Yoga and the Brain Part One

Among the most common misconceptions about Yoga is that it’s just another form of exercise.  However, the reality is that the benefits of Yoga are more than just the physical. Now thanks to modern technology and functional MRI scans, we’re able to see how regular Yoga practice affects our brain in the positive.

Our brains are primarily made up of two types of tissues: white and grey matter. A normal human brain consists of about 60% white matter and 40% grey matter. Both of which play important roles in healthy cognitive functioning, each brain tissue type has a different function:

  • Grey matter consists of our brain cells or neurons. While it’s called grey matter, it’s actually pink in colour, because while we are alive, blood continuously flows, it’s upon death where it turns grey. Due to its concentration of neurons, grey matter is responsible for many of our brain’s functions, including learning skills and memory. It’s also responsible for the function of interpreting the senses of sight, hearing, smell and touch. Additionally, it affects muscle control and self-awareness.
  • White matter has thejob of connecting different sections of the brain, allowing different areas of our brain to send and receive signals to one another. Healthy white matter allows our brain to coordinate thoughts as well as movement.

Grey and white matter complement each other to allow us to think, coordinate movement and interpret the world around us. Damage or reduction in one or the other area can affect cognitive abilities. 

Recent research has shown that Yoga increases grey matter volume in the Hippocampus and frontal sections of our brain. And essentially, the thicker the volume of the grey matter in the brain, the more cells are present and it’s more likely to perform better.  With Yoga the constant use and practice of control in postures, breathing and mental stimulation results in increased grey matter density and activation in the Hippocampus and Prefrontal Cortex.

This allows us to have better:

  • Focus and concentration
  • Emotional and impulse control
  • Be more in tune with our senses and self awareness
  • Better decision making, allowing us to respond rather than react

Neuroplasticity in the Brain

The physical practise of Yoga consists of three main components that cater to our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing, in the form of poses (asanas), breathwork (pranayama) and meditation. 

When it comes to the brain, meditation plays a large role as it is connected to increasing the number of folds in our brain. According to a study done by UCLA researchers, MRI brain scans showed that long-term meditators had more gyrification, the process of forming the characteristic folds of the Cerebral Cortex. Researchers also believe that Yoga increases the brain’s neuroplasticity, the ability to adapt to change. Since our Cerebral Cortex is responsible for things like language, reasoning, perception, information processing, memory and voluntary movement, the increase in gyrification allows for better functioning and faster information processing.

References:

io9.com/how-meditation-changes-your-brain-and-makes-you-feel-b-470030863
nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1196/annals.1284.062?sid=nlm%3Apubmed
jacobspublishers.com/effects-of-long-term-yoga-practice-breathing-and-meditation-on-cognitive-function-and-emotional-control-a-review-of-the-literature/
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3289949/
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17532734
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20722471
sigmapubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/wvn.12097
ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768222/
newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/yoga-reduces-stress-now-it-s-known-236785
link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11682-018-9826-z

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