"When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love." Marcus Aurelius
Yoga is an ancient practice that has been praised over the years, thanks to the many emotional, physical and neurological benefits that it has. But, are all these positive attributions for real, or are they just placebo effects? In this article, we decided to put some science behind th
is popular practice.
The practice of yoga has become very popular among the U.S population. This ancient technique that involves stretching exercises called asanas and meditation is practiced by, at least, 36 million Americans. These numbers are overwhelmingly growing due to the high amount of physical, mental, and health benefits that yoga practitioners enjoy1.
By now, you’re probably aware of the physical benefits of practicing yoga: with one or two sessions per week, you can ease stress while relieving some of the back pain suffered from being attached to a desk every single day2.
On the other hand, yoga can also help you to lower your body's inflammation, like several studies demonstrate. In a study in 2015, a group of women who practice Hatha Yoga for 90 minutes each week witnessed the drop of C-reactive concentration in their blood – substance-related with pain and inflammation – in just 16 weeks straight.
Yoga, along with meditation sessions, can also improve your calm while decreasing your stress levels. You will not only be more flexible and vibrant but also more relaxed and joyful.
Yoga practice: the science behind it
Since the practice of yoga is very wide – yoga has many disciplines and practices, according to your needs, physical conditions and desires – for doctors and researchers it was very important to understand and determine how these disciplines produce all these incredible benefits.
For example, in 2013, a group of researchers with the help of an MRI scan decided to determine the benefits of yoga practice on your brain. As they discovered, people who invest more days and hours into yoga practice experienced the enlargement or growth of specific zones of the brain that made the participants of the study feel calmer and enjoy a relaxed mind3.
The cited brain areas were the somatosensory cortex, which contains a mental map of our body, the superior parietal cortex, involved in directing attention, and the visual cortex, which might have been bolstered by visualization techniques. The hippocampus, a region critical to dampening stress, was also enlarged in practitioners, as were the precuneus and the posterior cingulate cortex, areas key to our concept of self.
Yoga practitioners enjoy many benefits that you can enjoy too.
Thanks to the research dedicated to yoga, we can affirm that the regular practice of yoga will help you to develop brain areas and qualities that you might never develop without it.
Below is a list of the most important brain benefits you can enjoy once you begin your yoga practice:
1. Yoga improves your cognition skills
Yoga practice has been related to improving the brain the same way as aerobic exercises, which means it helps you to improve your cognitive performance, attention, and memory4.
In this research, scientists reviewed another 11 studies related to yoga benefits in the brain, and the result was that yoga appears to have a positive impact in the key areas responsible for memory, information processing, and emotional regulation, which are the hippocampus, amygdala, cingulate, and prefrontal cortexes respectively.
2. Improves the way your brain manages pain
Your pain tolerance increases when you practice yoga and meditation regularly5. A study conducted by a group of pain experts concluded that yoga practitioners could tolerate pain as much as twice as long as regular people.
This is because yoga practitioners developed a greater volume of insular gray matter, which is also related to the regulation of body temperature, perception, and self-awareness. Practicing yoga is beneficial because it contributes to the regulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, providing a feeling of calm and relaxation.
Researchers believe that yoga, along with meditation and mindfulness practice, allows practitioners to manage and tolerate pain with more ease than others.
3. Protects your brain from age-related decline issues
2014 research made by Tim Gard and Sara Lazar of Massachusetts General Hospital showed that with the long-term practice of yoga and meditation, you could stop the buffering effects that age-related decline has on the brain6.
Therefore, yoga and meditation have several positive effects in maintaining fluid intelligence, which translates in the abilities to keep up abstract thinking and the chance to cope with novel situations; skills visibly decline with age advances.
Moreover, you can achieve higher levels of mindfulness and cognitive flexibility – the ability to cope with stress – by regularly practicing yoga and meditation.
4. Helps the brain to deal with anxiety and depression
Dr. Chris Streeter, a renowned researcher at Boston University, discovered that yoga increases the levels of GABA in our brains, which means that you will feel calmer and relaxed after each practice7.
With the help of MRI Scans, these scientists compared yoga practice with reading and walking as activities that release the most GABA transmitters in our bodies8.
The results of these two studies were overwhelmingly good for yoga and meditation: the practice of both resulted in more GABA production from their brains, which translates in the decrease of anxiety, stress, and depression symptoms since the GABA transmitter are responsible for the relaxation feelings we have in our bodies.
If you suffer from one of these conditions such as anxiety, depression, or stress, you might consider including yoga practice in your daily or weekly routine.
Yoga & Meditation is the answer to improve your overall health
The conclusion of these studies and several others seems to indicate that the regular practice of yoga and meditation will help you to cope with daily stress situations. In addition, helping you to maintain your brain health and plasticity and therefore preventing mental illnesses like dementia or Alzheimer’s.
This millennial practice also contributes to maintaining your body's flexibility while helping you deal with pain tolerance and inflammation levels. We therefore conclude that with the practice of at least two sessions a week, you will also ensure your body's health.
AnJenette Afridi, MA, ERYT-500, is a pioneer in Lifestyle Medicine, Mindful-Based Strategies, and Creator of INHALE EXHALE SMILE℠ Meditation and Mindfulness Targeted Skills-Based Training. AnJenette is a Lifestyle Medicine Consultant and a Meditation and Mindfulness Master Teacher with 30+ years in private practice. “AJ’s” professional credentials include a Master’s Degree in Psychology (MA) 1997, Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (ERYT-500) 2002, American Psychological Association (APA) Member 1996, American College of Lifestyle Medicine Member, Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine Member, and Harvard Medical School CEU’s in Lifestyle Medicine and Mind Body Medicine (Herbert Benson, MD) the last 15 years.
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AnJenette aka AJ has worked with corporations, hospitals, health centers, schools, and private clientele including adults and children. She is often featured at public and private in-person and online events, and she hosts events as well. AJ's warmth, credibility, and energetic sense of humor create an atmosphere that supports expansion, creativity, and abundant possibility.
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This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical issue or disease. The author does not in any way guarantee or warrant the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of this article and will not be held responsible for the content of this article. The information in this article is not intended to replace a personal relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. Always consult your personal health care provider for specific medical advice.