Yoga and the Brain

Yoga and the Brain

Apr 12, 2019

Yoga and the Brain

In recent years, the practice of yoga has become increasingly popular for relaxation and stress alleviation, especially in the urban metropolis. While yoga may seem like a modern form of exercise that the young and trendy generation has latched onto, the roots of yoga extend back thousands of years as an Indian practice and philosophy.

Western medicine is just beginning to uncover the power of yoga in the treatment of depressive disorders through the rewiring of brain circuitry in a process called neuroplasticity. Every action and every thought changes the connections between neurons and the pathways in which they interact. The more often you perform a certain task or think a chain of thoughts, the more that the respective neural pathway in your brain is reinforced. For example, if playing Candy Crush has a pathway in your brain, it can be likened to a highway with cars constantly passing through. The more times you play, the more lanes are added to the highway – allowing more cars to pass through, at a faster speed – better enabling you to create those delicious combos.

Similarly, stress responses in the body occupy their own pathways. Whenever we are faced with difficulty or discomfort, such as encountering a wild animal, remembering a daunting project deadline, or dealing with a breakup, the brain has only one universal stress response – the flight or fight response – resulting in the release of hormones to increase blood pressure, rate of breathing, and reinforce pathways in the brain which suppress learning, memory and emotion1;The repetition of stressful stimuli further maintains this pathway. The problem is not in the response itself, since we survive by responding to life-threatening situations in a way that ensures that we continue living. Instead, the problem is the long-term effect of repeated stress, which can include anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Practically speaking, what does an hour of downward dog, warrior pose, and twisting your legs behind your head have anything to do with neuroplasticity or mental health? Interestingly, yoga practices like Hatha and Vinyasa that require you to hold challenging positions actually trigger the same stress response we talked about earlier. During these extended poses, heart rate increases, breathing rate increases and your brain is telling you “I don’t want to do it anymore!”1. However, the practice of yoga teaches the participant to focus on the moment, to slow down each breath, and learn to be comfortable in the most uncomfortable situations. In fact, the deliberate effort to slow down and relax forces the brain to rewire its response to stressful stimuli – to change the brain’s habit of triggering the stress response in the face of discomfort1.

Since the brain has only one universal stress response pathway, the neuro-rewiring work adopted from yoga can be applied to life situations as well. Some studies show that long-term effects of yoga practice can result in physiological changes that are comparable to the effects of antidepressants2. When depressive patients who used yoga were compared against patients who used antidepressants, the yoga group showed a higher drop in blood cortisol (stress hormone) levels compared to the antidepressant group2. (Disclaimer: we are not an advocate of going off medication without consultation with your doctor, as not all cases will be the same.) The regular practise of yoga can remodel our brain’s natural instinct to activate the stress response and lead to a more resilient attitude, positive emotions, and overall mental wellbeing.

References:
1. Korb, Alex. “Yoga: Changing the brain’s stressful habits.” Sept. 2011. Psychology Today. 25 Nov. 2013
2 Thirthalli, J., Naveen, GH., Rao, MG., Varambally, S., Christopher, R., and Gangadhar, BN. Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga. Indian Journal of Psychiatry 2013; 55 (suppl 3): S405-S408.

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