Most of us are aware of the physical benefits of practicing yoga – yoga helps build a stronger, more flexible body, greater endurance and overall physical wellbeing. This can lead to the misconception that yoga is just another form of exercise. However, yoga was originally intended to train the mind (or the brain) and it is only over the last few centuries that the physical aspect of yoga has received greater emphasis.
Experts say that yoga practices include meditation and other mindfulness techniques used to train the mind. “Patanjali meant yoga to be a tonic for the mind; the aim of practicing yoga is to gain mastery over the mind. Yoga offers several physical benefits as a by-product of the practices, but it is also very good for the brain. It reduces stress, improves concentration, increases grey matter and creates new neural pathways; it can also help in the management of disorders like depression and schizophrenia,” says Dr Shivarama Varambally, additional professor, department of psychiatry, NIMHANS.
Can my brain benefit from yoga?
It is commonly known that yoga is effective in reducing stress and reducing age-related degeneration. It can also improve your memory and sharpen your cognitive abilities. It improves the supply of blood to your brain, minimizing the chances of a stroke, especially among persons with disorders like diabetes, blood pressure and high cholesterol. Yoga can help you bring down your heartbeat to a healthier rate, enabling you to stay calm and rational in difficult situations. It also enhances your ability to stay focused with a task for longer periods of time.
How long does it take for the effects to be visible?
Even a single session of practice can lead to changes in the brain. The improvement to your mental wellbeing are visible within the first one week; you are likely to feel better and calmer, stay more confident about handling things, and experience lower levels of stress. Within a few weeks, you may notice that you are grasping things more quickly, have a sharper memory and have improved concentration and focus.
Experts say that yoga can have optimum long-term impact when practiced for at least three days a week, for at least six months at a stretch. You can plan your yoga practice to focus on mindfulness and the breath to achieve maximum cognitive benefit.
Reducing stress and anxiety
By balancing the parts of the nervous system that control our rest and action mechanisms, yoga helps to reduce stress and anxiety.
The central nervous system is made of two parts: the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system. The parasympathetic system guides our mind and body into action, causing us to fight or flee in danger situations. The sympathetic system helps us slow down by reducing the heart rate, calm down and be in a relaxed state. A balance between the functioning of these two systems helps us function normally. Our modern lifestyle, with its stress and over-stimulation, activates the sympathetic system and creates an imbalance between the two. Practicing yoga regularly activates the parasympathetic system, which regulates the breathing, heart rate, and reduces stress and anxiety levels.
Improving memory, thinking sharper
Did you know that practicing yoga regularly can help increase the gray matter in your brain? The hippocampus, or the part of the brain that is critical for memory and cognitive abilities, shrinks as we grow older; this is why we tend to forget things, or slow down intellectually as we age.
A study conducted by NIMHANS across old age homes in Bangalore monitored the effects of yoga on the brains of residents, after they practiced yoga for six months. The researchers found that regular practice of yoga reversed the effects of aging, and enhanced the size of the hippocampus. They concluded that practicing yoga can be very beneficial among those with mild cognitive impairment, a condition that precedes the onset of dementia and other old-age related brain disorders, and prevent them from occurring.
Healing the brain
The brain is an organ that has a remarkable ability to heal itself. A person with a brain injury or trauma may lose some abilities for a period of time, during which the brain is able to repair the injured part, or move the functioning into another.
The Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) is a marker of the brain’s plasticity, or ability to heal itself. The higher a person’s BDNF, the greater the brain’s ability to heal itself.
Persons with depression or bipolar disorder have lowered levels of BDNF. They also have higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). When they are treated with medications for depression, the depression may get better, and the BDNF levels also increase, but once they stop the medication, the person remains at a risk of relapse as the stress and cortisol levels may remain elevated.
A study at the NIMHANS Integrated Centre for Yoga showed that when patients with depression practiced yoga with or without medication, their BDNF levels normalized and the cortisol levels came down. This suggests that the stress came down, and therefore minimizes the chances of relapse.
Reducing negative emotions
Chanting ‘‘Om" for at least five minutes can help reduce the flow of blood to the part of the brain that is involved in negative emotions like anger, stress, jealousy or disgust.
In a functional MRI study conducted at NIMHANS, laypersons (with no expertise in yoga) were asked to chant “Om” for five minutes, and chant another phrase for five minutes, under control conditions. The scans showed decreased blood flow to the parts of the brain that control emotion while chanting Om, when compared to another phrase. This suggests that the different forms of chanting prescribed in various mindfulness techniques (yoga or mindfulness meditation) can help manage negative emotions when practiced regularly.
Improving recognition of facial emotions
Among people with schizophrenia, yoga has been proven to increase the brain’s ability to register facial emotions. Persons with schizophrenia have been shown to have Facial Emotion Recognition Deficits, which makes it challenging for them to make sense of facial expressions and interpret them in terms of emotions. For instance, a person with schizophrenia may misunderstand neutral or even positive facial emotions as anger or fear.
A study conducted at NIMHANS has shown that practicing yoga can help a person with schizophrenia overcome these deficits caused by the illness. A group of persons with schizophrenia were shown videos and still images of trained actors enacting different emotions. Participants experienced difficulty in mapping the expression to the emotion being acted out. After practicing yoga for at least three times a week for three months, , they showed a significant improvement in this ability. This is possibly linked to the blood flow changes in the brain as explained above, and also increase in blood levels of a hormone called oxytocin (the bonding hormone), which is important in promoting bonding between mothers and infants. It is also known to promote social behaviours by facilitating connection, relaxation and trust.
1- Hariprasad VR, Varambally S, Shivakumar V, Kalmady SV, Venkatasubramanian G, Gangadhar BN. Yoga increases the volume of the hippocampus in elderly subjects. Indian J Psychiatry 2013; 55:394-6.
2- GH, Thirthalli J, Rao MG, Varambally S, Christopher R, Gangadhar BN. Positive therapeutic and neurotrophic effects of yoga in depression: A comparative study. Indian J Psychiatry 2013; 55:400-4.
3- Effect of yoga therapy on plasma oxytocin and facial emotion regulation deficits in patients of schizophrenia: Jayaram et al, IJP, 2013 Link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24049210