The Simple Reality
It occurred to me recently that yoga can be seen as a drug, and your brain on yoga can be synchronous to that feeling. Quite simple, really.
A drug is “a substance that has a physiological effect when introduced into the body."
Replace the word “substance” with “practice” and I’d say that’s a pretty good definition of yoga. We introduce asana, pranayama, and meditation into our bodies, and they have profound physiological effects. Like any other drug, yoga changes brain chemistry, signaling, and structure. It’s no wonder many doctors recommend yoga and meditation in addition to medical therapy for many different conditions.
Here are a handful of ways that this powerful drug affects our brains:
Your Brain on Yoga: Anxiety
How does yoga make you feel mentally?
It is well documented that mindful practices like yoga, meditation, and breath work regulate the nervous system. When we are anxious, our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. Yoga helps lower heart rate and blood pressure, calm respiration, and put us at ease. In other words – it’s an antidote to anxiety.
The anti-anxiety benefits of yoga extend to the brain, too. In fact, regular practice is so powerful that it actually changes the physical structure of the brain. The amygdala is roughly a two almond-shaped structure in the brain that plays a huge role in inducing anxiety. It is also responsible for fear and impulsive (but sometimes maladaptive) reactions to threats. Brain MRIs of long term yoga practitioners show an amygdala that is smaller in size than those of non-yogis. Pretty powerful stuff
Finally, yogic practices not only physiologically activate the parasympathetic nervous system and inhibit the amygdala's fear response, they also provide a simple distraction from negative thoughts. When you’re focusing mindfully breath or mantra, it’s hard to think about your bank account, a fight with your partner, or whatever else is stressing you out.
Your Brain on Yoga: Sleep
Countless research studies have shown that people who practice yoga tend to have better sleep. The relationship here is a complicated one; it’s likely many different factors are at play, such as tiredness from physical activity and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Deep in the brain, though, yoga practice causes the pineal gland to produce melatonin. This hormone helps regulate sleep-wake cycles. Yoga could therefore be a great addition to the toolkit of those suffering from insomnia or poor quality sleep.
Your Brain on Yoga: Emotion
Mindfulness helps to regulate the limbic system, the part of the brain that deals with emotions, among many other things. While we often assume we are hard-wired to react certain ways to certain situations, the brain is actually incredibly flexible. Mindfulness can help to retrain the limbic system so our emotional responses are more controlled and productive. A limbic system that is well-controlled also sends healthier signals to higher brain structures like the cerebral cortex, leading to more effective decision-making, rationalization, impulse control, and conscious reactions to stress.
Yoga has been known to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, sleep deprivation, and help to reduce emotional arousal. The absolute fascinating part is how different practicing yoga is compared to regular weightlifting or exercise. Yoga gives way for our brains to remain alert, conscious, connected, and healthy. The reason you feel blissed out after a great yoga class is because your brain’s reacting to a highly potent drug. It’s no wonder we keep going back for more.
Eda N, Ito H, Shimizu K, et al. Yoga stretching for improving salivary immune function and mental stress in middle-aged adults. Journal of Women and Aging. 2018; 30(3): 227-241. DOI https://doi.org/10.1080/08952841.2017.1295689
Infante J, Peran F, Rayo J, et al. Levels of immune cells in transcendental meditation practitioners. International Journal of Yoga. 2014 July; 7(2):147-151. DOI 10.4103/09736131.133899: 10.4103/09736131.133899 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25035626/.
Stevens, I. Case report: the use of medical yoga for adolescent mental health. Complimentary Therapies in Medicine. 2019; 43: 60-65. DOI https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0965229918310896?via%3Dihubhttps://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0965229918310896?via%3Dihub
Your brain on yoga: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAP1IqMGthM