An anti-stress, anti-aging elixir for the brain

What does yoga, an ancient eastern practice based on breathing and movement, have to do with the brain?

A lot, hold on for the ride.

Here’s the breakdown of your brain on yoga:

  1. Enhanced neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt and change)
  2. Strengthening of synaptic connections (yay for muscle memory and recall)
  3. Better frontal lobe function (better reasoning and thinking skills)
  4. Increased overall volume of the brain (hippocampus for memory, orbito-frontal for emotional fitness)
  5. The brain residing on a more pleasant and practical frequency (alpha and theta)

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Yoga began over 5,000 years ago in India as a philosophy, as a way of being. The teachers of yoga taught in order to help their students be healthier and happier in their bodies and in their minds.

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors relied on belief, on trust, on stories and oral traditions. Our ancestors knew the benefits of yoga without fully understanding the mechanisms behind the practice, but they experienced and trusted.

It wasn’t until modern science stepped in that we could understand what is really going on in the body during yoga. And what science has found is that our the ancients were right: yoga is an anti-aging, anti-stress elixir for the body and mind.

No wonder yoga has been around on our planet for so long.

So, how does it work and what happens in the body during yoga?

Yoga works on improving the brain from the bottom up.

It starts with actively changing the way our brains are wired through changing our bodies, behaviors and lifestyle habits. This happens because our brains are moldable, a property called neuroplasticity, and when we change our bodies, we also change our brains.

One way this happens is through breathing. I like to think that “breathe” is an acronym for:

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In yoga we perform certain poses and move in synchronization with the breath. The synchronization of the body to breath helps to enhance coordination through strengthening neural connectivity within the brain.

What this does is create a better sense of where your body is in space, something called proprioception. Getting a better sense of proprioception increases one’s ability to balance and strengthens certain parts of the brain, such as the cerebellum. 

So, how does this work and what’s the proof?

One factor that changes the wiring of our brains is a chemical called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). An increase of which can lead to stronger synaptic connections, helping in learning and memory. In 2013, a group of Neurochemists, tested the effects of yoga on depression and BDNF levels. What they found was a decrease in depression and an increase in BDNF, leading to the conclusion that yoga has the ability to mold the brain for the better.

There are many different types of yoga, vinyasa being the one that matches movement to breath. Practices such as restorative yoga and meditation, however, have different effects.

Restorative yoga and meditation slow down the heart rate and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that induces the relaxation response. In this state the stress hormone cortisol lowers and the heart-rate becomes slow and calm.

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A slow, calm heart-rate can help your brain function better.

How?

Taking control of your breath regulates the connection between your heart and your brain. When breathing fully, slowly, and rhythmically, you send an impulse up through your vagus nerve to your frontal lobe, telling the frontal lobe to be calm and aware.

Think about it. When you’re on stage about to give a speech, your heart-rate sky rockets and all of a sudden you forget how to say your name. Slow that heart-rate down and the brain is able to function again.

Meditative practices have another profound effect: they directly alters brain anatomy.

study at UCLA in 2013 showed that that parts of the brain that regulate memory and emotion, such as the hippocampus and the orbito-frontal cortex, increase after meditative practices.

In addition, the wave frequencies of the brain change. A 2010 study found that alpha and theta frequencies increase during mediation. There are four main types of brain frequencies: beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Beta is your most alert state. While it comes with a hightened sense of awareness and concentration, it also comes with more cortisol, stress, and often times negative mental activity.

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Alpha and theta however, are the beginning of the relaxation and meditation frequencies. When in these frequencies, your brain is in a relaxed, yet attentive state. So, you’ve got the awakeness factor without too much cortisol. This is pretty much the state of mind we would all ideally love to be in all of the time.

The good news is, if you practice yoga and meditation this brain state will become your default.

These are just a few of the benefits of yoga on the brain. More research findings are on the horizon as we further understand how the brain functions. We at neurovalens hope to further this knowledge one day at a time.

For now, however, it’s a no brainer, I do yoga everyday not only because it feels good, but because of the strength I gain in my brain.

For more information on yoga and for the original post of this article, take the time to explore neuroyogini.com. Your brain will thank you. 

From my heart & brain to yours,
Hannah

P.S. Interested in trying yoga? We’ve got you covered! Click here for a 25 minute yoga flow to do anywhere, anytime.

Hannah Heimer
Hannah Heimer

I’m a brain enthusiast and yoga fanatic. I work as a researcher at the University of California, San Diego while also running a yoga business on the side.

I use brain research and yoga as a springboard to blog about lifestyle, health, happiness, and how it all relates to your brain.

Just like the nerve cells in our brains, I love making new connections. So, feel free to reach out. For more info on yoga and the brain, take some time to explore neuroyogini.com.