Yoga is often celebrated for its ability to improve flexibility and mobility in the body while creating lean muscle mass and helping you find a few minutes of peace and quiet during a hectic day, but we don’t often think about how yoga can benefit and actually change the structure of the brain.
Recently, there has been an influx in research being done on neuroplasticity and how the mind/body connection can be activated through mindfulness and movement like yoga.
Although we all know how good yoga and can feel, we don’t all know how a regular yoga practice can actually change our brain and impact the health of our mind.
In fact, the practices of meditation, mindfulness, regular movement, and breath have been shown to improve your brain in many ways.
First, let's explore this idea of neuroplasticity.
What is Neuroplasticity and Why Does it Matter?
You may have heard this term used, but in case you aren’t familiar with the concept, neuroplasticity is the ability for the brain to change over time, and reorganize neural pathways to form new connections based on learning new things or being in a new environment.
What this means is our brains are always growing, changing and reorganizing.
Our brain does not stay the same and it’s growth is impacted by what we do on a day to day basis, which means we have the ability to change the makeup and strength of our minds based on our daily activities.
So how does this pertain to yoga?
Incorporating mindfulness, breath and movement, all of which you get in a yoga class, into your day to day life has been shown to change your brain in the following ways.
The Brain Benefits of Yoga
Activity Patterns Change and Become Concentrated in Certain Areas
When focusing your attention on one thing at a time, like your breath during a yoga class or your favorite mantra your mind will go from a more scattered pattern to more concentrated activity in areas like the hippocampus and frontal lobe.
The hippocampus is a complex brain structure in the temporal lobe that plays a large role in learning and memory.
It is this part of the brain that contributes to our ability to form relationships with others and affects our judgement.
The frontal lobe plays a large role in our ability to manage higher level executive functions including the ability to plan, organize, and monitor your progress towards a certain goal.
When activity is focused in these areas, neurological capacity increases.
You not only get more mass in this part of the brain, but you also can increase the amount of folds in your brain, creating more room for neurons and activity in these areas, meaning you are increasing your ability to learn new things, increase your memory as well as improve your relationships with others.
The Anxiety Center of the Brain Decreases
The Amygdala is the drama queen of your brain.
This part of your brain is responsible for activating your fight or flight response, as well as regulating your anxiety, worry, fear and pain.
For many people who have chronic anxiety their Amygdala tends to be large and overactive, meaning they are always under a state of fight of flight and can have larger pain and stress responses to triggers.
When you practice mindfulness, and incorporate single-pointed concentration into your life the Amygdala deactivates and over time can actually shrink, meaning you will begin to have smaller anxiety and pain responses as well as less fear and fearful thoughts.
The Amygdala is the anxiety center of the brain, and being able to shrink, or atrophy this part of your brain can play a huge role in one’s ability to manage their anxiety and stress.
Mindfulness Can Reduce Natural Aging and Atrophy of the Brain
Our brains, like the rest of us, are subject to natural wear and tear and loss of mass and strength as we age.
For many people, there is a steady decline in cognitive function as we get older, with most people seeing a decline beginning around the age of 45.
However, studies suggest that with regular mindfulness, meditation and movement practices the natural aging and decay of our brains can be reduced.
In fact, a recent study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that with regular meditation your brain can slow down the aging process by as many as 8 years compared to a control group that did not meditate daily as well as decrease overall volume loss in the brain compared to a group of non meditators.
Breathing Helps Quiet the Mind & Regulate Your Emotions & Hormones
Breath has been shown to impact the brain in many ways.
First, taking quality breaths that include your diaphragm and full inhale and exhales help to bring oxygen and nourishment to your brain, which is essential for its overall function.
Slow, regular breathing can also help decrease scattered brain activity, and help improve your ability to learn and retain new information.
It also helps to calm the Amygdala and reduce your stress and anxiety.
Slowing your breath can also help calm you and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and bring you a sense of peace and calm.
It is in this relaxed state that your body can regular and produce essential hormones for overall function.
Regular Movement Can Improve Memory & Overall Health
It is widely accepted that consistent exercise and movement can have many benefits for our bodies and health, but it has also been shown that regular movement can improve our memory and improve our mental health.
When we move our bodies, endorphins are released making us feel good but also helping us concentrate on the task at hand.
Many people report that they feel their mind is clear and they can focus better after moving their body.
Incorporating regular exercise and movement into your daily routine has also been shown to improve your body’s ability to create new brain cells and neurotransmitters as well as decrease the natural aging process.
It has also been linked to lower rates of depression and anxiety.
So the next time you are touting the physical and emotional benefits of yoga and mindfulness, don’t forget to share the neurological benefits as well.
Everything begins with the mind, and a happy, healthy brain leads to a happy healthy body and soul.