This is your brain on yoga

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Your brain – a glistening, 3-pound mass of living issue — is the most complex living structure in the universe; its capacity to create and sustain a network of connections far surpasses any social network, smartphone or supercomputer.

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Your brain – a glistening, 3-pound mass of living issue — is the most complex living structure in the universe; its capacity to create and sustain a network of connections far surpasses any social network, smartphone or supercomputer.

This very moment, your brain’s 100 billion neurons are firing at speeds of up to 268 miles per hour, activating emotional and memory circuits and scanning sensory and motor networks while shaping thoughts, speech, movement, hopes and dreams. Meanwhile, the brain in the head is collaborating with two other “brains” in the body — the cardiac plexus, or heart brain, and the solar plexus, or gut brain — and gathering resources in the immune system to fend off foreign invaders.

Blood nourishes it, hormones regulate it, and one of the best ways to protect and nurture brain health is to practice yoga and meditation.

New scientific studies are confirming what the 5,000-year-old wisdom teachings foretold, that striking a warrior pose can dispel mental fatigue, stress, depression and memory loss. Even chronic pain, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be improved through mindful movement.

It sounds like magic, imagining that posing like a proud warrior or a pyramid could have such extensive effects, but it’s not magic. It’s neurobiology.

Your Brain on Yoga

Yoga, according to the publication Scientific American, promotes growth in the pre-frontal cortex and exercises the basal ganglia, an area devoted to action selection. Yoga raises oxytocin levels, strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system and redirects chronic stress patterns.

Chantal Villemure and Catherine Bushnell of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, used MRI scans to detect more gray matter — brain cells — in people who regularly practice yoga. They found that the more hours of practice per week, the more growth occurred in the somatosensory cortex, which contains a mental map of our body, the superior parietal cortex, involved in directing attention, and the visual cortex, which may be bolstered by visualization techniques.

Yoga also enhances the hippocampus, the brain’s memory librarian, by stimulating production of nerve growth factor, helping us to focus and rescuing damaged neurons from imminent death. The increase in working memory capacity gives yogis the ability to hold more information in mind while seeing and feeling how it all fits together.

The Science of Yoga

According to one study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 30 female college-age students were led in 20 minutes of yoga and 20 minutes doing an aerobic exercise. In a cognitive assessment afterward, researchers found test scores to be “significantly superior” on tests taken after the yoga sessions.

In older adults with early signs of memory problems, a twice-a-week yoga routine may strengthen thinking skills and help prevent age-related mental decline, according to an April study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The amygdala is the brain center responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight alarm. It is the “emotional hijacker,” writes Daniel Goleman in his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence. It kicks in when we experience fear or rage. The amygdala has been found to shrink in people with long-term asana and meditation practices.

3Pillars of Yoga: Breath, Alignment &Mindfulness

The brain is not the mind. The brain is a tangible organ that controls all vital human functions, but the mind is the captain of our ship. The mind permeates every cell of the body and communicates with even non-human cells like gut bacteria. Both brain and mind affect each other and are nourished by three pillars of yoga.

The first pillar is steady, deep breathing. It centers, relaxes and energizes the whole being, shifting us from the contraction effect of the sympathetic nervous system into more relaxed parasympathetic functioning. This gives us the space to respond carefully rather than overreact to perceived threats.

Through progressive exposure to more complex and potentially stressful movements, asana, mantra and meditation practices we exercise new neural pathways and awaken a sense of presence. While we breathe consciously, stay calm and soothe all body systems, our brain learns to stay relaxed in the face of stress, and that changes us, affecting everything else we do.

Another pillar of yoga is alignment. When we engage precise internal actions, or kinetic chains, throughout the body, we align bones, nerves and muscles with conscious intention, creating core strength and equilibrium.

Mindfulness is the third pillar of yoga. It’s what transforms a simple workout, run, swim or yoga class into a brain gym. To be mindful is to consciously pay attention, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, to the energy in your body and mind. When examined with awareness, sensations, emotions, thoughts and feelings become doorways to new movement and behavioral possibilities. Shifts in neurotransmitter and brain activity can then lead to new choices being made.

A new way of looking

Yoga is a new way of looking at life that translates into changing not only what we see, but how we see. By improving brain function, yoga gives us a more expansive approach to interacting with life. Think of the brain as a powerful bio-computer just waiting for us to supply the codes it needs to operate the program. These codes can be learned through mindful movement experiences that create a healthier, more coherent brain.

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Right there at the intersection of science and magic.

Marya Mann, PhD, writes the monthly yoga column for West Hawaii Today and teaches at Kona Dance and Performing Arts Studio, New Thought Center and Yano Hall. She can be reached at marya.mann@gmail.com