How Yoga Changes the Brain

For many of us, the practice of yoga helps us feel calmer and more soothed. We go into class feeling stressed from the day’s activities, and we leave with a little more ease. So what’s happening in the brain, as a result of yoga, that produces these feelings? With the steady rise in the number of people practicing yoga—from 13 million in 2007 to more than 20 million today—researchers have begun to focus their attention on how yoga actually changes the brain. The results echo what many of us experience: Studies show that yoga increases relaxation in the brain, improves areas of the brain that help us manage pain, and protects us against age-related decline. Together, these benefits begin to reveal the scientifically validated effects of yoga practice on brain health.

Yoga Floods the Brain with Relaxation

To investigate why yoga induces feelings of calm and peacefulness, Dr. Chris Streeter and her research team from Boston University set out to discover whether practice helps our brains produce more GABA, a neurotransmitter that increases feelings of relaxation. When we don’t have enough GABA in our brains, we feel anxious or depressed; medications such as Xanax work by upping GABA levels.

To answer this question, the team had one group of subjects do yoga for 60 minutes, while a control group read for an hour. Both groups were scanned in the MRI pre- and post-intervention. Would yoga release more GABA in the brain than reading?

The results were an unequivocal yes. The yoga group had a 27 percent increase in GABA, while the readers had no increase. But to rule out the possibility that any type of physical movement can increase GABA levels, Chris ran a second study, comparing the effects of yoga with those of walking. Again, the yoga practice showed greater changes in GABA levels in the brain. Not surprisingly, the increase in GABA was correlated with self-reports of decreased anxiety.

Studies such as these suggest how yoga might be used as an adjunct treatment to mental-health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and point to how yoga positively impacts the brain.

Yoga Improves Regions of the Brain that Manage Pain

Yoga has also been shown to improve pain tolerance. A study conducted by a group of pain experts found that, compared to matched controls, yogis could tolerate pain twice as long. This subjective difference was correlated with distinct brain differences in both of these groups: The yoga practitioners had larger insular gray matter volume than those who didn’t do yoga. The insula is a region of the brain in the cerebral cortex that helps regulate body temperature and maintain homeostasis; is related to perception and self-awareness; and has a role in regulating the parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of the nervous system that helps us feel calmer and more relaxed.

Researchers believe that yoga offers a combination of physical practice, conscious breathing, and cognitive frameworks (for example, the idea of seeing pain as “sensation,” without labeling it as “good” or “bad”) that allows us to manage and tolerate pain with more ease.

Yoga Protects Against Age-Related Decline

A 2014 study by a team that included two researchers affiliated with Kripalu, Tim Gard and Sara Lazar of Massachusetts General Hospital, found that the long-term practice of yoga has several buffering effects on age-related decline. The study compared longtime yoga and meditation practitioners with control subjects of the same age and demographics. Specifically, the researchers were curious whether or not yoga and meditation would help maintain fluid intelligence—the ability to cope with novel situations and engage in abstract thinking—a function that notoriously declines with age.

To explore these questions, Tim and Sara invited 16 Kripalu Yoga practitioners, 16 vipassana meditators, and 15 controls into the lab to have their brains scanned with MRI/fMRI technology and to undergo cognitive testing for fluid intelligence. The yogis and meditators all had at least 20 years of extensive practice under their belts (total practice hours ranged from 7,400 to 13,000 each). Control subjects were matched for age, education, fitness level, race, and reading ability.

Results indicated that, as hypothesized, long-term practice of yoga and meditation buffered against age-related decline. Both yogis and meditators had higher average scores on fluid intelligence tests than controls. In addition, these two groups had higher scores on mindfulness questionnaires than controls. Previous studies suggest that both fluid intelligence and mindfulness are related to cognitive flexibility (the ability to adapt to and cope with stress). Additional studies might tweeze out more differences between the groups, but these initial results indicate that the long-term practice of meditation and yoga protects cognitive abilities well into older age.

Studies such as these are essential in understanding not only that yoga works, but also how it works. These findings add to a growing body of research on how yoga might be beneficial not just for healthy people, but for clinical populations—those suffering from depression, anxiety, even dementia. Continued investigation in how and why these practices induce change will help us deepen our understanding of their clinical applications for improved brain health.

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Angela Wilson, LMHC, RYT 500, is a Kripalu faculty member who has conducted research and written about the intersection between yoga, Western psychology, and science.

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