Your Brain on Yoga – Why it Makes You Feel Ab Fab

It literally changes the structure of your brain. It alters your brain chemistry and it changes the way the thought patterns are processed. And it’s been measured.

A regular yoga practice can improve physical, mental, and emotional balance. Physically, the poses bring more strength and flexibility to all areas of the body. That part is easy to recognize. The more you practice, the stronger and more flexible you get. Simple. But why do people fall in love with the practice and why do they feel they have been changed on a deeper more spiritual level? Well, that part can be measured too.

Yogis, for a long time, have known that practicing yoga and meditation enhances mental stability and brings about profound changes in life. How does the physical practice of yoga postures do this?

Here’s your answer: on a mental level, practicing yoga develops a stronger connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. However, this only occurs if your practice is “mindful”. That is, only if you are experiencing the poses and practicing being in the moment. Your energy flows wherever your thoughts go. Imagine you are sitting inside your house and hear a loud noise outside; your awareness goes outside immediately, with or without your body. Imagine it, and then think of someone trying to talk to you while you are attuning to the noise outside. You would shush them immediately. You are directing your awareness away from your body and are tuning into what is going on in your yard. The same principles apply to a mindful yoga practice. If your thoughts are elsewhere, your energy is not directed inward on the body and is not focusing on specific areas of the body that the poses are designed to work on. In a nutshell, just doing the poses correctly is only getting you halfway there. Without being mindful, you are simply getting exercise. To get the most out of your practice, you must be present and practice mindful techniques while you are in the poses. The easiest technique is to focus on the breath. Yogis have believed for thousands of years that the breath is the gateway from the physical world to the world of consciousness.

Western science is paying more and more attention to the phenomenon of yoga. Studies have shown that mindful practices develop a stronger connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. That connection between the two sides is called neural integration. The right side of the brain is nonverbal, holistic, visuospatial, integrated map of the whole body, raw spontaneous emotion, and stress modulation. The left specializes in linguistics, linearity, logic, and literal thinking. When functions are separated, the brain can harness them into a state of connection to achieve more complex and adaptive functions.[v] We can say then that the left side of the brain may contain the “narrator” function, while the memories are stored on the right side. It has been proposed that during mindfulness practice, the left side of “chatter” would be competing with the right side (associated with body sense) for limited resources of attentional focus. By causing the two sides to compete during asana practice and forcing focus on the body, neural integration occurs. The cross over and coordination between both sides happens. With each successful mindful practice, the interconnections become stronger and create a form of coordination and balance structurally in the brain. The areas of the brain associated with neural integration actually become thicker[vi].The corpus callosum is the structure deep in the brain that connects the right and left hemispheres of the cerebrum, coordinating the functions of the two halves.

The Sanskrit term Hatha yoga, the practice of the physical postures, translates in a couple of different ways; Ha means “sun”, tha means “moon” and yoga means to unite; hatha can also mean “forceful”. Practicing the postures then, is a way to unite the opposing sides in a forceful way. (for this discussion) It’s uniting forces of the right and left (literally) the yin and yang, the masculine and feminine, the logical and the emotional. 

Oh No, They’ve Gone Spiritual
The yoga sutras of Patanjali, which date back to 200 B.C., open by stating that yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without distractions.[vii] Sutra 1.2, “yogasgcittacrttinirodhah”, literally translates to yoga ceases fluctuations of the mind. Patanjali’s description of the benefits of yoga, lead us to understand that yoga is for the mind and soul. He wasn’t talking about the postures we practice today (in fact those are a recent invention). Was Patanjali talking about neural integration? My guess is yes, on some level. What modern neuroscience is saying about yoga is very much related to what the ancient texts of India state. Patanjali’s yoga sutras are just a little more esoteric than the average American is interested in. So for those that need scientific proof, reading or hearing about the spiritual benefits of a yoga practice may seem like new age fluff, or even weird. My point is not to take away from those that make their practice a spiritual practice, but to demystify the process a bit. To point out that there is actually something physical that happens to your brain on yoga. Why it changes its practitioners, and why so many yogis “go spiritual”.

Practice Practice Practice
Research has proven that experiences can create structural changes in the human brain[viii]. Neural integration and the practice of mindful awareness have been proven to “improve the capacity to regulate emotion, to combat emotional dysfunction, to improve patterns of thinking, and to reduce negative mindsets.”[ix] Mindful awareness strengthens the areas of the brain responsible for our relationships, our emotional life, and our physiological response to stress.[x]

Practicing yoga mindfully requires you to experience everything about the pose without forming a judgment about the sensation. For example, observe the body during practice without narrative preconceived notions like, “ouch this hurts, or I’m not even going to try to do that”. There is a line between pain and discomfort. Never cause yourself pain, but use your practice to cultivate calmness through minor discomfort. Eventually, your mind will begin to relate the energetic effects of the asana with the practice and theoretically, the pose will no longer be associated with discomfort. Move beyond the idea that a pose is inaccessible, become aware of limitations and simply perform the pose to the body’s current capacity, wherever that is. Move into and out of the poses at the same speed and think and feel the sensations as you breathe in a controlled manner. Try not to describe or label your experience with words, try to conceptualize and feel your way through instead.

Now get this: the more challenging a task it, the easier it is to bring mindfulness into the practice. In other words, the harder it is, the easier it is to focus. Duh. So, go ahead and indulge in that ass-kickin’ asana practice. Over time you’ll be more able to go to the restorative class without getting annoyed or falling asleep. And if you prefer the slower paced gentle yoga class, and you are able to practice mindfulness, congratulations. However, everyone should balance out their practices with a little bit of both practices. It’s good to keep your body and your brain guessing, and it’s good to develop strength and get out of your comfort zone.

So, what happens when both sides of the brain are communicating simultaneously during every day life and during decision making? I guess you’ll have to start practicing some form of mindful awareness to find out. So, go ahead yoga nerds…get on your mat, practice mindfulness, and do some neural integration.

[i] Timothy McCall, M.D. Yoga as Medicine; the Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. (New York, 2007). 31.

[ii] McCall 37.

[iii] McCall 39.

[iv] Mundell, EJ. “Yoga May Help Treat Depression, Anxiety Disorders”. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. (Health Day News) May 2007. 

[v] Daniel J. Siegel. The Mindful Brain; Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being(New York:Toronto 2007) 46.

[vi] Siegel 44.

[vii] T.K.V. Desikachar. The Heart of Yoga; Developing a Personal Practice. (Rochester, VT 2005) 165.

[viii] Seigel 25.

[ix] Seigel 6.

[x] Seigel 6.

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