yoga and the brain

The ancient practice of yoga, as well as mindfulness meditation and positive thinking, has been attributed with changing the way our brains work – and these changes are definitely thought to be for the better. But are there really any scientific data to support these claims?

Some researchers claim that yoga’s core principles and practices, including deep breathing, clearing the mind and focusing on the present moment, could have neurological benefits that alter the way we deal with stress and anxiety. Alex Korb, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UCLA who studies how yoga affects the relationship between stress and the brain. In a statement shared with Psychology Today, Dr. Korb said, “the specific thoughts you have may differ, but the brain regions involved and the physiological response will be the same. The physiological stress response means an increase in heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension, and elevation of cortisol and other stress hormones.”

How 20 Minutes of Yoga Can Change Your Brain

Other studies have found that yoga’s techniques, when practiced regularly, can help break bad habits, eliminate negativity and diminish stress. One such study found that just 20 minutes of Hatha yoga could help our brains function better.

The study was published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, and was based on the responses of 30 young female college students who did 20 minutes of yoga followed by meditation and deep breathing, as well as 20 minutes of aerobic exercise (jogging on a treadmill).

After completing the yoga session, participants were asked to do cognitive testing. They were also tested after the aerobic exercise. Researchers discovered that the participants scored better on the tests after their yoga session than the aerobic exercise.

“It appears that following a yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout,” stated Neha Gothe, study researcher and professor of kinesiology, health and sport studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Meditation Linked to Neurological Benefits

Apparently, yoga isn’t the only way to rewire a negative, stress-prone brain. Meditation has also been shown to provide neurological benefits related to mental health and wellbeing. Meditation has been linked to better quality sleep (which has its own set of health benefits), reduced stress, better eating habits, pain reduction, improved healing, reduced anxiety, improved emotional stability and more.

How it Works

“Our thoughts and actions actually change the chemical composition of the brain,” writes Zuzu Perkal, contributing writer to Wanderlust.com in his article, How Yoga Changes Your Brain. “When we practice deep, slow breathing, relax our muscles, and think positive thoughts, we are actually rewiring our brain.”

This is known as neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change its structure and functioning in response to experience.

There is a lot of information out there about neuroplasticity, and how we can harness it to make positive, healthy changes. Here are a few additional resources that you might find useful:

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