Those who practice yoga regularly have seen and felt the positive impact its had on their body and mind. But what about the science of yoga?
Does yoga have an actual physiological effect on you and your brain?
Besides the fact that many people swear by yoga’s benefits, there are plenty of others who are curious about the logic behind the practice.
What happens to your brain before, during and after yoga? Let’s explore.
How our brain works
Our brains are wired in a way that is unique to each and every one of us. Throughout childhood and as we age we create familiar connections based on experiences that influence our reactions, reasoning and habits. Repeated over time these connections are reinforced until they are hard wired.
In science speak our neurons, are connected by minute pathways called synapses. Essentially, two locations linked together creating a brain ‘map’ of familiar and well-trodden paths between two points.
When you do yoga, something interesting happens to your brain
It is through our yoga practice of asana, breath and meditation that we can start to reroute some of these pathways creating new maps in the process. In turn adapting our set habits and hardwired reactions in new and positive ways.
In recent years, scientific research has demonstrated that yoga and meditation can promote changes in the brain which, in turn, change the habits and patterns we’ve developed through life.
Neuroscientist Sara Lazar, PhD, studied the science of yoga and its effect of yoga and meditation on the brain following her own experience of yoga as she recovered from a running injury.
Told to stretch more she tried yoga. After a couple of weeks, beyond the physical benefits, she found she was “calmer and better able to handle difficult situations, and indeed, feeling more compassionate and open-hearted towards other people, and better able to see things from other people’s point of view.”
“In recent years, scientific research has demonstrated that yoga and meditation can promote changes in the brain which, in turn, change the habits and patterns we’ve developed through life.”
Inspired by this change she went on to study the effect of yoga on the brain. Her research compared meditators with non-meditators using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology to study the physical changes in the brain. Her research showed that our brain makeup could change through yoga and meditation.
Yoga and how it tackles stress, anxiety and depression
In an article published in Psychology Today neuroscientist Alex Korb Ph.D. explores the changes that yoga can have on our thought patterns.
“Things you do and the thoughts you have change the firing patterns and chemical composition of your brain. Even actions as simple as changing your posture, relaxing the muscles on your face, or slowing your breathing rate, can affect the activity in your brain.”
Yoga has long been recommended as a way of dealing with stress, anxiety and depression. Yogic asana, breathing and meditation techniques can help us manage the fight of flight response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is constantly activated when we are stressed which in modern times is, unfortunately, a common condition for many of us.
By incorporating yoga in our day-to-day lives we are improving brain function as well as our physical, emotional and mental health.
How often should we practice to get these benefits?
Repetition and practice can make changes. The term for these changes in the brain is known as neuroplasticity. As Sara Lazar’s research found, “Whenever you engage in a behavior over and over again, this can lead to changes in your brain. This just means that the neurons can change how they talk to each other with experience.”
This idea of repetition is consistent with the classic yogic texts. As described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.33, Pratipaksha Bhavanam – we need to avoid those old paths that take us on a negative route and embrace new pathways, new routes that are less trodden in search of positive thoughts.
In modern yogic terms, as regular yoga practice becomes habit the more changes can take place. In a recent article Dr Timothy McCall, MD author of ‘Yoga as Medicine’ and well-respected yoga therapist illustrates this idea. “The key is steady practice. Just a little bit every day is enough to steer you step by step toward true transformation.”
“The key is steady practice. Just a little bit every day is enough to steer you step by step toward true transformation.”