Yoga - the surprising benefits revealed

More and more studies are beginning to show that practicing yoga changes your brain. A review of the literature in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice suggests that yoga may change brain waves as well as structure. A group of researchers analysed fifteen studies examining the effects of yoga on brain waves as well as structural changes in brain activation following participating in yoga postures (asana), breathing exercises (pranayama), and meditation-based yoga. Studies included Magnetic Resonance Imagining, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Topography scans.

Why should we care? What does it mean for us?

Different types of brain wave activity are associated with a variety of different cognitive and emotional functioning. Changes in alpha brain waves associated with decreased pain and increased calmness were found after breathing, meditation and posture-based yoga practices.

Increases in beta wave activation, which is linked with improved task performance, were related
primarily to breathing based yoga, designed to achieve either activation or relaxation. Increased
blood flow to regions of the brain that are related to persistent focus and attention were
also reported.

Theta wave activation, which is associated with repetitive tasks, decreases in anxiety and increases in focus, was found to increase after both posture-based and
breathing-oriented practices.  

Yoga and Structural Brain Changes

There is growing evidence of the relationship between regular yoga practice and improved mood, memory, and decreased perceptions of pain - experiences mainly controlled by the amygdala. A study of yoga students found decreased blood flow to the amygdala only after 12-weeks of training, essentially calming the brain’s ‘alarm system’ and decreasing anxiety.

Other studies suggest increased brain volume (which implies increased activation) in the frontal lobes of yoga and meditation practitioners. Increases in the volume in the hippocampus have also been detected following asana-based and pranayama-based yoga practices. The hippocampus is responsible for the consolidation of short-term memory into long-term memory as well as spatial navigation. This is particularly important as reductions in hippocampal volume are associated with a number of degenerative brain disorders associated with aging (i.e. Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and dementia).

There is also evidence that individuals who had practiced yoga at least 4 times per week for 6 years had increased gray matter in the insular cortex. This increased volume was associated with a higher pain threshold.

Yoga may be of particular benefit to individuals with pain or anxiety, both of which are associated with alpha wave stimulation, which is known to increase following yoga postures, breathing exercises and meditation. Amplified beta wave activation and enlarged hippocampal volume following yoga practice suggest that yoga may be particularly helpful to prevent age-related cognitive decline.

In general, these findings suggest that yoga practices are associated with increased positive mood, reduction in mild to moderate depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress, pain, and improvement in physical conditions and illnesses that benefit from mood management.

Next, we will discuss brainwaves and what they are responsible for.

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