Yoga And Brain Function

Posted by on Oct 16, 2016 in Meditation, Yoga and Brain, Yoga and Healing


Can a consistent yoga practice change the brain? I’ve heard many spiritual teachers claim just that in regards to this still mysterious organ. It’s apparent in my Ashtanga practice, that the benefits have been plentiful. Yoga has improved my clarity of mind, tremendously reduced anxiety and depression, and all but eliminated my chronic insomnia. This is no small accomplishment considering I tried many alternative therapies for years with no avail.

The Research Says… An Easy Leg to Stand on

As a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA), my professional training was rooted in the need for repeated numerical proof before a therapeutic effect could be claimed. Even then, scientific doubt had to be considered.

I cringe a little, every time I hear the words, research says. These two words seem like easy fists for human beings to put up in the air to defend lifestyle choices. Especially in a world gone out of control with popular health fads. Gluten, dairy, meat, and sometimes fruit are encouraged to be eliminated from one’s diet because the research says…

Regardless of the accuracy, as a consumer it can be overwhelming. What’s true? What’s not? Sometimes it feels like I am more likely to die stressing over what I should not eat than die from drinking a glass of milk. But I digress.

It’s time for me to become informed. What studies really have been done on yoga and the brain, and what are its effects?

The Research Says… What Really is Out There?

When given this assignment, the scientist in me was excited to dig a bit deeper than hearsay. I dug through, an internet website with thousands of archived research articles. Two thousand seven hundred and eighty journal articles popped up when I entered yoga and the brain into the search engine. 2,780! I was astounded by this number.

Because each article cost over thirty dollars to purchase, I read just the abstracts of around seventy-five studies. Professors and doctors had studied its effects on cancer, post-partum depression, anxiety, stroke, the brain, PTSD, epilepsy, and this merely scratched the surface of what had been studied.

The Research Says… The Studies

I narrowed in on two comprehensive studies. Study number one was conducted at the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden and the University of Texas, Department of Psychiatry and Behavior Science by Michaela Pascoe and Isabelle E Bauer, published in September 2015.

The second study was completed at University of Illinois at Chicago, Department of Physical Therapy by Radhiki Desai, Anish Tailor, and Tanyi Bhatt published in March 2015.

Both studies did a comprehensive review of existing clinical research on the effects of yoga on the brain. Between the two studies, there was a total of forty experimental research projects reviewed. All studies had an experimental group (those who did yoga) and a non-experimental group (those who did not).

The Research Says… The Results

  • Yoga showed a decrease in the release of Cortisol (the stress hormone), activated by the hypothalamus in the brain.
  • Posture-based yoga increased overall brain wave activity. Alpha brain waves are believed to clear the mind of unwanted thoughts, reduce depressive symptoms, and increase creativity
  • Yoga increased gray matter in the brain. Decreased gray matter has been associated with learning and memory problems.
  • Yoga increased amygdala activation. It’s the center of the brain responsible for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation.
  • Yoga increased frontal cortex activation. The frontal cortex is responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, moderating social behavior, and orchestrating thoughts and putting them into action.
  • Both studies suggest research is sparse and more is needed

The Research Says… The Implications

Scientists must believe the effects of yoga on our body and mind are significant enough to conduct close to three thousand studies on the matter. And their studies, while more is needed, lead us to believe that yoga has a positive effect on the brain.

I’d continue my practice with or without the hard data but it sure feels good to know the research is out there. And now, I truly am an informed practitioner!

Erin is a Special Education Teacher Consultant, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst with a focus in helping children with autism, lives in the Traverse Bay Area, Northern Michigan,USA, and is a practitioner of the traditional mysore style of Ashtanga yoga.

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