I was once asked: “What is Yoga good for?”. Well, my answer is, what isn’t it good for? Sure, we’ve all heard about how Yoga could transform your physical body by increasing flexibility, building strength and stamina. We have also heard how Yoga decreases stress and depression. Research has shown that keeping a regular Yoga practice could reduce the risk of heart disease, induce weight loss, decrease cholesterol, and lower blood pressure. There is a growing amount of evidence showing that Yoga could slow down disease progression or even improve certain health issues such as: osteoporosis, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, fatigue, chronic pain and more. So I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised that Yoga could actually change your brain, right?
In the span of a few short days, I have come across a number of articles explaining how Yoga affects the brain, thus elucidating why Yoga could be so beneficial in improving the myriad health concerns we live with in our society today. I will apologize in advance for the “nerdy-ness” of this post. One of the side-effects of having a scientific background is that maybe I get a little too excited when it comes to the mechanisms of how the body works. If there is a way to connect my two loves, Science and Yoga, then my brain explodes in fireworks!!! That’s a good thing, by the way. =) So, here goes… Bear with me here….
Have you ever wondered why it feels so good after a Yoga class? You come out light as a feather and your mind is buzzing with positivity. Well, this article may answer your question. It explains how the physical Yoga practice of performing the different asanas (postures) actually affects the chemistry and nerve connections of the brain. For simplicity, they divided the brain into the emotional brain and the logical brain. They claim that the emotional brain is associated with activating the sympathetic (fight or flight) response and the logical brain activates the parasympathetic (calming and relaxing) response. During a challenging asana, mental focus is important, especially to stabilize in a balancing pose. This is where the logical brain kicks in, the side of the brain that encourages calm and relaxation. They also suggest that there is a trigger point in the neck and that certain Yoga postures acting on this trigger point could induce a parasympathetic response, whereas others trigger a sympathetic response. While it is obvious that postures activating the parasympathetic nervous system will help you relax, the postures activating the sympathetic pathway is important to develop your logical brain. Although, asanas causing a stress response may sound counter intuitive if the goal is to relax, the mental focus needed to keep balanced in a Yoga posture activates the logical brain. The logical brain is forced to work harder in order to overcome the sympathetic response triggered by the “stress-causing” asana. Therefore, just like any muscle in your body, the more resistance/challenge you place on it, the harder it works, and over time the muscle gets larger and stronger. At the end of a Yoga practice, not only your body, but also your logical brain has had a real workout! That is why you often come out of a Yoga class with the wonderful feeling of tranquility. Ongoing training of the logical brain leads to creating new nerve connections in this side of the brain, allowing you to progressively gain better mental control and focus. Strong nerve connections in the logical brain will keep the emotional brain in check, and in doing so, keep stress and anxiety at bay.
But wait, there’s more! Recent studies have shown that keeping a regular Yoga practice can prevent the decline in the gray matter in the brain as we age. It maintains brain volume primarily in the left hemisphere of the brain (the logical brain), where it is associated with energy nourishment, relaxation, parasympathetic activity, and group-oriented emotions. Hence, with increasing years of Yoga practice, one could progressively direct the brain towards a more peaceful and positive frame of mind. Click here for the article. Following from this, another study suggests that the protective effect of regular Yoga practice affects the areas of pain modulation in the brain. Indicating that a continuing Yoga practice could result in higher pain tolerance over time. Well, that explains why Yogis are so zenned out!
So, let me ask you this: Do you need more reasons to start your Yoga practice today? =)