How Yoga Changes Your Brain
If you took the time to download this app you likely already have a pretty good idea that yoga is good for you. You may even have some appreciation for the relaxing, euphoric effects of a juicy savasana. We do too and can't get enough of this age-old practice for mind, body and soul.
But we're preaching to the choir right? So we dug into the scientifically proven research of yoga's many health benefits so you could let any yoga naysayers know exactly WHY we love this practice so much. It's not enough that it feels good, setting any bad start to your day on the right course, or that it increases mobility and strengthens the core; yoga ALSO changes your brain!
Here are 5 scientifically proven ways that yoga changes our brain.
1. Yoga relieves stress and anxiety.
Yoga is known for its ability to ease stress and promote relaxation. In a recent study conducted by Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and the Yoga Research Society, 16 healthy new yogis participated in a 50-minute yoga class every day for seven days. On the day prior to their first class, they were instructed to sit quietly—reading and writing—for 50 minutes.The subjects' cortisol levels didn't change appreciably during the sitting period; they showed just the normal decrease that usually takes place in the late morning. But when the researchers measured the cortisol levels before and after the yoga class, they discovered a significant decrease after.
In 1995, George Brainard, M.D., a professor of neurology at Thomas Jefferson Medical College, conducted a similar study. This study too, showed a significant drop in cortisol levels of subjects following asana practice.
The findings suggest that practicing yoga, even for the very first time, can normalize cortisol levels that are either too high or too low, says Vijayendra Pratap, Ph.D., president of the Yoga Research Society in Philadelphia. "My hypothesis," he adds, "is that yoga brings the body to balance."
2. Yoga decreases inflammation.
In addition to improving your mental health, some studies suggest that practicing yoga may reduce inflammation as well. Inflammation is a normal immune response, but chronic inflammation can contribute to the development of pro-inflammatory diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
A 2015 study divided 218 participants into two groups: those who practiced yoga regularly and those who didn’t. Both groups then performed moderate and strenuous exercises to induce stress. At the end of the study, the individuals who practiced yoga had lower levels of inflammatory markers than those who didn’t.
Similarly, a small 2014 study showed that 12 weeks of yoga reduced inflammatory markers in breast cancer survivors with persistent fatigue. Although more research is needed to confirm the beneficial effects of yoga on inflammation, these findings indicate that it may help protect against certain diseases caused by chronic inflammation.
3. Yoga may reduce the effects of depression.
Some studies show that yoga may have an anti-depressant effect and could help decrease symptoms of depression. This may be related to yoga's cortisol-reducing effects, as cortisol influences serotonin levels. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter in charge of regulating mood, as well as appetite, digestion, memory and sexual desire, is often associated with depression, as those that suffer from depression usually experience a decrease in serotonin production. Studies show that yoga may increase serotonin production.
In one study, participants in an alcohol dependence program practiced Sudarshan Kriya, a specific type of yoga that focuses on rhythmic breathing. After two weeks, participants had fewer symptoms of depression and lower levels of cortisol. They also had lower levels of ACTH, a hormone responsible for stimulating the release of cortisol.
Other studies have had similar results, showing an association between practicing yoga and decreased symptoms of depression. Based on these results, yoga may help fight depression, alone or in combination with traditional methods of treatment.
4. Yoga increases melatonin production... In other words, it may help you sleep!
Located near the center of the brain, the pineal gland reacts to bright light to produce melatonin, which, as you may be aware, controls our sleep/wake cycles. Meditation and yoga boost melatonin levels leading to more restful sleep.
Furthermore, Yoga Nidra, a meditative state of deep relaxation, has an extraordinary effect on melatonin levels, thus helping us experience deeper sleep. It restores energy and calms the mind, but it also re-programs the subconscious thoughts and habits that keep us stuck in a state of confusion and anxiety. Science has proven that that melatonin helps us to heal faster, prevents disease, slows down premature aging, contributes to better sleep, and strengthens the immune system.
5. Yoga increases flexibility and balance.
When we practice yoga, we're practicing creating stillness in our mind and body. By steadying your focus and increasing concentration while simultaneously strengthening the body, we develop a deep mind-body connection. There is considerable research that confirms yoga, specifically an asana practice, does increase balance by linking breath with movement.
A recent study looked at the impact of 10 weeks of yoga on 26 male college athletes. Doing yoga significantly increased several measures of flexibility and balance. Another study assigned 66 elderly participants to either practice yoga or calisthenics, a type of body weight exercise. After one year, total flexibility of the yoga group increased by nearly four times that of the calisthenics group.
BONUS: Yoga may also relieve migraine symptoms.
As we discussed last month, among yoga's many benefits, it may also help those with migraines manage symptoms. Increasing evidence shows that yoga could be a useful adjunct therapy to help reduce migraine frequency and a 2007 study proved that practicing yoga leads to a reduction in headache intensity, frequency and pain.
Researchers suggest that doing yoga may help stimulate the vagus nerve, which has been shown to be effective in relieving migraines. More on this at WithCove.com, making migraine treatment easier and affordable.
Multiple studies have confirmed the many mental and physical benefits of yoga. Need we say more? Yes, because the best part is that even practicing just 15-30 minutes of yoga and meditation daily is enough to experience the many benefits of this practice.