Yoga has successfully cultivated a reputation as a practice that improves flexibility, but do the benefits stop there? Sure doesn’t. Will yoga let you enjoy more than a looser stride, slacked shoulders, and a better-built backside? You bet.
When you’re arranged on a soft blue yoga mat with your eyes closed and a measured breathing pattern, you might not be aware that what you’re doing is actually having a long-term effect on your brain.
Harvard’s Sarah Lazar recently completed a series of studies on yoga and meditation at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the results of these studies indicated that mindful meditative practices — specifically yoga — engage and alter neuroplasticity, meaning they can affect the structures of the human brain (Basically, everyone is talking about how yoga can make everything better…you may want to check out Sex, Sleep, and Snacks: How Yoga Improves Your Favorite Things).
The overall impact? Over enough time dedicated to your practice, you will feel better both mentally and physically; cut your stress levels; improve your fluid intelligence (including problem-solving skills); and then, well, then you wonder what took you so long to embrace this profound and impactful practice.
Lazar’s initial study employed MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology to scan the brains of long-time yoga practitioners and compare them to the brains of newer yogis. The MRI results revealed that the yoga veterans had brains with thicker cerebral cortexes. So what? You might ask. Thicker cerebral cortexes are linked to improved brain function, like better decision-making, memory, and attention span.
Seeking further evidence that yoga improves brain function, Lazar composed an eight-week meditation program, and used a mindfulness-based stress reduction technique with a group of 25- to 50-year-old beginner yogis. These participants were medication-free to ensure controlled results, and were all reported as slightly stressed upon the test’s administration. Over eight weeks, these participants filled out regular questionnaires to track the progress of their stress levels.
Fast-forward eight weeks: Lazar took the group for a round of MRI scans to provide a baseline for her findings. She compared the self-reports provided by the participants and the before and after MRI scans. The results indicated shrunken amygdalas (a part of the brain that grows larger upon exposure to stress hormones), combined with growth in the subjects’ brain stems, where dopamine and serotonin (central players in mood changes) are produced (If all this brain talk is up your alley, you may want to take a look at Biohacking with Neuroscience to Get Fit, Strong, and Lean).
The prominent change in the anatomical brain structure of an individual who practices yoga regularly for as little as eight weeks is vital to designing future stress-improvement programs. If you’re troubled, bogged down by, or at odds with a stressful, frantic lifestyle, sign up for a class and give a yoga a try. Who knows? You might just change your own mind.
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