brain from shrinking, which is a side effect of aging. Researchers used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and discovered a correlation between increased brain volume and yoga. Older people who have been practicing yoga for years were found to have larger brain volumes than their non-yoga-practicing peers. The older yogis also had brain volume similar to that people much younger people. The volume was preserved in the areas of relaxation response and positive emotions.

Whether you are hoping to improve your memory and focus, combat signs of aging, improve an ailment, boost your mood or reduce anxiety, explore how yoga can help. And don’t forget—many fitness experts recognize that yoga is a valuable part of functional training. Functional training, also called functional exercise, focuses on endurance, strength and coordination to allow individuals to maximize performance of everyday tasks. Yoga really does it all!

Resilience, your ability to “bounce back” from stress, is not entirely something you are born with. Your “response factor”—the way our brain reacts to stress, love, challenge, and struggle—can be altered so you can break away from old habits that prevent you from being the best version of yourself.

Yoga is all about taking what we learn on the mat—deep breathing, softening muscles, clearing the mind, and enjoying the present moment—and bringing it into your daily life. These are the techniques that break bad habits, eliminate negativity, and diminish stress, studies have found.

How much yoga do you need to see results? Experts vary but most agree twice a week is good, three times a week is even better and a daily practice is the best.

Due to the growing sophistication of neuroimaging technology like PET scanners and functional MRIs, we now understand that brain structure can change over time based on what we do. Recent research shows that even aging brains can add new neurons.

With every activity, neurons forge connections with one another, and the more a behavior is repeated, the stronger those neural links become. As neuroscientists like to say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” As your yoga practice deepens over time, it becomes a strong new habit that can change unwanted old patterns.

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