Staying sharp and focused improves your productivity in work and life. With better presence of mind, your relationships get better. The improved efficiency enables you to excel, encouraging a more fulfilling life. So how do you remain sharp, focused and present? How do you maintain better well-being? To do this, it starts with maintaining good health - physical, emotional and mental health. And, the answer to that lies in yoga, a practice that is so powerful that it even benefits the brain.
What science says about how yoga benefits the brain
Research has shown that yoga and meditation has a positive, calming effect on the brain. Yoga triggers the release of chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurochemical responsible for regulating nerve activity. The good news is that heightened levels of GABA lead to positive changes in mood.
According to new research published, yoga can enhance your brain function and positively affect the structure of your brain. It is said you can achieve brain-boosting benefits by practicing yoga just one to two times per week. Researchers looked at 11 previous studies that focused on the relationship between yoga and brain health. There were two types of research - investigations that had participants with no yoga background taking up the practice over a period of 10 to 24 weeks and studies that measured brain differences between individuals who regularly practiced yoga and those who didn’t, with all studies focusing on Hatha yoga as the style and drawing emphasis on the body, breath and mind.
Results showed that yoga practitioners showed more gray matter volume in their brains—which has been linked to better mental function, particularly during aging. More cortical thickness was noted, another plus when it comes to brain structure since it’s linked to higher intelligence. Furthermore studies have found that yoga is associated with benefiting parts of the brain associated with mood, leading to better emotional well - being and proving to be beneficial for depressed individuals.
With regular yoga practice and taking the time to immerse oneself in self-care activities, feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin are stored in the brain. There is immense evidence of yoga’s impact on mental health and its capacity for immediate relaxation. Research also found that the positive effects of yoga practice were seen in several areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the cingulate cortex, and brain networks, including the default mode network (DMN). This shows us the significant impact yoga has on the brain.
Benefits of yoga for the brain
Yoga Increases Gray Matter Density
The brain is largely made up of white (60%) and gray matter (40%). Both are important for healthy cognitive functioning. Gray matter consists of brain cells or neurons. While it’s called gray matter, in reality, it is pink in color because blood is continuously flowing through it. Due to its concentration of neurons, gray matter is responsible for many of your brain’s functions, including learning skills and memory. It is also responsible for the functionality of interpreting your senses of sight, hearing, smell, and touch. Additionally, it affects your muscle control and self-awareness.
White matter connects different sections of the brain by allowing areas of your brain to send and receive signals to one another. As such, healthy white matter allows your brain to coordinate your thoughts as well as your movements. Both matters complement each other, with yoga increasing gray matter volume in the hippocampus and frontal sections of the brain. General intelligence is known to be associated with the volume of gray matter in that specific area of the brain. The thicker the volume of the gray matter in a region of your brain, the more cells are present there and thus, the more likely to perform better.
Yoga reduces stress
Yoga helps you relax and release stress. This is because during the practice the brain releases all sorts of chemicals that not only help you relax but also lower your stress and anxiety levels including, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. All of them work towards calming you down and improving your mood. In fact, GABA controls how much fear, stress, anxiety or nervousness you’ll feel. Furthermore, the hormones mentioned are all happy hormones (dopamine makes you feel rewarded and serotonin reduces tension) that reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
Allows the brain to slow down and rest
Also associated with stress release, yoga allows your brain to slow down and rest. This is because it influences your frontal lobe, the most advanced part of your brain that is responsible for most of the thinking, planning, and reasoning. Additionally, it plays a role in self-awareness and emotional regulation. The brain is always racing when you are in a difficult situation or facing a concern. During yoga, the frontal lobe relaxes. Yoga also causes the parietal lobe to slow down. This is the section that handles incoming information from the senses. The senses, as you know, are always working and observing unless you’re doing a practice like meditation.
Further to this, yoga has a positive impact on parts of the brain associated with anxiety by impacting the amygdala, the section responsible for emotions. Yoga has a positive impact on the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for things like language, reasoning, perception, information processing, memory, and voluntary movement.
Regular yoga practice thus influences the brain in an impactful and positive way. The various areas that are responsible for emotional well-being, focus and concentration, self-awareness, rest and relaxation and overall intelligence and functioning get a break, stimulated or nourished during the practice and have lasting effects.
The best way to improve brain health is to join a regular live yoga class with experienced teachers who will guide you in the right way, and teach you the various yoga practices that benefit the brain.