By Valerie Knopik for Yoga Digest.
When I first started to practice yoga over 20 years ago, it was for the physical practice. As my practice matured, I stepped onto my mat not only for the physical connection but also because it soothed me – mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. It brought me to a peaceful place even after the most tiresome or stressful of days. And now, as my meditation practice has become consistent, I am able to tap into the peaceful space with as little as 10 minutes of sitting in stillness. As a yogi who is also a scientist, I have to sheepishly admit that I didn’t dwell too much on the physiological changes that might be happening in my brain; although I figured that something must be happening up there. Ask yourself, have you ever stopped to think about the effects of yoga and meditation on the health of your brain?
There is a growing body of research that suggests that mind-body therapies, such as yoga, pranayama, and meditation, can have a profound effect not only on our physical musculature and our mood, but also on the health of our brain. In short, there is suggestive evidence that yoga, meditation, and pranayama can keep our brain ‘young’.
How does this happen? A recent review (Muehsam et al., 2017; Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews) beautifully summarizes these pathways as ‘top/down’ and ‘bottom/up’. You can think of top/down effects as those that result from targeting an individual’s cognitive state. More specifically, top/down effects occur when we practice mind-body techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and focused intention tasks. These types of techniques have been shown to influence brain activity in regions that are involved in reducing psychological stress and increasing the parasympathetic response. These top/down effects have downstream results of reducing heart rate, increased immune function, and more efficient digestion – all of which feed back to the brain to affect mood and behavior. Bottom/up effects occur when we engage in the physical aspects of yoga or controlled breath work, both of which require us to use our musculoskeletal system and increase our cardiovascular output. These physiological changes also subsequently influence on the body’s capability to fight illness, balance between the parasympathetic/sympathetic nervous system, and mood. You can think of top/down and bottom/up pathways working together to produce direct effects on physiology and the nervous system. If we drill down a bit deeper, we see that these effects can come in many forms….from changing the ways our stress-signaling genes are expressed (which changes our immune system) to increased brain activity and connectivity (which can change our cognitive response to stimuli and our ability to learn).
Let’s connect the dots even further. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as the cessation of the modifications, or vrttis, of the mind. When we change brain activity, particularly in regions known to be involved in the process of learning to identify maladaptive or irrational thoughts (i.e., vrttis), through yoga and meditation, we have the amazing capacity to also change the landscape of our brain. This concept is called cortical plasticity, which is our brain’s way of reorganizing itself by forming new neural connections based on our experiences, lifestyle, and environment.
One lingering question might be on your mind. Are these only available to the most seasoned of yoga practitioners? Not necessarily. While there is some evidence to suggest that long-term practice is needed to acquire enhancement of specific cognitive skills, such as processing of visual stimuli, there is also research to suggest that those newer to the practice of yoga and meditation can also benefit, particularly in areas of the brain involved in memory. The take-home message? Practice. Step onto your mat, sit on your meditation pillow, or simply just take a few moments each day to focus on your breath. You just might begin to tap into your own personal fountain of youth for your brain.
About the Author
Valerie Knopik, PhD, is the Director of Research for Yoga Medicine, a Senior Research Scientist and Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, and a yoga teacher in Providence, Rhode Island. Valerie has always been a believer in staying active and yoga is the perfect marriage of her work in mental health and her love of movement and 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.