How Yoga Affects The Brain
As a psychotherapist and a yoga teacher and student I am very interested in how yoga affects the brain.
Why do I feel so calm and peaceful after practicing yoga? How does regular yoga practice make my life seem more manageable and give me a greater sense of confidence? An avid exerciser, I’ve noticed that I experience these benefits more so with yoga than other types of exercise, such as running or lifting weights. As it turns out there happens to be some research on this subject, suggesting that yoga offers benefits other types of exercise do not and explaining why yoga is such a powerful tool to combat stress.
Yoga rewires the brain.
The third limb in The 8 Limbs of Yoga is the asanas, the physical postures that allow us to integrate our mind, body, and spirit through connecting breath to movement. The results of a research study conducted at the University of Illinois in which participants practiced yoga and walked or jogged on a treadmill for 20 minutes each demonstrate that the speed and accuracy of working memory and inhibitory control, in other words the ability to focus and retain new information, is significantly improved right after a yoga session versus moderate to vigorous aerobic activity. Another study shows that GABA, a hormone released in the thalamus, which alcohol and some anti-anxiety medications mimic in the body, increased by 27% directly following yoga practice. So what makes yoga special? Yoga encourages focus on using the breath with movement and awareness of the present moment; it seems these factors enhance self-awareness and create rewiring in the brain, increasing the ability to respond to stress and maintain control over emotions. So when you’re experiencing stress, anxiety, or having a difficult time focusing, a yoga session will probably be more helpful than going for a run or cracking open a bottle of wine.
Yoga is being used to treat PTSD.
In the world of mental health, mindfulness has been experiencing a popular run these days. The western world of psychology has started to figure out that meditation can be used to decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, something yogis have known for a long time. What is very exciting is that yoga is now being used to treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome), a debilitating set of symptoms many people have in response to experiencing trauma. When someone experiences a traumatic event the fight-flight-freeze response (increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones) is activated in the brain and becomes stuck; they continue to experience this intense state of fear in response to low-level stressors, with the feeling that this panic will never end. Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, a leading author on PTSD, has studied yoga’s effects on PTSD symptoms and asserts that by regulating the core arousal system in the brain and aiding in the growth of new brain cells, yoga transforms the way a person with PTSD experiences physical sensations and emotions. Any student of yoga realizes the physical asanas become a greater metaphor for other parts of life; by learning to control one’s breath to physically relax the body and experiencing that pain and discomfort do not last forever, an internal locus of control is created. This can be very empowering and life-transforming for someone who has felt trapped in their body, a slave to fear. It’s also interesting to note that extreme stress causes the prefrontal cortex to shut down, the part of the brain that allows you to experience the present moment, as well as shutting off the speech center. Yoga provides a way to use the body as a form of self-expression, without using words, and the opportunity to focus on the present moment in a safe environment.
Living in the present moment.
As a yoga teacher and a psychotherapist, I need to be aware that each student/client has a unique story and will bring their life experiences onto the mat or into the session with them. Dr. Van der Kolk offers some great suggestions for teachers to keep in mind: create a safe space for the practice by keeping the focus on breath and flow of the asanas, refrain from excessive talking, explaining, or preaching, and keep in mind that silence can be terrifying for some people. Focus first on learning to regulate physiology with breath, postures, and relaxation and work towards meditation. As I’ve learned from my work as a therapist, listening is the most important thing we can do as people who support others in finding well-being; my job is to help people feel safe, provide encouragement, and respect that they know themselves best. It is also important to remember change is hard- harder for some people than others- and it can be very disempowering to suggest that yoga is an easy answer.
Yoga, like life, can be really difficult as well as blissful. Regardless if you are a teacher, student, or both, yoga is about patience, being in the present moment, and remembering to breathe.
Grazioplene, Rachel. “This is Your Brain on Yoga”. Psychologytoday.com. Sussex Publishers, LLC: 1991-2013. Web 26. Nov. 2013.
Isaacs, Nora. “The Cutting Edge of Trauma Treatment: Healing Through the Body”. Kripalu.org. Kripalu: Center for Yoga & Health: 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Yates, Diana. ” A 20-minute Bout of Yoga Stimulates Brain Function Immediately After. News Bureau: Illinois. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
“Yoga and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: An Interview with Bessel Van der Kolk, MD. Traumacenter.org. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Teacher Training, TraumaCenter.org, David Emerson, email@example.com
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