Yoga and the Brain

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I have practised yoga on and off for over 20 years and without question, I notice feeling clearer and more balanced after class. Yoga has a rather lengthy history so it’s fair to say that it has stood the test of time. Dedicated yogi’s claim that it can improve your flexibility, protect your spine, increase your strength, prevent cartilage and joint breakdown and sharpen the mind-body connection.

What exactly is it that happens to the brain when you practice and why does it have such a profound effect on so many people?

It’s not surprising then that there is research underway to determine what exactly happens in your brain when you do yoga. Safe to say – your brain gains from stretching.

During your yoga practice, the brain gets flooded with feel good chemicals (neurotransmitters) – dopamine and oxytocin. Further, your levels of gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) spike. These chemicals are associated with decreasing anxiety, improved mood and increased relaxation.

As a result of the neurotransmitter-release your cortisol and adrenaline levels drop. These are your main stress hormones that can make you feel jittery, anxious or cranky. Studies have found that regular practice of yoga can be seen as an antidote to this. A German study found that participants with anxiety and stress self-reported lower stress symptoms and reduced fatigue after just 1 month of regular classes. Even after just one yoga session, it was demonstrated that participants had a reduction in cortisol on saliva test.

A study conducted by pain experts found that yogis can tolerate pain twice as long as matched controls! This was attributed to larger grey matter volume in multiple brain regions. Findings suggested that yogi, are able to recruit cognitive strategies involving parasympathetic activation to tolerate pain.

Research has also been conducted using MRI scans and control groups to visualise how the mind changes after practicing yoga. They discovered that certain areas of the brain were larger in yogis. Of note were the hippocampus – the area that helps to suppress stress and anxiety, the superior parietal cortex – the area that helps you to concentrate your attention, and the somatosensory cortex – the area responsible for creating a mental map of your body.

Additionally, regular yoga and meditation increases cortical folding, which means that you process information more quickly, make clearer decisions and improve your memory.

There are no studies to suggest that one yoga style is best to achieve these results. Perhaps the goal rather is to grow your awareness of how your body responds to stress and whether the type of yoga you try improves your mood, or overall state of mind.

A great way to try yoga or to re-start your practice is to find a 5-minute beginners practice online. Commit to 5 minutes in the morning or evening, at least 3 times in the coming week.

 Want more? You can contact me for some 1-1 person-centred coaching. Book a free clarity call to see how best I can help ❤️