Not so long ago, everyone wanted a ‘yoga butt’ or Madonna’s ‘yoga arms’. But yoga offers a more impactful and important way to re-shape your body - ‘yoga brain’.
Our understanding of how the brain works has come a loooong way in the last few decades. We now know that the brain is incredibly adaptable, and keeps changing right up until the end of life - and possibly beyond. People who have been clinically dead come back with their brains changed! In the same way that your muscles grow or shrink depending on how and whether you stimulate them, parts of your brain also grow and shrink based on how you use it!
Your brain can change its own structure and function based on what you think and do. This concept is called ‘neuroplasticity’. ‘Neuro’ for neuron and ‘plastic’, meaning changeable or malleable. And your brain is malleable - with the consistency of a brick of tofu. You can literally re-shape it; adding or subtracting neural connections based on how you use your mind. When you learn new things, for example, you add new neural connections. You can also lose neural connections if you don’t use them.
This is the most wonderful, hopeful and exciting news!
It means you can learn new things and new ways of being with regard to habits, love, relationships, pain, learning, addictions, and more. And it means your past is not a prison sentence. You’re not necessarily doomed to repeat the same patterns. You can re-train and re-structure your own brain in ways that help you live life better.
Yoga Meets Neuroscience
Yogis have known this for a long time. The proof is in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a 2500(ish) year old book that lays out the blueprints for yoga practice. A hefty chunk of the Yoga Sutras is dedicated to explaining how the mind works and how to work skillfully with your thoughts so you can unlearn habits that cause suffering and create new habits that lead to peace and freedom.
In yoga-speak, the concept of ‘neuroplasticity’ is known as a ‘samskara’ –a behavioural ‘rut’ or ‘groove’ that you sculpt into your body/mind by repeating thoughts and behaviours. It gets easier to fall into a thought/behaviour ‘groove’ every time you repeat it. That’s how habits are formed. You can also create new ‘grooves’ by practicing new thoughts and behaviours.
Both neuroscience and yoga agree: the way you think, feel and act changes the structure of your brain. When you become aware that this is how your brain operates, you can start to use that knowledge to consciously re-shape the way you think and act. You can steer the direction of your brain’s growth and evolution by choosing to practice thoughts, feelings and behaviours that grow your brain in a direction YOU CHOOSE.
That’s an incredibly empowering idea! Let that sink in…
In mindfulness practice, that’s exactly what you do! Steer yourself away from habits and thoughts that lead to suffering and create thoughts & behaviours that shape your mind into a more serene and peaceful place.
Neuroplasticity is a simple concept: when you repeat a thought or behaviour, you create a robust neural pathway in the brain that grows stronger with every repetition. Repeated use shapes that circuit’s function and strengthens it. Want inner peace? Practice thinking peaceful thoughts.
When you alter the physical structure of your brain, you alter the way your brain functions.
Proof That Yoga Re-Structures Your Brain
Thanks to modern brain imaging technology and the recent boom in yoga research, we an actually SEE the kinds of changes that take place in the brains of yoga practitioners. Three areas of the brain that are re-structured by yoga practice are your Amygdala (fear and emotions), Hippocampus (memory & learning) and the Insula (self-awareness).
Your amygdala is part of your limbic system. A very old (reptilian) part of your brain that is dedicated to your survival.
If you think about the history of human development, and what the human body looks like compared to other animals (wolves, bears and tigers) we don’t look like a predator. No fangs, no claws, no talons. We look like prey. As prey, our brains developed to be hyper-aware about things that could potentially harm us -so we could be prepared to react quickly to save our skins.
This is where your amygdala comes in. It’s a part of the brain that plays a role in emotional reactions and fear responses, amongst other things.
If you’ve ever found yourself in panic mode when your child is late coming home from a friend’s house or flown into a full-on freak-out about how unprepared you are to give a presentation (even though you’re perfectly prepared) … you’ve felt your amygdala doing it’s thing. Your evolutionary biology has predisposed you to focus on identifying potential threats. While this is useful in certain situations – like when you’re walking alone through a shady neighbourhood at night or trying to survive on the savanna - You DON’T want your amygdala running your life and injecting fear into situations where it doesn’t belong.
The amygdala shrinks in yoga practitioners. This can be seen with fMRI imaging. And as a result of this structural change to your brain, your propensity for reacting with fear and anxiety shrinks too.
A number of studies highlight changes in hippocampal volume following yoga practice. The hippocampus is involved in learning and memory processing. It shrinks as you age, and it’s the structure first affected in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So, beefing up the amount of gray matter in your hippocampus is a great idea – and yoga practice does just that! Studies have shown that middle-aged meditators have the same-sized hippocampus as people in their 20s. And no deterioriation compared to age-matched subjects who aren’t meditators.
Interestingly, your hippocampus is also related to body awareness and is critical to dampening stress. Both also improve with yoga practice.
Research shows that the insula plays an important role in many different kinds of meditative practices. It’s central to interoceptive body awareness. Interoception is your ability to sense signals coming from deep within (heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, hunger, satiation, etc). It also seems to be involved in empathy, postural changes and slow breathing.
Here's a practice to hone your interoceptive awareness
Various neuroimaging studies have shown that interoceptive awareness is associated with stress resiliency and low interoceptive awareness is associated with depression. It’s believed that the insula is involved in our present-moment awareness and in processing bodily sensations which are used to make decisions (choosing how to react to a situation based on a gut feeling or recognizing that your blood sugar is low and you need to eat).
Increased interoceptive awareness allows you to be in touch with early warning signals coming from your internal environment that let you know something is out of balance and needs correcting (you need water, are fatigued, are under stress). When you’re aware of imbalances in the early stages, you can take steps to address the situation before it gets out of hand. Perhaps that’s what allows yoga practitioners to experience more physiological, mental and emotional balance.
In addition to its involvement in your sense of presence and self-awareness, your insula seems to be connected to your awareness of others and their feelings. Exercising your insula gives rise to feelings of compassion, social connection and attunement to others. Yoga means union and the practice is meant to help us experience our interconnectedness. The insula may be the key to understanding this effect.
If you’ve been practicing yoga for awhile, you likely already know, deep in your guts, that yoga has changed your mind/brain. The evidence is in the way you show up and respond to situations in your own life on a daily basis. But now, thanks to brain imaging technology, we can SEE and point to the ways yoga physically changes your brain and positively impacts its health.
Stay tuned for Part II of this blog, where we investigate Pratipaksha Bhavana, a yogic tool for transforming negative thinking.
Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6971819/
What Has Neuroimaging Taught Us on the Neurobiology of Yoga? A Review
Neuroprotective effects of yoga practice: age-, experience-, and frequency-dependent plasticity
Neurohemodynamic correlates of 'OM' chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study
The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D.
Yoga International, Anatomy of the Meditative Brain (video)
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions