Research has shown that changes that yoga and meditation has positive effects on the brain. Participation in these activities has been linked to better cognition and emotional well-being. 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.
The ancient practice of yoga
Yoga is an ancient practice for the body, mind, and spirit. It has its origins in Indian philosophy. Yoga takes a holistic approach to life and encourages equilibrium and harmony. H. H. Swami Sivanda (1887-1963) and Swami Vishnudevananda (1927-1993) were two of the first Indian yoga masters to bring the practice of yoga to the West.
Sivanda and Vishnudevananda aimed to ensure yoga was accessible to anyone whatever their age, status, background, or geographical location. According to Sivananda, “yoga is a science perfected by the ancient seers of India, not of India merely, but of humanity as a whole. it is an exact science. It is a perfect, practical system of self-culture.” Yoga is now the most popular approach to complementary health practiced today.
Traditionally there are four paths of yoga. Combining these paths fosters a harmonious interrelationship between the emotional, intellectual, and physical aspects of life. In the West Hatha and Raja are the most widely known and practiced and combine postures with breathing exercises for mental and physical well-being.
Swami Vishnudevananda taught five principles of yoga designed to improve mental and physical and spiritual well-being. The five principles are as follows:
- Proper exercise ––asanas work the spine and central nervous system and rejuvenate the body as a whole
- Proper breathing ––pranayama stimulates the energy reserves of the solar plexus thus revitalizing the body and mind. Deep conscious breathing helps combat depression and stress
- Proper relaxation ––a natural method for re-energizing the body and mind
- Proper diet ––the yogic attitude is ‘eat to live, not live to eat’
- Positive thinking and meditation ––essential for peace of mind. Meditation techniques help calm the mind and encourage focus
The euphoric effects of yoga practice
Yoga is highly beneficial. It has the potential to prevent mental ill-health and the capacity to offer its practitioners the power of immediate relaxation. Studies have shown that in depressed patients already taking antidepressant medications the practice of yoga was associated with improvement in sleep, increased emotional well-being, and a decreased risk of suicidal ideation.
Amazingly similar results have been found in people who practice mediation in association with religious practice and prayer. The positive brain changes elicited by yoga match those of religious euphoria. Researchers found that those who believe in God experienced positive brain changes when engaged in these religious practices comparative to atheists who experience no such changes. Yoga of course has its roots in religious principles through its popularity in modern-day culture more accurately pertains to its relaxation attributes.
Similar brain chemistry changes have been found in those who attend retreats where the focal activities are likewise centered upon prayer, meditation, and silence. Research has revealed that the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are stored in the brain after a retreat experience.
The changes caused to the brain by yoga have been observed using brain imaging and neuroscientists believe the brain has an amazing capacity for neuroplasticity –the ability of the brain to grow, change and adapt.
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Growing evidence for the positive effects of yoga
The benefits of physical exercise are well-known and supported in the scientific literature. Only recently have researchers begun to look at the beneficial effects of pursuits like yoga which comprises both a physical and mental aspect to its successful practice. There has been an exponential increase in publications relating to yoga in general since the 2000s. Now there is a growing body of evidence to support the positive effects of yoga on mental health and well-being.
The prospect of observing the positive results of yoga practice through brain imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), functional MRI (fMRI), single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), and positron emission tomography (PET) has led to a plethora of studies.
In a review of this research (Gothe, et al. 2019) 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).
The healing effects of yoga
Yoga holds great promise for combating ill-health both now and in the future. As general practitioners move toward prescribing exercise to combat conditions such as depression and anxiety, it’s now clear that yoga should be a key contender for inclusion in this non-pharmacological therapeutic arsenal.
There is great potential too for yoga practices (and similar behavioral interventions) to mitigate against age-related and neurodegenerative conditions ––the brain regions positively stimulated by yoga are the very same areas most prone to significant age-related atrophy.
Yoga is a low-impact form of exercise compared to more traditional forms of aerobic and anaerobic exercise, including sporting activities. This means it is suitable for members of the aging population as well as those who’ve sustained injuries. Given its huge cognitive and emotional benefits and not to forget the physical ones to the is a pursuit that can and should be practiced and enjoyed by anyone and everyone.
Continue reading about the health effects of yoga.
- Gothe, N. P. et al. (2019) Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature. Brain Plasticity. Doi: 10.3233/BPL-190084.
- Jarvis, M. (2017) Meditation and yoga associated with changes in brain. Science. Doi: 10.1126/science.358.6362.461.
- Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre (2018) Yoga: your home practice companion (London: Dorling Kindersley Limited).
- Yoga Journal (2010) New Research Says Yoga Changes Brain Chemistry. Online: https://www.yogajournal.com/meditation/science-of-meditation/new-research-says-yoga-changes-brain-chemistry/.
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Last Updated: Dec 1, 2021
Dr. Nicola Williams
I’m currently working as a post-doctoral fellow in the History of Science at the Leeds and Humanities Research Institute (LAHRI), at the University of Leeds. Broadly speaking my research area falls within the remit of the history of biology and history of technology in the twentieth century. More specifically I have specialist knowledge in the areas of electron microscopy and cellular and molecular biology, women in science and visual culture.
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