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The Neurological Benefits of Yoga
The health benefits of the practice of yoga have finally been acknowledged. In recent years, neuroscientists studying exercise have been carefully observing the breathing and meditation parts of yoga for their ability to ease age-related and neurodegenerative declines.
Neurodegenerative disorders involve the death of certain parts of the brain. They are some of the toughest illnesses to cure and have debilitating outcomes. Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases are some of the most common and severe neurodegenerative disorders.
Neuroplasticity refers to the way in which our brains change. Plasticity is a unique quality of our nervous system and plays a key role in learning and behavior. All brains, regardless of age, are capable of being ‘plastic’.
The brains of depressed and stressed people are different from normal brains.
Mood disorders result from a biological change in the brain. Our brains can adapt in significant ways and change for the better. This adaptability allows us to flourish in the face of adversity and is called “neuroplasticity”.
Eleven studies examining the effects of yoga practice on brain structures, function, and cerebral blood flow were reviewed.[i] Collectively, the studies offer promising early evidence that behavioral interventions like yoga promise to mitigate age-related and neurodegenerative declines as several of the regions identified are known to show significant age-related atrophy.
Modern research in the neuroscience of exercise shows that physical activity can invigorate our muscles and change our brain chemistry in lasting ways. Exercise such as the physical aspect of yoga shows promising effects on mood, attention, and memory.
Your physical effort will result in noticeable changes to the anatomy of your nervous system.
Neurotransmitters Influenced by Exercise and Yoga
Medical doctors consider yoga a safe way to be physically active as it has a low-intensity impact on practitioners of all ages.
- Dopamine: The pleasure chemical, associated with learning and euphoria.
- Serotonin: The content chemical, associated with feelings of well-being and memory.
- Glutamate: Plays a role in learning, memory, and plasticity (explained below).
- GABA: Plays a role in emotional processing. Gamma Aminobutyric Acid is considered an inhibitory neurotransmitter as it blocks certain brain signals and decreases activity in our nervous system.
Brain Areas Most Changed by Exercise and Yoga
- Hippocampus: Long-term memory. It exists across both sides of the brain.
- Amygdala: Emotional memory system. Damage to the amygdala is linked to intense feelings of anxiety and fear.
- Frontal cortex: The front part of our brain related to personality, decision-making, and thought.
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Depression, anxiety, and chronic stress were considered psychological diseases. They are now believed to be neurological disorders. Medicine defines neurological disorders as the ones that affect the brain and the nerves found in the human body and the spinal cord.
Neurological disorders change the brains of sufferers. Depression is related to errors in the production of dopamine and serotonin. Anxiety and stress are linked to errors in the neurotransmitters affecting mood and nervous system health.
Modern-day culture is primarily drawn to yoga for its relaxation advantages seen in the practice of meditation and breathing exercises, and in the stretching and strengthening movements that result from the physical poses.
Yoga Boosts Executive Function by Reducing Stress Levels
Executive function is the group of mental processes and cognitive abilities such as working memory, impulse control, and reasoning. They regulate skills such as organizing tasks, remembering details, managing time, and solving problems that are needed to achieve a goal.[ii]
Yoga participants show good accuracy on executive function measures and reduced cortisol response.
Yoga practice enables the practitioners to move in a controlled manner into physical poses that can be modified, concentrating initially on relaxing their body, breathing rhythmically, and developing awareness of the sensations in their body and thoughts in their mind.
In addition to the physical benefits of completing the poses in order, the breathing (pranayama) and meditation parts included in yoga are practiced to calm and focus the mind and develop greater self-awareness.
Now You Know the Benefits!
In yoga, a regular practice of control in poses, breathing, and focused attention allows us to have:
- Emotional and impulse control.
- Improved decision-making.
- Ability to evaluate rewards and consequences.
- Greater willingness to delay gratification when needed.
[i] “Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature”. Gothe, Neha P; Khan, Imadha; Hayes, Jessica; Erlenbach, Emily; Damoiseaux, Jessica S.
[ii] Merriam-Webster dictionary.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2020 Liliane Najm