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Three ways yoga affects your brain

By Dr Maarten Immink

Yoga is popularly portrayed as a form of exercise that makes bodies strong, lean and flexible. And the data from the Yoga in Australia National Survey indicates that most people start practising yoga for the fitness benefits. 

However, when asked why they continue, an increasing number of people said it was because practising yoga reduces their stress and anxiety.

In other words, people come to yoga for the body but stay for the mind.  

Research is now beginning to reveal the extent to which yoga uniquely influences and changes the brain. It does so in ways that support enhanced mental function, improved emotional wellbeing and which allow the brain to best manage the body.  

It could be said that yoga affects the brain in a similar way as it affects the body, because it appears to make the brain stronger, more flexible and more balanced. 

 

1. YOGA MAKES THE BRAIN STRONGER

A stronger brain manifests as having greater mental stamina and capacity. Yoga has been shown to promote improvements in attention and memory in several studies.

In a 2009 study published in BioPsychoSocial Medicine, yoga-based relaxation resulted in greater improvements in memory function when compared to rest.  

Another study, conducted in India, demonstrated how a yoga breathing technique improved the attention function in medical students as well as in middle-aged and older adults.   

Yoga-based improvements in brain function have also been seen in children with respect to how the brain controls complex movements.  

Children who completed 10 days of yoga performed better on a test of hand movement control when compared to children who did not practise yoga, according to a study completed in India by Dr Shirley Telles of the Patanjali Research Foundation. 

 

2. YOGA MAKES THE BRAIN MORE FLEXIBLE

A more flexible brain is demonstrated through a capacity to be able to respond consciously and constructively to events and situations, as opposed to defaulting to automatic and negative reactions.  

Flexibility in choosing what we think and how we react reduces our stress levels and allows us to enjoy emotional wellbeing and mental health. 

In 2007, researchers from the University of South Australia reported that 10 weeks of yoga was more effective at improving mental health than relaxation.

At the University of South Australia my research colleagues and I found regular meditators reported less stress than non-meditators facing a stressful task. This involved giving a speech and performing mental arithmetic in front of a panel of judges.  

 

3. YOGA SUPPORTS A BALANCED BRAIN

A balanced brain will keep our body functioning harmoniously. Balanced and coordinated body function is the essence of health. 

In 2006, a critical review of research concluded that yoga appears to reduce brain-based stress responses, which are associated with better regulation of blood pressure, blood sugar levels and body weight. (Published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.)

Similarly, Japanese researchers reported in 2000 that yoga asana promoted mental relaxation and reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Mental relaxation has also been associated with better immune function. 

In 2013, researchers from the University of Oslo in Norway reported that while a week of gentle walking and listening to relaxing music changed the expression of 38 immune cell genes, a week of relaxation from practising yoga changed the expression of 111.  

As science continues to investigate how yoga changes the brain, an important factor to consider is how our level of participation also has an effect. For how well we actually pay attention as we practise yoga can challenge the brain just like exercise challenges the body. 

Through regular application of this challenge the brain can become stronger, more flexible and more balanced.  

In my upcoming seminar at Manly Yoga on Saturday 25 JulyI will offer an overview of current understanding of how mindfulness training influences emotional wellbeing from the perspective of the psychological and brain sciences.  

THE AUTHOR DR MAARTEN IMMINK IS PRESENTING A WORKSHOP " YOGA  FOR EMOTIONAL WELLBEING" SATURDAY 25 JULY 2015

Dr Maarten A Immink

Senior Lecturer, Motor Learning and Control

School of Health Sciences | University of South Australia

    About Dr Maarten Immink

    Dr Maarten A. Immink holds a doctorate in motor behaviour from Texas A&M University.

     

    He is a Senior Lecturer in Motor Learning and Control within the School of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia (UniSA).

    Maarten has over 20 years experience studying, researching and teaching the physiological and psychological basis of human learning and performance. 

    Dr Immink is an associate researcher with the world-renowned Sansom Institute for Health Research, an associated member of the Centre for Sleep Research, and a research member with the Exercise for Health and Human Performance research groups at UniSA. 

    Part of his research explores the basic science behind factors that affect behaviour, including fatigue, stress, arousal and affective states.  He also investigates how mind-body training, including yoga and mindfulness meditation, mediates the influence of these factors.  He is an accredited yoga and meditation teacher in the Satyananda Yoga tradition.