By: Emma, Editor, Health Grinder
Yoga has been around for a long time. One reason for its longevity is the benefits it provides for anyone who is willing to give it a chance.
Unlike many other forms of exercise, yoga can be done by almost anyone. It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you come from or how old you are, you’re always welcome.
Better yet, if you give it enough time, this ancient practice will change you physically, mentally and emotionally for the better.
In this article, we focus on the mental benefits of yoga. More specifically, how yoga changes your brain to make you a healthier and happier person.
Yoga Helps Your Brain Relax
Ever wondered why you feel more relaxed after your yoga session? That’s because yoga helps you calm and down and de-stress.
One reason for this is when you practice yoga, your brain produces more GABA. GABA or Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid is a neurotransmitter that helps calm your brain so that it doesn’t get overexcited. In doing so, it helps you shift down to a “lower gear”, allowing your body to relax.
Because your GABA levels spike during yoga, it helps reduce stress, depression, and anxiety.
While other types of exercises like running or brisk walking also help boost your GABA levels, their effects don’t come close to that of yoga. Research shows that doing yoga three times a week causes a 27% rise in your GABA levels, which is much higher than other forms of exercise.
This is why you’ll notice your mood changes for the better after every yoga session.
It Increases Gray Matter Density
Our brains are primarily made up of two types of tissues: white matter and gray matter. They are named as such because of their appearance during scans. The whiter areas are what’s called “white matter” while the shaded areas are referred to as “gray matter”.
Both are important in allowing us to think and communicate. But, each kind of tissue has its own function.
- Gray matter contains the neurons or brain cells. These areas are responsible for your senses, like seeing, hearing, and touch. These regions also govern muscle control, memory, decision making, and self-control.
- White matter, on the other hand, is more like a network of highways. They allow different regions of your brain to communicate with one another by sending and receiving signals.
Each half is important because gray matter allows you to think, feel and act while white matter allows all the areas of your brain to coordinate with one another. As a result, you’re able to think of doing something and then move your hands and feet to do so.
What’s interesting is that practicing yoga has been shown to increase the density of gray matter in your brain. Better yet, Harvard researchers observed that it only takes 8 weeks of yoga to see significant positive changes.
As a result, practicing yoga for 2 months not only helps reduce chronic pain, it also helps you become more compassionate, be more self-aware and have better learning and memory.
Yoga Protects Your Brain from Age-Related Decline
One of the problems with growing old is that our bodies start slowing down. Unfortunately, this natural aging process affects both our bodies and our minds.
As such, it’s easier to forget things as we get older. In addition, mental health issues like dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease are also threats.
The good news is engaging in a holistic yoga practice which includes Asanas (poses), Pranayama (breathing), and meditation allow you to slow down the aging process.
- Yoga poses help keep your body and its muscles strong and limber. This helps prevents muscle atrophy, poor posture, and stiffness.
- Breathing helps your internal organs including your heart and lungs. It does so by providing sufficient oxygen to all your body parts. In the process, it also allows you to de-stress and relax.
- Meditation helps keep the brain healthy. It improves cognitive function and helps you think better. MRI scans also show that long-term yogis are less prone to age-related mental decline. As a result, it helps stave off depression, anxiety, and dementia.
It Helps Reduce Your Cortisol Levels
One thing that makes yoga unique is that it is the complete opposite of the world we live in today. In our day to day lives, everything goes so fast. We’re always in a rush and trying to get things done with the limited time we have.
In contrast, yoga is slow, steady and calm. It lets you change pace, helping you reduce stress, forget your fears and problems.
One positive effect of doing this is your body’s cortisol level decreases. As a result, it helps you relax and cut down on stress.
Cortisol is a stress hormone. It helps your body prepare for emergency situations or when your life is at risk. It does so by releasing more sugar into your body to give you more energy to act. This also makes you more alert and focused. At the same time, it makes your heart beat faster to pump more blood into your system. All of which allows you to notice small changes, think fast and react even quicker.
While helpful during instances of life and death or critical situations, this “fight or flight” state can be harmful to your health if it stays that way for long periods of time. This is the case with chronic stress.
It is also why chronic stress can lead to long term health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, depression, and heart disease.
In contrast, research shows that yoga is very effective in lowering stress. One way it does this is by causing your cortisol levels to go down. In fact, UCLA researchers found that 12 minutes of yoga a day not only lowers stress levels, it also reduces your immune system’s inflammation response and your risk of depression.
Some Areas of Your Brain Grow in Size
Another unique thing about yoga is that it is different from other forms of exercise. To be specific, yoga not only affects your physical health, but it also has a far-reaching effect on your brain as well.
From a physical standpoint, you may notice yourself losing weight and gaining muscle after a few months of yoga. But the benefits don’t stop there.
In fact, MRI studies show that certain areas of the brain are larger in yogis compared to those who didn’t practice at all. This is especially true in those who’ve been practicing the art for a long time.
In long-term yogis, their brain’s hippocampus and somatosensory cortex were much larger than those in the average person.
- The hippocampus is responsible for long-term memory and spatial orientation. It also plays a large role in your emotions and senses. This is why long-time yoga practitioners often have higher EQ and are in better control of their emotions and reactions. Similarly, it also makes them more resilient to stress and anxiety.
- Meanwhile, the somatosensory cortex is responsible for receiving all the input from your senses. This includes what you see, hear as well as what you touch. Thus, it affects your perception of pain, temperature, and feeling of your muscles, joints, and skin. This is why practicing yoga not only lets you be more aware of things around you but also your inner self and how you feel.
It Increases the Folds in Your Cerebral Cortex
You’ve probably noticed that the brain is made up of lots of wrinkles or ridges. These bumps are called cortical folds or gyrification. Interestingly, only higher intelligence animals have this. And, among these species, humans are on top of that list.
So, what makes these folds so important?
The folds in your cerebral cortex increase the surface area of your brain. This means the more folds there are, the more neurons (brain cells) your brain can hold. And, more brain cells mean better cognitive function.
To understand this better, think of a bed sheet. When laid out, the entire sheet is flat and takes up a large amount of space.
On the other hand, when all folded up, the sheet technically has the same surface area. But it only takes up a small amount of space.
Because your head is limited in size, a larger brain needs to be “folded” many times in order to fit in your skull.
Doing yoga and meditation on a regular basis has been shown to increase the gyrification in your brain. This allows your brain to process information faster and better. It also improves, memory, reasoning, perception and motor coordination.
For most people, yoga may seem like any other form of exercise. It includes a series of poses and stretches. But its benefits are more far-reaching. In addition to making you feel better physically; it also changes the composition and function of your brain. This allows you to think better and have better control over your emotions.
About the Author
Emma Lymn is the editor of Health Grinder, a health and nutrition blog. She is passionate about helping others learn to eat healthy and lose weight. A proud mom of two kids and a very spoiled dog, she enjoys traveling and volunteering in her spare time.