Monday, October 19, 2015

Why the Brain Loves Yoga

by Bethany Cleg

Yoga isn’t just for the body: it has a physical impact on the brain on well.

Studies found that yogis’ brains have a greater volume than those of people who don’t practice yoga. The areas affected include the somatosensory cortex, which is the part of the brain that develops a mental map of the body; the visual cortex, which is in charge of synthesizing information from the eyes; the superior parietal cortex, which is in charge of directing attention; the precuneus and the posterior cingulated cortex, which are main players in developing self conceptualization; and the hippocampus, which is vital in dealing with stressors. So, yoga increases the brain’s ability to form a mental map of the body, synthesize visual information, focus attention, have a strong sense of self, and deal with stress.

The effects don’t stop there: the frontal lobe is “purified” during yoga, particularly during the breathing techniques used in yoga. The focus required during breathing exercises strengthens and relaxes the frontal lobe. This is the part of the brain is in charge of personality, behavior, planning, abstract thinking and discriminating.

At the back of the frontal lobe is the prefrontal cortex. Studies done using EEG show that a regular meditative practice in a person’s life improves the communication between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain. This part of the brain is one of the most evolved parts of the brain; it’s in charge of concentration, creativity, rational thinking, and happiness. These things are arguably the elements that separate humans from other animals. Some might even say that this is the part of the brain where the “soul” resides.

In terms of the exercise element alone, yoga improves brain health because exercise stimulates the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in regulating sleep cycles, appetite, and mood. Depression is often linked to low levels of serotonin; this means that regular exercise can help in combating depression.

Another depression-influencing neurotransmitter, GABA, is shown to decrease with regular yoga practices, which in turn reduces depression.

Exercise in general is beneficial for brain health; yoga goes a step further by incorporating breathing techniques, mindfulness, and an element of spirituality.

Because yoga isn’t an activity that produces a lot of sweat, it’s easy enough to don “athleisure” attire and squeeze some yoga into your daily routine wherever you can. Short yoga sessions can be done before heading off to work, on lunch break, or before bed. Studies show that a 20-minute session improves information retention and focus. As far as physical health benefits, 12 minutes of yoga every day helps keep the immune system from flaring up unnecessarily.

A study conducted in 2010 found that 30 minutes of meditation a day decreased the size of the amygdala. The amygdale plays a key role in fear and anxiety. The study also showed an increase in the size of the hippocampus, improving the ability to form memories.

The brain is happiest when life is being lived in the moment. This is the cornerstone of yoga — by way of a practice called “mindfulness” — which means that yoga increases happiness.

Mindfulness-focused yoga is proven to reduce sensitivity to pain. The effect is so dramatic that it has better results than morphine. Mindfulness is characterized by focusing on the body, really feeling it — how the feet feel against the ground, how the back feels pressed into a chair or into the floor, how the chest rises and falls with each breath — and keeping the mind and thoughts in the moment. Mindfulness means thinking about what is happening in the immediate, not in the past or future. This ability to retreat into the body and engage the mind directly with it is invaluable, and it is a practice being embraced by yogis and therapists alike because of its restorative properties.

Yoga engages the body, mind, and spirit. By connecting the three and combining them in one activity — improving physical health, brain health, and emotional health — yoga balances all realms of human existence. A person who gives equal attention to these three elements gives themselves a well-rounded life, and yoga is the best way to do that.

Bethany Cleg is a small business owner at Bethany Cleg Photography. She is an avid writer, photographer, and tech geek. When she's not writing or taking pictures, you'll find her hiking with her family.

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