How Yoga Changes Your Brain

One of the many benefits of yoga is the effects it has on your brain. Discover how to use yoga for brain health to help you feel better in your daily life.

Yoga has a long and often difficult path to follow back through history, most likely because it spread orally between communities. It is difficult to put an estimate on how old yoga actually is, but what we do know is that it can be traced back to a small Indian civilization known as the Indus-Sarasvati over 5,000 years ago, with some researchers believe it can actually be traced back 10,000 years. 

These mentions of Yoga in a slightly more refined form can be found in the Rigveda, one of the earliest known examples of Vedic Sanskrit, the ancient language of Indo-European civilization. These documents are dated between 1500 and 1900 BCE, and form one of four sacred Hindu texts. 

Any practice that has been refined over the course of several thousand years is obviously going to be something that should not be ignored.  We know that yoga is a great way to warm the body and relax the muscles. But what are the actual benefits of yoga on the mind?  

Help Take the Edge Off

There are far too many stresses in modern-day life. Each one seems to come with its own set of worries. 

That is why it is more important than ever to have a routine that you can rely upon to ease you into a more relaxed state, and Yoga is one of the key methods of stress reduction used by an estimated 300 million people worldwide

Grounding yourself and using the science behind proper technique allows your body to open and your muscles to relax.

Practicing Yoga can actually help to improve your mood and emotional regulation as it actively reduces the stress hormone cortisol produced by your body. 

We all know that stress and anxiety, induced by cortisol, can be the top of the slippery slope to mental illness. So it is important to keep this part of your system in check. 

So, yoga for brain health can relax you and help you move on from the stresses that build during the day, but can it actually have positive effects on your brain? 

Increased Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a crucial part of Yoga and has a direct impact on how the brain functions on a day-to-day basis. 

Being mindful is not clearing your head and entering a meditative state as many believe it to be. 

Mindfulness is actually about creating a space where we can become more aware of our own bodies and our present surroundings. 

It is about increasing your attention levels, allowing you to live in the present, and stopping your brain from following distractions. Mindfulness therapy allows you to connect with your body and make real-time human connections.

It can also be used as a treatment for things like stress, anxiety, addictions, and much more, and yoga is one of the key ways in which we can learn this technique.  

The Growing Evidence for Using Yoga for Brain Health 

Since the year 2000, there has been an exponential increase in the publication of papers relating directly to Yoga and its effects.

The focus more recently has switched to being able to care for the body and the mind simultaneously, rather than just focusing on the physical element- and this is something that more and more people are looking for in their lives.

Now, with the ability to measure the real-time benefits of yoga for brain health using MRI scanners and Positron Emission Tomography (PET), we can physically see the effects that yoga has on areas of the brain like the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. We even know that it can improve the channels and pathways within your brain!  

Yoga’s Healing Effects 

Many people assume that yoga is just another form of exercise, and this could not be further from the truth. Thanks to modern techniques, we can actually see the way a yogi’s brain reacts over time.

Yoga can actually increase the grey matter density of your brain- but what does that mean? 

Let’s get technical for a moment. 

Grey Matter Density

Our brains are made up of two types of matter; grey and white. A human brain is made up of about a 60/40 ratio in the favour of white matter.

The grey matter in your brain consists of brain cells and neurons- or the things that make up the majority of your brain function, like your learning skills, sensory abilities, memory formation, muscle connections, and self-awareness.

The white matter forms the connections that link all the different centers of your brain, allowing for thought processing, coordination, and signal reception.   

How Does This Help Me?

Research shows us that yoga increases the grey matter in your hippocampus and frontal sections of your brain, associated with intelligence, allowing them to perform more efficiently. 

Similarly, it can increase the level of grey matter in your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, aiding with decision-making, emotional regulation, and overall focus. 

How Does Yoga Fit In? 

Yoga focuses on three main areas of improvement; your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Thanks to Yoga’s grey matter-increasing nature, the folds in your brain folds can actually increase in number

This literally means your brain is increasing the number of cells and physical matter that it uses to function, making you smarter, more efficient, and more in control of your own body. Pretty incredible. 

Yoga Euphoria

We are only on the doorstep in terms of what we know about the benefits of yoga. We have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg, and already we know that yoga increases your mental health, your physical brain activity, and your overall strength. 

The euphoria that people experience when practicing yoga can, as we know, help reduce stress hormones, counter anxiety, and just make you feel good all around- no wonder a huge portion of the world’s population practices yoga on a daily basis. 

Practice Makes Perfect  

So, as if you needed any more reasons to begin practicing yoga, you’re now fully up to date with just how good yoga can actually be for you. 

Yoga is commonly thought of as an exercise routine or another form of staying active with a series of poses that benefits your physical health. Well, now we know that the benefits of yoga are far-reaching throughout the body; and through mindfulness, breathing, posture, and strength, we can actually change the makeup of our brains. 

You can process thoughts and emotions in a better way, deal with your body’s weaknesses, and live a happier healthy life with Yoga. 

By Sophie Bishop

Sophie Bishop is a medical journalist. Sophie aims to spread awareness through her writing around issues to do with healthcare, wellbeing and sustainability and is looking to connect with an engaged audience.

Find Sophie on her social media accounts:
Twitter: @SophBishJourno
LinkedIn: /sophie-bishop/

Photo by Anupam Mahapatra on Unsplash