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Changing Your Internal Landscape – A (Not So) Little (and Super Cool) Thing Called Neuroplasticity

Valerie Knopik, Yoga Medicine® Instructor, discusses how mindfulness-based techniques, such as yoga and meditation, can cause structural and functional changes in the brain.

There is growing research that mindfulness-based techniques, such as yoga and meditation, induce changes in brain structure and function. How can this happen? What are the underlying mechanisms? How can this behavior get ‘under the skin’ to affect our biology? Let’s take a quick look….think of this as the speed-dating version, because we could seriously spend a career delving into this cool stuff!

Luders and Kurth (2019) describe meditation as an active mental process that, when done repeatedly, regularly, and over longer periods of time, can change brain structure. This is due, in part, to the fact that meditation incorporates efforts to exercise awareness, attention, concentration, and focus. Yoga is a mind-body practice incorporating many of these same qualities alongside movement. There is accumulating evidence of positive effects on yoga on mental health, physical health, and well-being (Tolahunase et al., 2018). Going even further, a recent investigation examining all studies to date (or meta-analysis) suggest that mindful-based practices, such as yoga and meditation, hold promise as evidence-based treatment for mental health disorders, particularly depression (Goldberg et al., 2018). I think that this is something that we, as yoga practitioners have ‘felt’ for a long time and I love that, as a mental health researcher, there is now some evidence to back up our experiential claims.

Diving just a bit deeper……A recent review by Tang et al (2015) in Nature Reviews Neuroscience discusses possible mechanisms that lend further support to these processes. They suggest that one possibility is engaging the brain in mindfulness affects brain structure by inducing dendritic branching, synaptogenesis, myelinogenesis or even adult neurogenesis – all super cool brain changes we tend to lump together under the umbrella term of ‘neuroplasticity’. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the central nervous system (CNS) to adapt and reorganize its structure and function in response to internal or external stimuli and manifests at both biological and clinical levels. You may have heard the phrase, “neurons that fire together, wire together,” and this is a general underlying principle of neuroplasticity. Yoga and meditation teach us to slow down, notice, be aware, and (hopefully) be non-reactive. By practicing these behaviors over and over, we are reinforcing these positive neural pathways making them the ‘default’ pathway. In other words, we have the capacity to change the way our neurons (brain cells) connect with one another! We can actually, through mindful awareness, reinforce positive neural connections!

Relatedly, research also suggests that mindfulness positively affects autonomic nervous system regulation and immune activity (think stress response!), which may result in neuronal preservation, restoration and/or inhibition of apoptosis (aka cell death). We know, experientially, that mindfulness-based techniques are highly effective in stress reduction, and it now appears possible that such stress reduction may also mediate changes in brain function (Tang et al., 2019).

If you don’t already have a yoga or mindfulness practice, here are some simple tips to get you started on changing those neuronal connections:

  1. Bring mindfulness and meditation into your daily practice. Starting with just 3 minutes a day and building to 10 minutes over time. If sitting down to meditate feels too daunting, try a walking meditation. This isn’t just going on a walk. Being barefoot is really helpful for this approach as it will help you stay very aware of each blade or grass or grain of sand or plank of wood floor. You could literally walk back and forth over the same area trying to stay very focused on the feeling of each movement of your feet, noticing your mind wandering, and staying super present in your experience.
  2. Bring breath to the forefront of your yoga practice. I come back to this a lot. I wrote a piece for Yoga Digest last year about going back to the breath and well, it’s hard, but it just might be a game changer for your practice. Approach your practice as if your breath is the peak pose. Instead of thinking about what you look like in each shape, focus on your breath instead. Notice how a shift in mental focus might stir things up and change your perspective.
  3. Notice your habitual responses. When your alarm goes off in the morning, do you automatically say something to yourself (or out loud) like, “Argh (or insert another expletive here)!” Try shifting your internal (and possibly external) voice to be more positive….something along the lines of “It’s going to be an awesome day! I’m grateful to be able to experience this wonderful day and all that it brings.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m sold. Well, I was already sold. But if I wasn’t, I would be! Even though we, as scientists, as still exploring these underlying mechanisms, I find it so powerful (and super cool!) that we have these initial results that suggest we have the capacity to change our internal landscape …. What about you?

About the Author

Valerie Knopik

Valerie Knopik

Valerie Knopik is the Ben & Maxine Miller Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University and E-RYT in Indianapolis, Indiana. Formally trained in classical ballet, as well as a former runner, Valerie has always been a believer in staying active but yoga is the perfect marriage of her work in mental health & her love of movement & anatomy. With a PhD in Psychology, Valerie is extremely active in mental health research, focusing on how our internal biology and our external physical environment (including yoga, mindfulness, and meditation) can interact to positively change our mental health landscape. Valerie’s sincere hope is that, while the physical asana practice might be the introduction to yoga (as it was for her), her students can utilize the asanas as a tool to find cohesion of body, mind, and spirit in order to experience fullness & purpose in their lives. Valerie lives with her husband and their two children (and a big, loveable Great Dane named Justice) in Indiana.

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