If you’ve taken even a single yoga class, you’re likely aware of how impactful just one session can be: you leave class feeling happier and calmer in addition to feeling physically better. As it turns out, that better mood and mindset isn’t just in your head—or at least, not in the way you might think. As yoga has increased in popularity over the last few decades, researchers have devoted more time to understanding how yoga literally reshapes your brain and how that can dramatically improve your mental, cognitive, and physical health. If you want a little motivation to hit your mat more often, read on for five ways yoga strengthens your brain and body.
1. Yoga Promotes GABA and “Happiness Hormone” Production
Whenever you practice yoga, it pushes your brain to produce the feel-good chemicals it needs to relax and feel content. One of these chemicals, GABA, or gamma-aminobutryic acid, is a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter that helps suppress neural activity and calm you down. GABA production is also boosted by benzodiazepines (i.e. Xanax) as well as alcohol, but unlike yoga, these come with rebound anxiety and other negative side effects. Depression and/or anxiety sufferers are marked by low levels of GABA in their cerebrospinal fluid, meaning yoga can provide real relief for mood disorders. Researchers believe that the postures and breathing practices of yoga increase GABA because they stimulate the vagal nerve, which is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), AKA our rest-and-digest system. Yoga also boosts the production of the “happiness hormones” dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. Taken together, it’s no wonder this potent brain-chemical cocktail has a dramatic and immediate impact on your mood and sense of wellbeing.
2. Yoga Shifts You From “Fight-or-Flight” to “Rest-and-Digest”
The same “yoga magic” that stimulates the production of GABA and other neurotransmitters also helps the rest of your body work better. Our autonomic nervous system, responsible for all our involuntary bodily processes like heart rate and respiration, is split into two branches: the PNS mentioned above and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) otherwise known as our fight-or-flight response. While the SNS gets a bad rap because so many of us are imbalanced and are more often in a fight-or-flight state, it has the necessary and important purpose of raising our blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels, as well as diverting blood and oxygen where the body needs it most, to help us respond well in a crisis. Slower types of yoga and breathwork help us to switch over to the rest-and-digest state where blood flow is redirected to the digestive, reproductive, endocrine, and lymphatic systems allowing you to get more nutrients from the food you eat and better eliminate toxins. Be mindful that not all yoga is created equal when it comes to activating the PNS. Vigorous “power yoga” classes and hot yoga actually activate the SNS. However, research shows that vigorous practices followed immediately by restorative practices leads to deeper relaxation than just the restorative alone.
3. Yoga Boosts Healthy Grey Matter Density and Encourages Neuroplasticity
Our brains are composed of two types of tissue, white and gray matter, with about a 60/40 split. Gray matter is responsible for many things including memory, learning, and interpreting the five senses. White matter allows all the different sections of your brain to send and receive signals to one another, as well as coordinating your thoughts and movements. Research shows that a consistent yoga practice increases gray matter density in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex of the brain, which correlates to higher intelligence, better focus and concentration, increased self-awareness, mood regulation and even impulse control. It also promotes neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and adapt by forming new neural connections, which is key in preventing cognitive decline as you age. Neuroplasticity is also key to another major benefit of yoga: relief from chronic pain.
4. Yoga Can Provide Lasting, Side Effect-Free Pain Relief
For anyone suffering from chronic pain stemming from conditions such as fibromyalgia, migraines, arthritis, or low back pain, research shows that yoga is a proven, non-pharmacological way to treat it. A regular practice decreases pain perception, reduces inflammation, and improves flexibility and range of motion as well as physically changes the brain. Chronic pain leads to negative changes in gray matter volume as well as the ability of white matter to signal properly, whereas yoga appears to have the exact opposite effect; gray matter volume increases and white matter interconnectivity improves. A consistent, regular practice over time can also train your body to respond to pain through the PNS rather than the SNS. Yogic practices such as alternate nostril breathing, range of motion postures like cat-cow, and restorative poses like legs-up-the-wall or corpse pose, as well as guided relaxation through yoga nidra, are all ways to feel relief now.
5. Yoga Improves Your Relationship with Food
Not only does a regular yoga practice translate to more movement and exercise in your daily life, it also has the power to make you a more mindful eater, as it will teach you to slow down and be more aware of what you’re doing. Its spiritual and emotional benefits can also help support you in addressing weight and food issues, improve body image, and promote healthy eating by putting you in a mental state where you better respect your body and what you put into it. A study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found a correlation between a regular yoga practice and better eating habits, including greater motivation to eat healthy, healthier food cravings, and better management of emotional eating. Study participants also reported an increase in fruit and vegetable intake, decreased junk food consumption, and more physical activity even beyond the yoga mat.
With modifications available for every body, (including chair yoga and simple breathwork and meditation), yoga really is a practice that anyone can incorporate into their life. As you can see, yoga not only strengthens muscles, improves cardiovascular health, and improves flexibility, it has the power to strengthen your brain against depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and cognitive decline. Yoga can be an added bonus to your nutrition and wellness journey. Please contact me for more information and guidance.