Yoga & the brain – 5 things you should really know about how yoga shapes the brain

I was first introduced to yoga back in 2001. My friend Hattie and I decided to take up yoga and found a Hatha Yoga class in someone’s home studio in Whitstable. We loved it! We were given a little workbook filed with cute little pictures of poses and space to reflect on how each pose made you feel. Of being in the fish pose I wrote that I felt

“free, swimming though deep ocean. Not troubled”

To think of my 14 year old self writing that makes me smile. It also brings a little tinge of sadness; “not troubled”. Well adolescence isn’t an easy time for most (any?!) and I am no exception. So thank you yoga for assuaging some of my adolescent turmoil, however momentary that might have been.

With all the other distractions of adolescence, these yoga classes didn’t stick. Yet they had planted a little yogi seed inside of me that was incubating, waiting to be watered and sprout. My love affair with yoga started in earnest about 2 and a half years ago. It was a time of emotional as well as professional stress; I was deep in my MSc research (about the effects of mindfulness and anxiety), feeling like perhaps I had bitten of more than I could chew, had recently moved house and away from my partner, was in the aftermath of dealing with my beloved grandmother’s death and watching my much-adored partner’s mother fade away as her cancer grew worse.

Subconsciously searching for a tool to help me process these feelings and remain poised, I became pretty addicted to yoga. It was the best stress management tool I had ever found and I literally felt that in stretching out my muscles I was releasing pent-up and negative emotions. At the same time as feeling like yoga was helping me to process my emotions, it was also helping me to get a handle on them. To have more emotional autonomy and equilibrium; it made me feel calmer, happier and more in touch with my heart.
Delving into yoga as a tool for transformation I would like to share with you 5 amazing ways that yoga can change the brain and improve our health.

1. The practice of yoga stimulates the brain to release GABA

GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps to calm the nervous system and relax brain activity. Anti-anxiety drugs like valium work by stimulating the release of GABA in the central nervous system. GABA is also the reason that alcohol makes us feel calm, untroubled and relaxed. It is the brain’s own anti-anxiety chemical and has been shown to be boosted by a whopping 27% after only one hour of yoga. In time, practicing yoga can increase the brain’s baseline levels of GABA and rewire our brain, helping us to respond to everyday stressors with greater clarity, poise and calmness. Who doesn’t need that?

2. Yoga helps the brain to release its own feel-good chemicals

If you practice yoga you will know how good it feels. You can walk into a class feeling stressed, angry, frustrated or self-pitying and leave feeling like you left that behind. Many studies have tried to figure out the brain science behind how yoga influences our mood and have shown that yoga helps the brain to release its own happy drugs; cannabinoids and endorphins. These neurotransmitters not only create feelings of happiness and relaxation, but they also help to decrease our sensitivity to pain as well as enhance the function of our immune system.

3. Yoga helps to increase our concentration and attention span

Yoga helps to focus the mind. This is experienced in asanas where the focus is on the present sensations of the body and the breath and is most noticeable in poses that require a high degree of mental focus in order to perform, such as balancing poses. The meditation part of yogic practice also helps to concentrate the mind. Studies have shown that regular yoga practice can help to increase the blood flow to the frontal lobe – the ‘newest area’ of the brain in terms of evolution and the area that is responsible for our executive functions such as planning, decision-making, problem solving, reasoning and mental agility.

4. Yoga helps to increase the size of the hippocampus

The hippocampus is an area of the brain involved in our sense of self. It is responsible for the encoding of our experiences into explicit memories; memories that are available to our conscious awareness. When the hippocampus is functioning well, we are able to integrate our past experiences – our life stories – into a sense self. However, acute or chronic stress and emotional trauma can block the hippocampus (through stress hormones such as cortisol) meaning that many of our experiences remain shut off from our awareness and do not enter our unfolding narrative of who we are. Through practicing yoga we can reduce our stress levels and help to increase  the activity of the hippocampus and therefore regain a sense of self-knowledge and greater understanding of how we think and behave.

5. Yoga strengthens the connections between different areas of the brain

The stress-reducing effects of yoga as well as the effect of concentrating and focusing our mind help to rewire our brains and promote neural connections between the various brain areas. The effect of everyday life and stress can cause the brain to become compartmentalised – to stop functioning as an integrated whole. Yet the integration of the brain is vital to emotional balance, insight, intuition, empathy and the regulation of bodily functions. This is aided by yoga on various levels. Firstly the practice of yoga helps to decrease stress hormones that decrease brain integration at the same time as increase neurotransmitters that enhance it.  Secondly the mindful attention to the sensations of the body and the breath help to strengthen the connection between various areas of the brain as well as giving us access to our gut feelings and emotions.


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