Mindfulness & Anxiety

The Surprising Effects Yoga Has On Our Brain Health

By Matt Scillitani

According to the American Psychological Association, more than 15 million adults practice yoga in the U.S. alone. Recent Surveys report that approximately one in three Americans have tried yoga at least once before. Common reasons for starting yoga are to increase flexibility and relieve stress, but did you know that yoga also has a profound impact on our brain and mental health as well?

A Brief History of Yoga

Yoga is an ancient tradition that can be traced back to India in circa 3,000 B.C. It was discovered on stone-carvings of different yoga postures and has been practiced in India for thousands of years since. The Yoga Sutra of Panjali is a 2,000-year-old text which contains yoga sutras or teachings and is an example of a physical text, by which the tradition has been passed down.

Essentially, yoga was passed down like many other teachings, out of an oral tradition. It is best transmitted from teacher to student, since it’s an art that requires demonstration as well as practice.

Yoga first made its way to the West on the backs of eastern teachers, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It continued to gain more and more popularity in America until it exploded in the 1970’s.

The free flowing style of the 1970’s really adapted well to teachings of yoga, and many “flower children” adopted yoga as a lifestyle. As many eastern yogis’ brought their teachings to the west, they began educating people on more eastern ways of thought. This made a drastic, long-lasting impact on how we approach stress through physical movement in our lives, that is still relevant today.

Where is Yoga at Today?

According to surveys completed by The Good Body,  there are over 300 million yoga practitioners worldwide. Between 2012 and 2016 the number of Americans doing yoga increased by over 50%, so it seems that Yoga has only continued its growth since the 1970’s.

Today more research than ever is being done on how beneficial yoga actually may be on our spiritual health and brain health.

According to the American Psychological Association, yoga is on the rise as a treatment method by psychologists and psychiatrists. Yoga is helping people lower social anxiety, relieve stress, and can even treat depression and insomnia. Stanford University Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD says “The evidence is showing that yoga really helps change people at every level.”

It seems that thousands of years of tradition are finally being backed by science. So, many of us are starting to wonder, ‘what impact does yoga have on our brain health?’

How Does Yoga Impact Brain Health?

For starters, yoga reduces unmanaged stress. The ‘fight or flight’ response is an evolutionary process by our bodies to prepare us to quickly response to danger This lets us to fight or run from the proverbial when we need to. This also causes our heart rates and blood pressures to soar, muscles to tighten, and breathing to become labored.

Blood is diverted to your muscles, to your brain and away from nonessential organs systems like the digestive tract. This is to give the body the best opportunity to escape whatever the potential stressor is; but your body is not meant to be in ‘fight or flight’ mode at all times. This can actually be really damaging to your body and can cause anxiety, stress, depression and even obesity.

The stress response of ‘fight or flight’ that plagues many people who suffer from anxiety and depression is drastically lowered when performing yoga. The stress hormone, cortisol, is reduced and activation of the sympathetic nervous system is naturally calmed when yoga is performed. This is in great part due to the incorporation of breath in movements, and this focus on breathing can distract the yogi from thoughts that cause increasing levels of stress.

The reduction of cortisol during yoga is incredibility beneficial to people suffering from the effects of obesity and Type-II diabetes. Sat Bir Khalas, Ph.D., Neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School states, “I believe if everyone practiced the techniques of yoga, we would have a preventive aid to a lot of our problems. There would be less obesity and Type II-diabetes.”

Why is Yoga so Effective at Making us Happy?

Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for calming brain activity and central nervous system function. GABA is actually stress reducing in the body, and it helps to create a sense of calm and relaxation. GABA is an area of the brain that many anti-anxiety, anti-depressant and seizure medications try to target to inhibit some of the stress we experience day to day.

GABA is also naturally occurring in many fermented foods like tempeh or kefir. GABA is also sold as a supplement, which many people use to treat their anxiety and depression naturally.

An interesting study in the 2007 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine compared a group of people performing yoga to a group of people reading a book. The research found that the group performing yoga had a 27 % increase GABA, while the group reading books didn’t have any change at all. It is most important to note the relaxing effects of GABA production can be naturally stimulated with the practice of yoga, so it can be very helpful to people who suffer from depression or anxiety.

Yoga also has a surprising impact on people who suffer from insomnia. Dr. Sat Bir Khalsa reported that in a new study, twenty different participants who practiced kundalini yoga techniques before going to sleep found that they had a drastic improvement in their insomnia when compared to traditional methods for sleep hygiene.

There are over 6,000 yoga studios in the United States, and American’s will spend at least 16 billion on yoga this coming year. Medical professionals are beginning to accept that partaking in yoga may actually reduce your need for traditional psychiatric treatments and can dramatically improve the outcome of existing treatments you may already be trying. With all of the new scientific evidence backing up yoga’s validity, it leaves us asking, ‘when is the next yoga class?’

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