It is well known that yoga (and meditation) considers the individual as a psycho-physical element, treating and healing the whole person as a singular and complete unit. When we practice yoga, we create multiple level benefits that impact our multidimensional system. If you have ever taken part in a yoga class, you would definitely know what I am trying to describe in words. If this is your first approach to yoga, believe me when I say that yoga truly helps your whole system, improving focus on daily activities, increasing stability and balance, strengthening the body and training the mind to stay in the present moment. If you are still sceptical, I strongly suggest you to give it a go, challenge yourself and see the results.
“Words cannot convey the value of yoga, it has to be experienced”
B. K. S. Iyengar
Not only you can taste the yoga benefits on your own, ask for advice to a close yogi friend and research in books and the web, but also science comes to our help supporting our personal yogic experiences and feedback. Over the last years scientists have done plenty of researches and studies trying to understand in detail why and how yoga has such a positive impact in our body and mind, what shifts inside ourselves when we practice yoga and where exactly those changes happen.
If you are a methodical person who likes to read proofs of yoga researches that have been done throughout the last decades, I recommend you to read a great book written in 2012 by Tiffany Field "Yoga Research”; which contains the latest literature on yoga research and covers the physiological and physical effects that yoga has on an individual, as well as, considering the outcome that yoga practice has on a specific stage of life such as: pregnancy, children, adolescents and the aging.
As the relation and correlation between yoga and the body is quite a complex argument, in order to make it more accessible and as clear as possible, I have decided to split it in three parts: yoga and the brain, how nervous system and hormones are affected by yoga and what happens inside the cells?
Part one: Yoga and the Brain
So, THE BRAIN, we have such a mysterious tool and if we stop thinking about it, it is thanks to this little machinery that we simultaneously function as a whole system. We breathe, think, see, move, touch, feel, hear, all in sync and it is not something that we mechanically decide to do, it just happens, so surprisingly easy and complicated at the same time.
But the big question that I would like to find an answer to is: What REALLY HAPPENS in the brain while we practice yoga? Or Pranayama? Or Meditation?
First of all, we need to understand that when in a stressful situation there are mainly two functional areas that take part and divide our brain: the “emotional brain” and the “logical brain”.
The emotional brain is primarily formed by the Amygdala (which is our emotions controller) and the Hippocampus (which stores memories), both are located in each hemisphere of the brain. The logical brain, on the other side, is formed by the Neocortex which has a much more recent development in evolutionary terms and it is like a cortex that enclose the brain core. Just to simplify the argument, we could say that the logical brain surrounds the emotional brain like a juicy apricot surrounds its own core situated in the middle of it, even though there are many other parts that plays into the stimulus/reaction response.
In our daily activities an emotional input reaches our brain travelling from the cortex that analyses the situation (logical or rational brain) before sending it to the core (emotional or irrational brain) that triggers the emotional response. Through this journey, the smaller is the cortex, the quicker and bigger our emotional feedback will be. This mechanism is basically responsible for our “fight or flight reaction”. The outcome is mainly determined by how developed and complex our Neocortex is. On the contrary, the thicker and complex our logical brain site is, the later and less emotional our reflexion will be.
Luckily for us, science has discovered that our brain is not static and it constantly improves and remodels itself, a phenomenon called NEUROPLASTICITY. Through brain exercises, repeated thoughts and action we can rewire our brain developing our logical brain side making the emotional stimulus stay longer in this portion of the brain and have a later and less aggressive emotional response. We can see this fact as creating a multiplex mosaic that the more is stimulated, the more grows and intricates itself directing our response towards a more rational and less spontaneous feedback.
Yoga, seen as a repeated uninterrupted practice over a long period of time, can improve our inner calm, creating more positive and serene thoughts. Doing so, we help our brain to generate new constructive connections that will influence our future actions and reactions generating a healthy vicious circle. In fact, it is quite common for practitioners who have started a steady yoga practice to have naturally changed their unhealthy habits and naturally swapped them with a more beneficial lifestyle. Therefore, not only responses towards emotional stimuli have changed becoming more calm and rational, but also a demand of healthier habits have increased.
While neuroplasticity works in our brain, reorganising itself and creating new neural connections, RESILIENCE is automatically introduced and reinforced.
Resilience by definition is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties”, this means that when we create new and strong connections between neurons we also help our brain to act and react swiftly to life changes and stressful moments. Because our “logical” brain will have newer, steadier and healthier interconnection, the emotional response to an external stimulus will take longer to activate, giving us the possibility to respond rationally and with ease using our new “yogic neurons”; placing into our daily life the calm and the focus what we learn on the yoga mat while practicing or meditating.
Alex Korb, PhD Neuroscientist at the UCLA, says: “Yoga is a stressful moment that improves our non stressful reaction”. You might not remember your first few yoga classes but I bet that they were tense, in a certain way. There is a lot to take in: follow the teacher’s instructions, connect breath and movement, listen to your inner guide, keep the balance, do not lose the drishti (or focus), do not forget to breath, maintain the pose..
All these little demanding actions force us to cope with what is happening in our mind, making our response logical and unemotional. While practicing we train our brain to stay in the present and focused during uncomfortable and difficult situations, we relax and release unnecessary tension and we develop our resilience while improving our neuroplasticity.
Therefore, a yoga class is not simply an occasion to enhance our inner guidance, balance or strength, yoga in a scientific definition is the perfect, most simple opportunity to create and empower a stronger and healthier neural connections into our brain that will automatically lead to a more resilient and rational reaction to our daily challenges.
If yoga and meditation have such a big impact into our physical brain only, wait to see and read how it affects our nervous system, hormones, cells and DNA in the next articles. Stay connected to learn more..