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The Effects of Yoga on the Brain

Yoga isn’t just for those searching for the meaning of life. However, in today’s world, the majority of people are searching for answers; how to decrease anxiety, how to deal with depression, how to cope with post traumatic stress disorder, how to be happy. Yoga isn’t magic, but it is a tool that many are beginning to turn to for help in finding the solutions to some of these problems.

A yoga practice has three main points of focus: the postures (asanas), the breath (pranayama), and meditation (dhyāna). The word Yoga means union. Yoga synchronizes breath with movement to strengthen the nervous system, muscles and
the mind and unite balance in the body.

So, how does contorting your body into odd shapes and arm balances work to promote happiness and peace in the body? Scientists have studied the effects of yoga on the body extensively. Tiny nerves intertwined through the body are responsible for sending signals to the brain. When the stomach is empty, the nerves call up the brain to tell you that you are hungry. When you see a bear running at you, your body tenses up. Blood vessels constrict, your blood pressure increases. Cortisol is released and you are ready to run. Anytime you are presented with a stressful situation, which is increasingly more common, you get this reaction from your sympathetic nervous system. Your body is in “Fight or Flight” mode. If you are constantly in a hyper- aroused state due to work, relationships, or lifestyle, you are releasing cortisol. Cortisol will attach to receptors in the prefrontal cortex, thus, inhibiting your ability to focus, rest your mind, digest foods, and produce the neurotransmitters like Serotonin and Dopamine that are responsible for mood, appetite and muscle control. As children, we are taught how to tie our shoes and ride a bike. But no one teaches us specifically how to pay attention or how to deal with stressful situations.

This is where yoga comes in. The breath work, the body work, the meditation; these are the things we teach you. These are the tools you need to tackle day-to-day life. Yoga down regulates the nervous system and tones the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It controls everything from heart rate and blood pressure to mood and sex drive. It innervates the heart, lungs, diaphragm, and intestines. The vagus nerve makes up 80% of the parasympathetic nervous system. Controlled physical stimulation like stretching and twisting in yoga, acts directly on these nerves to tell the body that it is safe and being cared for. The breathing practiced in yoga directly stimulates the vagus nerve via the trachea. This sends signals to the body that it can start to calm down. Slow, controlled inhales and elongated exhales, rather than short and fast breaths, indicate there are no threats nearby and that the body can continue to focus on digestive processes, decreasing cortisol levels, and initiate a level of calm through the body and brain. The elongated rhythm of the stomach during deep breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve via the diaphragm and intestines. This specific stimulation on the body, signals for the brain promote a healthy gut-microbiome and activates serotonin production in the gut, thus in turn, promoting happiness and decreasing anxious thoughts.

Yoga teaches us how to find safety in the body and set the scene for healing. The World Heath Organization gives us recommendations on how much water to drink in a day, how much sleep to get, how much physical activity we should be doing. Yet, no one tells us how many deep breaths to take in a day or how much time to devote to our own healing and self-care. Do yourself a favor, take some time for you today. Rest, reset, recharge. Take the first step in becoming the best person you can be for you and everyone around you.

Interested in beginning a yoga practice or advancing your current practice? Reach out to our certified yoga instructor about weekly classes and private sessions held in our Himalayan salt cave.

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