Dr. Upasana Gala discusses how yoga helps to provide benefits beyond just the physical, and can leave a positive impact on the brain.
Yoga is an ancient mind and body practice with origins in Indian philosophy. It is a skillful combination of physical exercises (asana), rhythmic breathing (pranayama, kriya) and meditative exercise (sahaj) to bring holistic mind-body experience. With better understanding of age-old practice, the popularity of it has risen in recent years. Yoga is not only a recreational exercise but also a means of reducing stress and anxiety, increasing physical fitness, and improving mood and overall well-being.
Need for yoga today
In these challenging times, stress has become all pervasive in our lives and even started impacting our sleep, motivation, attention and more. While being worried is a normal reaction in the face of uncertainty, it is important to not give in to these negative emotions. The simple act of slow-deep breathing or being mindful helps to bring your attention to the present instead of worrying about the future.
Interaction of different practices in yoga brings positive changes in our mood, thoughts, and even cognition. Many studies have actually shown cognitive advantages among yoga practitioners versus non-practitioners. We are aware of the benefits yoga has on our physical health and wellbeing, let’s have a look into how yoga makes changes in your brain.
How does yoga rewire your brain?
The brain, our most complex organ, undergoes many changes on a daily basis. Our brain is not hardwired, as it was believed to be. Comprehensive studies on neuroplasticity show us that the brain is constantly growing and changing to the environmental demands.
Yoga changes your brainwaves: Our brain consists of several brainwaves which are responsible for different activities in our daily lives. Alpha state is the state of relaxed awareness. During vacation when you’re relaxing on a beach, you’re typically in the alpha state. Yoga training increases the alpha activity which can help you calm down more easily, stay relaxed and generally feel good in your busy life. Theta state is a narrow lane between your conscious and subconscious mind. It’s a storehouse of your skills, beliefs, memories, even past trauma. Regular yoga increases theta waves, along with alpha by 40 percent. This free-flowing state helps to bring out your creative mind, your motivation, makes you adept at controlling your emotions and even helps you get resolution on past traumas.
Yoga brings about structural and activation changes: The front area of the brain- frontal lobe is responsible for higher level functions like planning, decision making, problem solving and overall rational thinking. Yoga increases activity in this crucial area making you better at handling complex tasks and improving your analytical thinking. Another important area of your brain is a small-pea shaped part called amygdala that controls your emotions like anger and fear. When you get overly emotional your amygdala overrides the frontal lobe and you end up taking decisions emotionally rather than rationally. Yoga helps to reduce the activity in amygdala enabling you to handle your fears and emotions better. With long term yoga, you are ultimately able to calmly take better decisions in life, even under stressful conditions.
Yoga increases grey matter density in the brain: Grey matter forms a major part of our brain and plays important roles in healthy cognitive functioning. One such area is the hippocampus which is the center of learning and memory. You can thank your hippocampus, if you’re able to remember where you parked your car today or the name of your childhood school. Recent research shows that yoga increases gray matter volume in the hippocampus and frontal sections of your brain. This helps in forming new memories and retrieving memories from the past. Generally the size of the hippocampus reduces with age, but with yoga this shrinkage can be prevented. Studies on elderly people show that yoga helps maintain the size of the hippocampus and reduces risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders.
Yoga reduces stress-based cortisol: In the face of stress, your body switches to fight or flight mode and your nervous system responds by releasing flood of stress hormones, namely adrenaline and cortisol. These critical hormones prepare the body for any emergency. You start to experience racing heartbeat, stiffening of muscles, rise in blood pressure and shortness of breath. In normal circumstances your body returns to natural state after the stress passes by. But sometimes, the stress reaction persists which can become harmful to your health and lead to serious conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Yoga helps reduce stress by lowering your body’s cortisol and adrenaline levels, thereby reducing the negative effects these hormones create on your body.
Yoga is commonly thought to involve several stretching and complex physical movements. As such, its benefits are believed to be more physical. However, its effects are more far-reaching. The combinations of poses, breathing, and meditation helps rewire your brain which improves your cognition as well as how you process your emotions. Even as little as 10 minutes of yoga a day can help you lead a happy, healthy, and balanced life!
DR. UPASANA GALA
Dr. Upasana Gala is the founder and CEO of Evolve Brain Training, a Neurofeedback centered institute that focuses on using noninvasive brain training techniques to maximize the brain’s true potential. Earning a doctorate in Neuroscience from the revered Baylor College of Medicine, she has spent over a decade trying to unravel the way neurochemical and neurophysiological changes in the brain affect the way we interact with the world. The passion and curiosity for the subject have led her to make ‘the Brain’ her full-time vocation.
Dr. Gala is one of the few women in STEM in the UAE, working on promoting and auctioning future-forward technology to help individuals and businesses alike reassess the way they think and perform.
Her goal is to share her teachings, encourage others to tap into and expand their brain’s capabilities, and dispel any myths surrounding our most complex organ.