This is Your Brain on Yoga

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Have you ever felt that elated feeling after a yoga class? That similar slightly euphoric feeling of a runner’s high as you come out of your final Savasana pose, roll up your mat and continue with your day? It's a more common human experience than you might think, and might actually have a lot to do with neuroscience. 

Yoga enthusiasts are the first to point toward an array of health benefits that a practice can have on the mind and body. From a scientific point of view, we still know very little about how exercise and yoga chemically affects our moods and perceptions. In the last few years, scientists discovered that the “runner’s high” may in fact have nothing to do with endorphins (the "happy hormone") at all, but rather might have to do with the endocannabinoid system in our brains. Similar to how this sounds, this system functions as the body’s very own homemade marijuana, as it effects our appetite, pain sensations, mood and memory.

An increasing amount of scientific studies are looking into what happens in our brains during a yoga practice. One particularly novel study addressed the question of whether changes in thalamic GABA levels associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety are specific to yoga, or the same for other forms of exercise as well. GABA is sort of the “grand inhibitor” in the brain, and plays a central role in suppressing neural activity.

The study examined the neurobiological effects of yoga by comparing a normal, healthy group of individuals (walking subjects) with a 12-week yoga training (yoga subjects). Using MRI brain scanning techniques, the study found that a regular practice of gentle yoga releases a chemical called GABA in the thalamus. In other words, yoga subjects reported greater improvement in mood and greater decreases in anxiety than the walking group. Not only did they show a significantly higher level of GABA in those subjects practicing yoga over a longer period of time, but even an hour of practicing an hour of yoga could lead to a significant change.

 

"Adopting a yoga practice into your life could have a longer lasting effect on the brain."

 

It's possible to compare such a mechanism to the classical methods of anti-anxiety medication, such as benzodiazepines which encourage the release of GABA in the central nervous system. Similarly, that feeling of relaxation and decreased anxiety that comes with enjoying a glass of wine also falls under this mechanism. The use of alcohol also mimics this GABA mechanism by temporarily binding to the same chemical receptors.

Streeter et al’s findings suggest that somehow, the meditative stretching and breathing involved in practicing yoga signals the brain to release calming chemicals, which play out their mood effects in the hours following a session of yoga. They also suggest that adopting a yoga practice into your life could have a longer lasting effect on the brain. 

Though research remains very preliminary regarding the specifics of the GABA receptor, we do know that the connections in the brain use chemical signals to actually change their strength and configuration. It may be that the GABA released over a period of regular yoga practice can help boost baseline levels of this calming chemical, helping the brain rewire itself to have a calmer, less anxious response in the face of everyday stressors.

So next time you're feeling a little low, remember that our movements and breathing patterns can have profound power over the way we think, act and feel. While it will still take many years to fully comprehend and prove the results of practicing yoga on the brain, the enthusiasts in the room will tell you they can definitely already feel this. As more and more studies emerge on its physiological effects, we anticipate the chemical understanding and strategic use of exercise and yoga will grow far stronger in the near future.  
 

This post was written by Sara Panton. She has a background in neuroscience and global health, and is an entrepreneur at the intersection of beauty and technology. Follow her on Twitter here.