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This Is Your Brain on Yoga

Ashley Stern
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Sure, we all know that yoga leads to increased flexibility and strength, but these physical benefits are just the tip of the iceberg. It turns out that yoga has some amazing, deeply-rooted effects on the brain as well.
 
Exercise is good for us – that’s pretty basic knowledge, right? We know that exercise increases circulation to the brain, reduces stress, and makes us physically feel good. Studies show that exercising can also increase brain growth and retention of brain cells.
 
Cardio workouts release serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Serotonin decreases depression, while dopamine improves mood and contributes to that “runner’s high” feeling. Recent studies show that practicing yoga can have similarly awesome effects on the brain.
 
There’s a lot of talk about the mind-body connection in yoga, and that talk is backed up by real science. Dr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa has written a book on the subject titled Your Brain on Yoga. Dr. Khalsa’s book describes what goes on in your head after a Vinyasa flow yoga class.
 

It seems that modern science keeps finding more and more benefits to this ancient practice.

 

There are 6 main ways your brain changes from a regular yoga practice:

 

1. Improved R&R

Yoga activates your parasympathetic nervous system. Most people have heard of the “fight or flight” instinct. The parasympathetic system is on the opposite end of the spectrum and is known as the “rest and digest” part of the body. When this system is running efficiently, the benefits include lower blood pressure, better digestion, and a more balanced life. Essentially, this is the system that helps you wind down and relax.
 

2. Boost your overall intelligence

Studies have shown that a regular asana practice can increase the connection between the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (or GABA) and brain cells. Low GABA levels have been linked with both anxiety and depression. Additionally, the more cell connections the brain has, the better memory and cognitive functionality you will have. Thus, yoga might actually increase your intelligence!
 

3. Increased happiness, decreased stress

Your brain releases all kinds of good feelings after a yoga sesh. Scientifically speaking, that means that the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin go up. This means that you feel more creative and energetic while also feeling less anxiety.
 
Many believe that there is a huge benefit to doing yoga if you struggle with mental illness. While your happy brain chemicals increase, cortisol levels decrease. Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress and fear, and also decreases the size of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which deals with discipline and self-control.
 

4. Pain reduction

Regular meditation has an effect on the parietal lobe of the brain. This is the area of the brain which manages limb movement, understanding speech, and pain. A study in 2011 showed that eight weeks of a mindfulness and meditation practice succeeded in reducing sensitivity to physical pain. Meditation is a way that anyone, regardless of mobility, can utilize yoga and its teachings.
 

 

5. Increased self-awareness

Decreased cortisol levels aren’t the only thing that physically affects the brain after doing yoga. Both the hippocampus and the somatosensory cortex (the centers of the brain which deal with moderating anxiety and body awareness respectively) grow in size.
 
Other areas which benefit from yoga include the centers of the brain that help you focus on specific things and creating a concrete sense of self. What all these physical changes mean is that doing regular yoga could lead to increased self-confidence, reasoning and problem solving skills – all while being more relaxed.
 

6. Increased information processing

Other physical changes include increased cortical folding on the brain. Cortical folding increases the surface area of the brain and the brain’s efficiency. Basically, the more folding on the brain, the more efficient the brain runs. Information is processed more quickly, memory is improved, and decisive decisions are made.
 
 
While the physical benefits of yoga might be obvious, the effects on the brain are significant and can’t be found in many other types of exercise. It seems that modern science keeps finding more and more benefits to this ancient practice. As if we needed another excuse to practice yoga.
 

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Ashley Stern

A Wisconsinite at heart, Ashley is currently a student working on her masters in creative writing in Edinburgh, Scotland. She’s a writer, a reader, traveler, a nerd, and a lover of life. Ashley is new to yoga and developing her practice from her student flat. She drinks a lot of tea and even more coffee. She’s a dog person, wears lots of purple, and believes in Laini Taylor’s wise words, “Cake as a way of life.”

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