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Neuroscience of Yoga and Stress Relief

Need a mental break? Turn to yoga!

What is the purpose of yoga?

Yoga is a rich, ancient discipline that has many layers to what exactly it is. In the simple sense: yoga was developed in India over 5,000 years ago, as a means of achieving mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Today, yoga is integrated and popularized in western culture as a tool of physical exercise, but its core purposes are still the same. The specific purpose of a yoga practice is up to the practitioner, and created to move past one’s own personal limitations. Through rhythmic breathing and asana’s (poses), the practice of yoga increases your heart rate, flexibility, balance, endurance, and strength to provide physical well being. Yoga has many mental health benefits, which we will discuss below. Lastly, yoga has a positive effect on a person’s spirit by blocking fear and anxiety, and enhancing feelings of love, joy, compassion, higher consciousness, awareness, and ultimately peace.

Mental Health Benefits of Yoga

These are some ways that yoga provides mental health benefits:

Stress relief: by incorporating breathing and relaxation techniques through practice, yoga helps to lower the levels of a stress hormone called cortisol.Improved concentration and memory: focusing on the present moment is a strong element of yoga, which helps one become more alert and aware. This creates a pathway to improved reaction time, concentration, and memory.Improved mood: researchers have found that yoga may be superior to other forms of exercise in its positive effect on mood and anxiety.Anxiety and panic attacks: through elements of mindfulness, yoga can help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, and help decrease onset of panic attacks.Depression: yoga can help address the symptoms and root causes of depression.Managing symptoms of psychiatric disorders: studies suggest that symptoms for disorders such as bipolar disorder, major depression, and PTSD, can be managed easier with yoga.

Neuroscience Research behind the benefits of Yoga

Being a neuroscience major and an avid undergraduate researcher, I really wanted to know what exactly yoga did to the brain, in the physiological sense, in order to create such great improvements and management techniques that have a positive effect on mental health. Many studies (on each of the mental health areas listed above) which utilized a control group of people who did not do yoga and a group of people who did, show that the group that used yoga as an aid in treatment had reduced negative symptoms of the mental health issue at hand. This shows that yoga is very beneficial. Now I wanted to know what exactly is going on physiologically in the brain! Neuroscience research on yoga is ongoing and fairly new; here is what I found most interesting:

Your brain literally grows – research presented at the Annual Neuroscience Conference in San Diego showed, using MRI imaging, that compared to a control group, a group of people who did yoga regularly had larger brain volume (more grey matter) in these specific brain areas listed below. The grey matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.

Somatosensory cortex: the part of the brain which receives all the input from the body.Superior parietal cortex: critical in manipulating information, directing attention, memory, functions in processing sensory information regarding the location of parts of the body as well as interpreting visual information and processing language and mathematics.Hippocampus: involved in memory and is an important part of the limbic system- the system which regulates emotion and motivation.Posterior cingulate cortex: an integral part of the limbic system, which again is involved with emotion formation and processing, learning, and memory.

Your brain releases good neurotransmitters (“chemicals”) – a “neurotransmitter” is a chemical substance released by one neuron (nerve cell), and absorbed by another. Neurotransmitters are vital in the transfer and regulation of information throughout our bodies and brain. Think of it this way: have you ever played telephone? Imagine a chain of 10 people; the person at the start of the chain has a message (such as, I see an iceberg!) and passes it on to the second person, and then the second person passes it on to the third, and so on. Eventually the message reaches the end of the chain, and this person elicits a response (tries to turn ship to not hit the iceberg). This is like a neural pathway. The people are neurons, and the message that is being passed on (ICEBERG!) is the neurotransmitter. See how important the neurotransmitter is? Without it, and if it is at all faulty, major damage could be caused. Anyways, studies used fMRI’s and EEG to show that doing yoga releases specific neurotransmitters, or “messages”, that help deal with mental health. These neurotransmitters are: GABA, Serotonin, Norepinephrine, and dopamine.  📷

GABA: release of GABA during meditation and yoga offsets symptoms of anxiety. Studies have shown patients who suffer from anxiety have less than normal GABA levels.Serotonin: this plays a major role in mood regulation. A deficiency of serotonin is associated with depression. Yoga and meditation naturally increase serotonin levels. Serotonin can also affect social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire.NE: norepinephrine is another neurotransmitter involved in anxiety. Yoga and meditation actually DECREASE NE levels. Increased NE = increased stress response of the body.Dopamine: This is found in pleasure reward seeking behavior. Dopamine is the chemical that mediates pleasure in the brain. It is released during pleasurable situations and stimulates one to seek out the pleasurable activity.

The adult brain has an element of plasticity, which means it can change. “Neuroplasticity” refers to the brain’s ability to change throughout life. The human brain has the amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells (neurons). Yoga induces positive change by increasing the amount of cells in areas of the brain responsible for a healthy mental state, and increases the amount of positive messages (or decreases messages of stress) being sent through all of our hardwired networks.

All of this “good stuff” happening in the brain during a yoga practice doesn’t mean yoga is always “easy”. Yoga can sometimes not be easy at all. In the words of Alex Korb, Ph.D (neuroscientist at UCLA), who practices yoga:

As a neuroscientist, despite my initial incredulity, I came to realize that yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful.  It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit.

The twisting of your spine, the lactic acid building up in your straining muscles, the uneasy feeling of being upside down, the inability to breathe, are all different forms of discomfort and disorientation, and tend to lead reflexively to anxious thinking and activation of the stress response in the entire nervous system. However, just because this response is automatic, does not mean it is necessary.  It is, in fact, just a habit of the brain.  One of the main purposes of yoga is to retrain this habit so that your brain stops automatically invoking the stress response.”

By staying calm, focused, and persevering through induced moments of stress in the body, your mind is re-trained to handle and move through the stressors brought on by life. I have been practicing yoga for three years, and although I still can’t master all of the poses, do a split, or sit in that pigeon pose comfortably… every single time I practice I feel joy, strength, focus, and an inner stillness/peace. The more I practice, the more these elements effortlessly arm me through any battle life may throw my way.

If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or curious about yoga, I urge you to give it a try! The YMCA at the A.T Still University campus holds classes that are free to all students.

-Navi Gill

D1, Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health

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