How Doing Yoga Affects Your Brain

We're going slightly scientific today but it's a very interesting subject.


The human brain is always is.


Over the years there have been hundreds, if not thousands of studies into the benefits of yoga. So, the positive effects of doing yoga are hard to argue against.


But there are always those that doubt.


Most of this is from a lack of scientific proof. Thankfully though we have some scientists who have devoted a lot of their time to try to bring us some over the years.


They have delved deep into the effects of yoga using the best equipment at their disposal. It's hard to argue against MRI scans after all.


So, here are 5 ways your brain changes if you regularly practice yoga.


1. Your Brain Gets Bigger


Yep, multiple sections grow.


We know this thanks to Chantal Villemure and Catherine Bushnell. At the time they both worked at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.


They monitored yogis’ brains using MRI scans and the results were quite interesting.

They found more grey matter—brain cells—in certain brain areas in people who regularly practiced yoga, vs the control subjects.


“We found that with more hours of practice per week, certain areas were more enlarged,” Villemure says. A finding that hints that yoga was a contributing factor to the brain gains.

Yogis had larger brain volume in the somatosensory cortex, which contains a mental map of our body. The superior parietal cortex, involved in directing attention.


The visual cortex, which Villemure postulates might have been bolstered by visualization techniques. The hippocampus, a region critical to dampening stress, was also enlarged in practitioners. Combined with the precuneus and the posterior cingulate cortex, areas key to our concept of self.


All these brain areas could be engaged by elements of yoga practice, Villemure says.

But what does all this grey matter actually mean for your lovely brain? Well, the thicker the volume of the grey matter in a region of your brain, the more cells are present there and thus, you can expect better performance.


So, in simple terms it allows you to have better:

  1. Focus and concentration Emotional and impulse control

  2. Be more in tune with your senses and self-awareness

  3. Improve decision making.

  4. Improve reward and consequence evaluation

  5. Be more willing to delay gratification.


2. More Feel-Good Chemicals Head Your Brains Way

You've probably heard of dopamine, and possibly oxytocin. These are the two chemicals that get rushed into your head when you have an orgasm.


Well, while you might not think it feels as good, similar things happen when you're in downward-facing dog.


We know this thanks to Boston University researcher Chris Streeter and his 12-week study that followed 34 individuals. Half of which spent one hour three times a week walking, the other did yoga for the same amount of time.


The results?


They found your levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) spiked. What does this mean you ask?


Well, GABA is a chemical associated with decreasing anxiety and improving moods. The study found that this rose in the yogis by 27 percent.


The walkers didn't see anywhere close to that result.


Combine this with an increase in dopamine and serotonin when you practice yoga and it's a no brainer. These help you feel more relaxed and make it easier to deal with stressful situations.


3. A Welcome Drop in Cortisol Levels

Cortisol is a very unwelcome hormone. It mainly pops up when you're stressed. When it does it activates the brain amygdala, also known as the fear center.


This shrinks the pre-frontal cortex, which manages self-control and discipline. It's the main reason why some people binge eat when they are stressed.


Yoga is kind of an antidote to this. Studies from German researchers in 2005 found regular practice caused cortisol levels to drop.


Everything about yoga, from the slow, steady breathing to the inversions, can help lower the amount of cortisol in your brain.


The study featured women who were wrestling with mental illness. They even said they felt less stress and less fatigue after three months of regular yoga classes.


Even after one session of yoga, they found subjects saliva contained less cortisol.


4. An Increase in Grey Matter Density

We're back to grey matter again. Remember grey matter is part of your central nervous system. So, we're talking supporting muscle control and sensory perception, like hearing, seeing, and memory.


The research found it only takes eight weeks of yoga and meditation to see a positive change in grey matter. Harvard researchers studied people's brains who participated in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program.


The study involved using a combination of meditation and mindful movement practices like yoga.


After two months they compared before and after images. They found the hippocampus had a much denser grey matter. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that kicks stress out of your life.


The researchers also made the predication about what this increase in could mean. They thought it could lead to more self-awareness and compassion. With improvements in memory and learning skills.


Overall, the researchers said these changes in grey matter encouraged people to relax more and enjoy life in general.


5. Cortical Folding Galore

Brain and folding? Yep, we know it doesn’t sound the best but it's actually a good thing.

The more cortical folds you've got, the better your neural processing is. You process information quicker, make clearer decisions, and your memory is sharper.


In the medical world, it's known properly as gyrification.


If you meditate and do yoga on a regular basis this occurs on a regular basis.

In the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA, researchers found that gyrification might even offset age-related cortical thinning.


In other words, you could keep a youthful brain for a longer amount of time.


So there we go, if that's not enough to convince you to get started with yoga, or stick at it, I'm not sure what is!

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