The development and practice of yoga dates back thousands of years. It offers a rich history, one which many of us enjoy today. Whether you joined a yoga class to meet new people or practice in the comfort of your home, one thing is for certain — this ancient practice offers a wide range of significant health benefits.
We often focus on the physical benefits of yoga, including increased flexibility, enhanced muscle tone, improved cardiovascular health and so much more. The mental benefits may be less apparent. For those of you who practice, you know that it can transform you — reducing stress levels and improving your mental well-being. This connection cannot be ignored, as the practice not only benefits your body, but your brain as well.
How yoga benefits your brain
The human brain is a highly complex organ, capable of things we haven’t even begun to discover or understand. From movement to sensory information, emotion to intelligence, the brain is a highly interconnected system that makes us who we are. Just as a traumatic experience can alter our way of thinking, so can yoga.
We often hear about the power of positive thinking and its impact on not only our brain, but our reality. For many, yoga is a tool. It’s a way to improve your way of thinking and, in turn, a means to alter certain behaviors and improve overall brain health. If you needed five more reasons to get involved in this incredibly beneficial practice, here they are.
1. It helps calm the mind
We live in a hectic world, full of chaos and stressful situations. When we feel constantly stressed, it not only affects our mental well-being but our physical health as well. An overactive, stressed mind will often lead to negative thoughts. In many cases, stress can lead to severe symptoms of anxiety.
Yoga forces you to slow down — allowing you to experience the benefits of deep breathing and the power of de-stressing. The techniques you learn during a session can easily be applied to your daily life, breaking down old, negative habits that often lead to negativity and elevated stress.
One study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that after a 60-minute session, there was a 27 percent increase in GABA levels. This neurotransmitter reduces the firing of neurons, creating an overall sense of calmness. Unlike anti-anxiety medications which also increase GABA levels, yoga can achieve this effect naturally.
2. It improves cognitive functioning
The chaos of everyday life can lead to brain fog, reducing your ability to focus. But 20 minutes of yoga may help combat that. Within one study, published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, participants scored higher on brain functioning tests (both in terms of speed and accuracy) after practicing just 20 minutes of Hatha yoga, in comparison to aerobic exercise.
As mentioned above, yoga will help calm the mind. And as a result, individuals are able to eliminate distracting thoughts. While practicing yoga, you are focused on your body, breath and posture. This enhanced self-awareness is believed to be just one of the possible mechanisms to reduce stress, along with meditation and breathing exercises.
3. It may help improve mental health disorders
Experts estimate that approximately one in every four Americans aged 18 years or older suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder. Of those disorders, many people suffer from anxiety and mood conditions. Within one study, published in The Journal of Psychiatric Practice, it was found that yoga may help soothe symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Researchers asked bipolar patients what impact yoga had on their life. Although the benefits were self-reported, the most common response was positive emotional effects. More specifically, patients reported reduced feelings of anxiety and improved cognitive functioning. They also experienced physical effects, such as increased energy and weight loss. Some even responded that yoga is “life changing.”
4. It improves daily happiness
You do not need to suffer from a mental health condition in order to experience increased happiness after a yoga session. There are so many components of yoga that encourage a more positive state of mind, which have now been backed by research. In fact, a study found that simply living in the moment, commonly referred to as “mindfulness,” can make individuals happier.
5. It delivers true brain gains
Yoga not only makes you feel calmer and happier, but it can actually alter your brain. Researchers found that individuals who practiced yoga, actually had more gray matter — or brain cells — in various areas of their brain on the MRI scans, in comparison to control subjects.
Researchers found that the more hours someone practiced in a week, the more enlarged certain areas were. These areas include the somatosensory cortex (which contains a mental map of our body), the visual cortex, the superior parietal cortex (which is responsible for directing attention) and even the hippocampus, a critical area when reducing stress levels.
If you feel overwhelmed in your day-to-day life, take just 30 minutes out of each day to practice yoga. The more involved you become, the more your body and mind will benefit. After all, as stated in the Gita (the Hindu scripture), “Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.”
— Krista Hillis