We have all heard the offhand claim that yoga is good for the mind, but why exactly is yoga good for the mind? When I first heard that yoga would help me feel less stressed, more relaxed, and calmer in general, I had to ask myself, how? What is happening inside the brain when we practice yoga? And why is this so good for us?
Yoga retrains the brain to better handle stress and discomfort. It’s common knowledge that yoga decreases stress. What is less commonly known is why. First it’s important to know that everything we do changes our brain. It might sound obvious, but few of us think about the fact that the habits we follow and the practices we stick with can change the chemical composition of our brain. The brain’s ability to rewire itself based on experiences is known as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the key to why yoga helps us handle stress. For most of us, yoga asanas are a bit stressful. According to Psychology Today, it is the mental determination to remain calm during this discomfort that teaches us to remain calm during other stressful moments in our lives. When you are almost positive you are going to fall flat on your face in Crow pose, your yoga instructor reminds you to relax your face and breathe. Though our brain might go into red alert, we short-circuit the automatic response and teach our brain how to relax even in this precarious position.
Most of your reaction to stress is biological, but a lot is learned from your parents during early childhood. Yoga allows you to break these old habits and teach yourself to respond to stress with deep breaths and relaxed muscles. You can learn this practice on the mat, but the lesson will stick with you in every stressful situation that follows.
People who practice yoga have more brain cells in key parts of the brain. A study conducted by Scientific American found that people who practice asana have more gray matter (aka more brain cells). That must mean yogis are smarter, right? Well, not exactly. The gray matter that appeared in MRI scans of yoga practitioners was focused in key parts of the brain. Specifically in the somatosensory cortex, the superior parietal cortex, the hippocampus, the precuneus and posterior cingulate cortex, and the visual cortex.
So what does that mean? The somatosensory cortex is linked to body awareness. The superior parietal cortex is linked to attention and our ability to focus. A stronger hippocampus means less stress. The precuneus and posterior cingulate cortex are the parts of the brains that determine our concept of self. This study shows what is happening inside the brain that causes yogis to make the claim that practicing yoga will improve your mind-body connection and help you de-stress.
Practicing asana can serve as a treatment for mood disorders and anxiety. All of us have something inside of our brains called GABA levels. GABA levels are intimately linked with the ability to regulate moods. People who have mood disorders or experience anxiety tend to have lower GABA levels.
Studies have shown that people who practice yoga have around 27% higher GABA levels. Scientists have long believed that walking and physical exercise can be beneficial for moods, and they assumed that this was due to an increase in GABA levels. But one study showed that people who practiced yoga had even higher increases in GABA levels than those who went on regular walks. This means more yoga can improve your mood and decrease your anxiety.
Your brain loves yoga. All of these studies make one thing abundantly clear: yoga is about more than learning to touch your toes. Yoga is also retraining your brain to handle stress, growing your brain in important areas, and helping your brain cope with moods and anxiety. Yoga might not be able to cure everything, but it sure can make your brain happy.