Yoga has been around for quite some time – and at this point, we know that it can definitely do miracles for our mind. No matter if you are a beginner or a veteran when it comes to yoga, you can agree to the fact that one single yoga class can make you feel much better.
But at this point, you can’t help but wonder: what does yoga to your brain that makes you feel so good? You’re practically striking a few poses – so, how does your brain react to this? Well, grab your yoga mat and start practicing, because this is what yoga does to your brain.
1. Yoga Relaxes Your Brain
From your first attempt at practicing yoga, you may have realized that yoga induces a feeling of peacefulness and calm. Research shows that consistent practice of yoga may lead to your brain producing more GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes a feeling of peace and calm – allowing you to feel more relaxed.
When there isn’t enough GABA in your system, you end up feeling more depressed and anxious. You take medications such as Xanax to improve GABA levels, but in most cases, this substance may just be released by using a simple activity such as yoga.
Yoga also relaxes the brain by relieving it of its feeling of anxiety – once more, through the production of more GABA. For this reason, yoga is generally prescribed to those that are struggling with anxiety and depression, allowing them to feel more relaxed and lessen the symptoms of their condition.
The calming effects of GABA are similar to those of drinking alcohol. However, the advantage here is that you will become calm without actually getting drunk, and without feeling the withdrawal symptoms.
It is believed that a yoga class is able to increase your GABA levels by 27%. If just one class can do that, just imagine what the effects will be if you go through it every day.
Imagine what a daily yoga class can do if one session increases GABA levels by 27%.
2. Yoga Improves Your Brain’s Ability to Manage Pain
Most of us take painkillers in order to deal with pain. However, since pain is transmitted through the brain, all it should take for you to ease it is to seize control of the brain itself. And yoga is known to be able to do that.
To put it simply, it has been proven that yoga is quite efficient in improving your tolerance to pain. Studies conducted on various groups, both yogi and non-yogi, proved that yoga could help you handle twice as much pain compared to your usual kind of pain resistance.
This is mostly because yoga practitioners feature a bigger volume of gray matter in comparison to those that do not practice yoga – particularly in the insular area. The insula is pretty much the part from within your cerebral cortex that allows you to maintain good body temperature and homeostasis. In turn, this will make you less susceptible to feeling pain.
The insula part of your cerebral cortex is also related to self-awareness and perception. It has a great role when it comes to regulating your parasympathetic nervous system as well. The reason why this matters is that it helps you feel more relaxed and calm physically – therefore, reducing the sensation of pain.
It has also been shown through brain scans that yoga with meditation can reduce your sensitivity to pain in a much more effective way compared to morphine. It blocks the neuroanatomical effects that you feel in response to chronic pain, allowing you to feel much better, but without actually introducing any painkillers in your system.
Plus, yoga provides a mix of conscious breathing, physical exercise, and cognitive framework. That framework allows you to see pain as simply a “sensation,” without categorizing it as good or bad. This way, you should be able to handle pain much more efficiently.
Yoga could help you handle twice your usual kind of pain resistance.
3. Yoga Prevents Age-Related Brain Decline
The more you age, the more your brain activity goes into decline. In this regard, studies conducted in 2014 at the University of Massachusetts suggest that long-term, consistent yoga practice can significantly slow down the age-related brain decline. Among practitioners and non-practitioners, it has been proven that the brain activity of the former group is more active at a later age.
Not only has their intelligence improved, but their cognitive flexibility has also increased quite a lot. Their memory, while not significantly boosted in comparison to their “younger days,” has shown less sign of decline – with a better ability to remember facts and cope with stress. In the end, this also suggests that the yogi might be prevented from spiraling into dementia or other similar conditions, with yoga supporting their brain health.
This is all thanks to the gray matter of your brain increasing in its density, allowing for more brain cell connections to occur. These connections generally diminish and die with age – however, yoga slows down the process. Since the regular practice of yoga keeps your brain’s gray matter in control, your brain will also remain sharp even as you grow old.
Plus, old age is associated with a reduction in your brain folds. This doesn’t allow for many brain cells to attach themselves to the brain tissue. However, with the regular practice of yoga, you should be able to slow this process down.
Yoga practitioners’s brain activity is more active than non-practitioners.
4. Yoga Keeps Your Brain Sharp, Yet Calm
Yoga is an activity that involves meditation and deep breathing as you are going through specific poses. These activities will work on your HPA axis, also referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. To put it simply, this axis is in control of your sympathetic nervous system (referred to as your fight or flight response that keeps you on edge) and your parasympathetic nervous system (which tells you that you have to calm down).
What yoga does is reduce your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation and increase the parasympathetic one (PNS), reducing your blood pressure and heart rate. Your brain picks this up, so the moment your body begins to chill out so does your brain.
That being said, this does not mean you will be in chill mode at every moment of every day. Yoga won’t turn you into a zombie. Instead, yoga brings it to a balance, allowing you to stay calm – but at the same time, perceptive. Yoga basically teaches you how to use your SNS when you require focus, alertness, and clarity, without sending you straight into fight mode. After all, the goal of yoga is to give you that “calm alertness.”
Yoga brings balance and keeps you calm while keeping your brain sharp.
5. Yoga Makes You Smarter
Your brain is mostly made from two tissue types. On one hand, there is about 60% of white matter. On the other hand, there is 40% of gray matter. Both of these are quite important for your cognitive function, complementing one another with their actions:
- Gray Matter: Featuring your neurons and your brain cells, gray matter is not as gray as its name makes you think. In fact, it is quite pink. It only turns gray after you die, once the blood flow through your brain stops. Since the gray matter is packed with neurons, it is the part of your brain that is responsible for memory and skill learning. It is also responsible for the way in which you perceive your senses, affecting your self-awareness and your muscle control.
- White Matter: While the gray matter is right in the middle of things, white matter is the connection coming and going from your brain cells. It practically wires your brain together, connecting all the sections and improving your responses. Your thoughts become more coordinated, and so does your movement.
Gray matter stores that information, white matter processes it. This is why both of them are crucial when it comes to keeping you sharp and intelligent. However, you are only as smart as the size of your brain matter allows you to. So obviously, if it is reduced, you will not be able to reap the same benefits.
Yoga can increase the density of the gray matter in your brain.
This is where yoga comes in. Studies show that constant practice of yoga can increase the density of your gray matter, as well as white matter, activating your prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and overall your entire brain. This will allow you to concentrate much better, remember things much faster – and overall, improve your mental acuity.
Plus, the more gray matter you have in your brain, the better you will be able to speak, and the more emotional self-control you will have. This is because your brain will make you think before taking action, therefore taking out the impulse and allowing you to take calculated action.
There is still much to be discovered about what yoga does to your brain – but what we can say for certain is that it makes you smarter, calmer, and keeps you sharp throughout your life. The most important factor here is consistency because only regular practice will give you the benefits that you seek.
Co-founder of MB Zen, digital nomad and freedom seeker. Loves developing projects that improve people’s lives. Functional training, yoga, and healthy eating define his lifestyle since he got his back injured. Fell in love with Yin yoga from the very first session though he won’t say no to any other kind of yoga.