Imagine for a second you’re walking along a yellow brick road with your dog Toto, bewildered and naive, and all of a sudden a scarecrow starts giving you directions. Except, he gets mixed up, arm over arm pointing in opposite directions because he “hadn’t got a brain.”
Before I started practicing yoga, I was Dorothy, figuratively. I was lost and confused and I didn’t know which part of myself to listen to– which life direction would make me the happiest. I was mixed up, continuing the mental chats over and over again until I realized I hadn’t a clue about life direction, path or emotional stability.
If I only had a yoga brain.
Is what future me says today, and what I’ll say forever more.
During my life struggle in my 20s, it was difficult for me to be decisive, present, content, happy or calm. It seemed that everyday I was overanalyzing my life plan, thinking far into the future, comparing myself to others, depressed and anxious.
And then came yoga.
Just as it did for a group of 17 random adults in a study conducted by researcher Chris Streeter, yoga improved my mood and decreased anxiety.
We all have a brain chemical called GABA: gamma-amino butyric acid, “which is associated with improved moods and decreased anxiety,” says Streeter. And when the yoga group practiced for four weeks compared to a group that walked over that same period, yoga proved to be the better mood booster.
Exercise is paramount, but yoga, yoga is paramount for emotional stability, improved moods and what this study proves to show: calmness and contentment.
More research has shown that yoga enlarges certain parts of your brain. And very important parts at that.
Yoga increased the size of the areas of your noggin that: contain the mental map of your body, are involved in directing attention, decrease stress (the hippocampus), are the keys to our concept of self, and the visual cortex.
Helping Us Become Self Aware
A big part of why yoga has all of these benefits, is because of the breathing involved in the practice. The connection of mind and body.
When we’re stressed our bodies instinctively tense our muscles, we start to breathe rapidly, our minds become anxious, stress hormones elevate and our heart beats faster.
And during the asanas, the sometimes very difficult holds, bind poses and repetitive sun salutations, this can happen. Our bodies are thrust into stress response
But our controlled, slow breathing has incredible effects.
We slow our heart rates, push negative, stressful thoughts out of our brains and out of stress response and stay relaxed through these difficulties.
We are Retraining Our Brain Habits
In fact there are several poses that aid in diminishing stress and train our brain to react to tension through stretching, breathing and consciousness.
But yogi brain doesn’t just stop at reduced stress– we still haven’t touched on improved memory, concentration, motor speed, information processing, emotion regulation (really feeling in general) or pain tolerance!
Studies show that yoga and meditation stimulate “your brain’s ability to recreate itself,” says B. Grace Bullock, PhD.
Your brain is able to grow and change throughout our entire lives, but the only way we can make this happen is by constantly challenging it!
And yoga, for example, creates new connections between brain cells (synaptogenesis), allowing your brain to rewire itself and change. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to develop new connections and occurs a lot when we’re younger, learning new skills and encountering new challenges.
But by doing new hobbies or activities, practicing the art of yoga and repeating the practice, you can keep your brain healthy. Yoga and meditation emphasize awareness and attentiveness, and are constantly stimulating our brains to remain calm, take on new challenges and to be self aware. Reinforce your connections, strengthen your hardwiring and keep practicing!
But before I go, I’ll leave you with this.
Ongoing yoga practice can result in increased insula gray matter, meaning, the part of the brain that feels gets bigger.
So not only does this mean that we are more tolerant to pain when this happens, studies show, but this area of the brain is responsible for emotions like: love, gratitude, self-confidence, empathy, trust and truthfulness, to name a few.
If some of these are areas you struggle in– I know for me it was loving deeply, appreciating what I have and being honest with myself, perhaps a weekly yoga practice will aid your brain just as it did mine.
Don’t be a scarecrow. Rid your brain of hay. And take up a practice that replaces that hay with innumerable benefits to your new brain!
Talk soon! (: