What if we could see inside of our brains when we are practicing our deep breathing, sun salutations, and savasana? Would you want to see/know what parts of your brain are being turned on and off or growing and shrinking? Well, this might not quite be reality yet, however, with neuroimaging technology what it is today, it is pretty close! When I started my yoga practice almost 20 years ago, I didn’t know what the practice did to my brain if anything, I just felt relief each time I left class. Now, all these years later, it excites me to know that it supported my brain’s own natural ability to heal.
Before discovering yoga, I was a workaholic that was in a constant state of flight or fight with the world around me. I figured I had inherited my mother’s anxiety and there was nothing I could really do about it. Boy was I wrong! My first yoga class spoke to me in a way that I had never experienced before, calling me back to the mat that first year 5 to 6 times a week. I thought it had become my new addiction, yet it changed me so profoundly that I was finally able to find the long sought after balance I craved in my life.
I believed yoga was a huge contributor to my healing journey, although at the time I might not have fully understood how it worked. Today, with the integration of neuroimaging and neurophysiological techniques into the study of yoga, research has begun to reveal consistent structural and functional changes in the brain. With the benefit of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and/or single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scanning, the benefits of yoga are lighting up our brains!
Although the various research studies have looked at different aspects of yoga, such as movement versus meditation as well as styles of yoga, these studies reflect relatively consistent cerebral structural and functional changes. What this tells me is that you can’t do it wrong! It doesn’t matter if you practice Iyengar, Yin, Hatha and/or Kundalini yoga, it will help your brain. It doesn’t matter if you practice movement, breathing techniques, meditation or chant, it will help your brain. And with all of the different approaches, including Kids and Chair yoga, yoga is available to help our brains throughout the entire life cycle.
Fast forward with the increasing popularity of yoga worldwide, research is still scarce in yogis yet it is expanding with the assistance of neuroimaging. And this research is showing that yoga effects the brain both structurally and functionally, specifically in areas involving interoception, posture, motivation, and higher executive functions. Moving forward, more research is needed to reflect the changes in the brain through neuroimaging when the brain is suffering from the effects of anxiety, depression, PTSD and other stress-induced mental health challenges. I would have loved to see what my brain looked like before discovering yoga and after integrating my practice into my everyday life. I think the results would have been very validating!