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The Neuroscience Is In: How Yoga Works

Wellness   |   June 17, 2018

If you practice Yoga, you have probably experienced the physical, mental, and emotional benefits that it brings. But have you ever wondered why Yoga practice makes us feel so good? Modern research in the field of neuroscience is showing us just what’s happening in our brains when we engage in Yoga and mindfulness practices, and the findings are fascinating! We sat down with M. Mala Cunningham, a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Nursing, to ask her about the discoveries being made in the field of neuroscience about Yoga.

Neuroscience allows us to see the activity in the brain in different meditative or emotional states.

Yoga is an ancient practice and neuroscience is a relatively new scientific field. What effect has the birth of neuroscience had on the way we understand Yoga?

The advent of new technology in neuroscience, such as fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and EEGs (electroencephalography), over the last 25 years has enabled us to look much more deeply and clearly into the brain and see what’s happening in the brain and in our neurobiology in relation to different emotional or mental states or different states of meditation or consciousness. The intersection of neuroscience and mindfulness, meditation, and Yoga has been quite profound in terms of understanding exactly what’s happening in our neurobiology when we meditate, chant, or do different breathing practices.

Have these findings changed the way we practice Yoga, or are they just helping us to better understand the benefits of these practices?

I don’t think that we’re necessarily changing the yogic practices or mindfulness practices, I think that it has just enabled us to see what’s going on in the brain when we’re in different meditative states, when we’re trying to cultivate attentional faculties, or we’re trying to practice pratipaksha bhavana (shifting of our thought patterns from negative to positive). It’s really quite fascinating that we can track that information now and we can see different parts of the brain lighting up for an attentional practice.

Just as an example, when we are thinking positive thoughts, the left prefrontal cortex is lighting up. We also see that when we’re under the stress response, we have a cascading of events that happen in the brain and in the body within milliseconds. We see the activation of the amygdala, hippocampus, the adrenal glands and many other areas that are responding in order to activate the body to respond to threat. When we’re under the stress response and something is recognized as a threat, we see the frontal cortex goes a bit offline. It’s not one hundred percent offline, but it’s offline a bit, and the amygdala, the hippocampus, the other stress responses become more activated in the brain. In the brains of meditators, people who are adept in meditation and have been meditating for a long time, we see different signaling going on in the brain when there’s a threat response. Individuals can learn to rewire their brains and learn to curb negative responses to stress such as rage, violence, withdrawal or depression.  We see this capacity in individuals who meditate.

Studies have shown that in individuals who regularly practice meditation and mindfulness that various structures in the brain can change their form.  For example, the amygdala can actually shrink after practicing Yoga and meditation, which means there are less neuronal pathways into the amygdala.  At the beginning of this particular study, fMRIs were taken of people’s brains and they found that the amygdala, which is part of the  threat center of the brain, was a certain size. At the end of the study,  the amygdala had gotten smaller. After practicing Yoga and meditation, there’s not as much activity in the amygdala and it’s not being activated on a regular basis, so not as many neural pathways into the amygdala are needed. As the threat response begins to cease and we learn to manage our threat response in better ways, we don’t need as much neuronal activity into those areas and they begin to change form and not activate as quickly or as actively.

By witnessing others meditating, our mirror neurons activate as if we ourselves were engaging in meditation.

There’s also been research conducted related to pro-social behavior and emotional engagement, and that’s really fascinating because we know that there are mirror neurons in the brain. When someone is in the environment where a certain vibration is activated, such as in a chanting session or in a group meditation, these mirror neurons respond to what’s going on in the environment. So we start activating in positive ways even if we’re not actually sitting and doing the chanting or the meditation. We start to pick up the vibrational effects, and it’s shown in the brain that that is what is happening.

That phenomenon speaks to the Buddha’s teaching that there are three places to which an individual should go to find refuge. What Buddha says is: take refuge in the teacher, the teachings, and sangha (spiritual community). In so doing, it can help uplift us and help rewire whatever emotional destabilization or dysregulation that we’re suffering from. Research is finding that when people ascribe to a foundational belief system and when people are around an inspiring person or sangha, that we start vibrating and shifting our own consciousness, and it shows up on fMRI’s that that is actually happening.

Neuroscience is validating what Yoga has known for thousands of years. I think it’s important that teachers and people who practice Yoga understand the neuroscience behind it because once we begin to understand the impact of Yoga practices on our neurobiology, we can start to shift our psychological and emotional states and we can start to work with the brain.  We have the capacity to work with intentionality to actually change the function and the structure of our brains.  We can start to visualize the amygdala shrinking and the left prefrontal cortex activating (the seat of positive emotions). We can begin to activate the reward circuitry in the brain. We can start to learn what it means to activate these states of consciousness in intentional ways. Working with sankalpa (intention) can impact in very powerful ways on our emotional well-being.

So when I teach the workshop on Neuroscience and Yoga, we use the acronym DOSE to remember the four main happy hormones, which are: Dopamine, Ocytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins. When we begin to understand how to do certain practices and how Yoga correlates with happy states of being, we can begin to understand how to activate these happy hormones. We can begin to reduce mood states like anxiety and depression. We can learn what it means to self-regulate. We already have a powerful pharmacy within our own system, it’s just a matter of learning what practices impact on what states of well-being.

For example, in Yoga we’re taught the 3-part deep breath. What we’re not necessarily taught is that when we take a deep breath, all the way to the top of the lungs, we release a neurotransmitter called bradykinin, and bradykinin signals the parasympathetic nervous system to activate.  The parasympathetic nervous system signals our body to relax.  So it completes the loop; it answers the question of: “Why do we feel better when we take deep breaths?” I think understanding the neurobiology of the Yoga practices helps empower practitioners to participate in their healing on a physical, mental, and emotional level.

Those are just some examples of how neuroscience fills in the missing link of how Yoga works. We know our students feel better when they leave class, but why? What’s happening in our nervous system and our nadis (meridians)? How is intentionality and attentionality impacting on feelings? So that’s what I think neuroscience brings to the table. Neuroscience basically is saying that cognitive and emotional intentionality, or sankalpa, impacts on our neuropathways and on the function and structure of our brain. We have the capacity to create new neural pathways throughout our entire life—throughout adulthood. The previous theory was that it wasn’t possible, that the brain didn’t have that kind of plasticity. But now we know that the brain has amazing plasticity and that we can learn, through specific techniques, tools, and strategies, how to impact on our health, healing, and well-being.

It is possible to ‘rewire’ the brain with Yoga and mindfulness practices.

Your response segways into my next question. Can you explain the science behind the concept of ‘rewiring the brain’? Does this have to do with how we can create new neural pathways and how the amygdala can shrink because of lessening of neural pathways to it?

Yes, exactly. It’s kind of like, “all roads lead to Rome.” If we just shut down a bunch of those roads, the tracks going into that space would be different. If you think about it just as roadways or a roadmap, the neuropathways in the brain are signaling pathways. The more there are in a particular area, the heavier the signaling to that area.

Ideally you want to build more roadways into the reward circuits of the brain and the frontal cortex because you want to use rational thought instead of impulsivity. Instead of going into impulsive fear responses when you’re in a social setting and you have social anxiety, you’re able to begin to work with fear patterns and that circuitry. This work can be so much more effective when you understand how to create new neural pathways into the reward circuit, activating oxytocin so that you feel more relaxed and calm versus activating the stress and anxiety cycle.

This kind of work can give people a lot of hope and self-empowerment. If somebody has been in a fear circuit or an anxiety circuit, to be able to manage that helps develop resiliency. Your bounce-back capacity improves the more you meditate and the more you do certain breathing practices and intentional and attentional practices. That’s what we teach in the workshop. We connect the dots: these breathing practices can impact in this way; these poses are more for people who are depressed and need to energize their system; these certain poses are more for people who need to learn to activate their parasympathetic response because they’re over-energized, etc. People learn to rewire their nervous system to come to a better baseline.

You’ve already touched on this, but could you explain a little more about how Yoga works to heal the mind and emotions?

I’d just like to emphasize the importance of using Yoga to manage our stress response. It’s important to become aware of the pattern of emotional dysregulation that we get in to and recognize that when we activate in sometimes unconscious ways, we’re activating our stress response. If activation of a chronic stress response happens unabated, it releases cortisol and other harmful hormones and chemicals into our bodies. It impacts on many different levels.  For example, the hippocampus, the memory center, has high cortisol receptors. That’s why when we’re under stress, we forget things. So when you a take test and you know the answer but it’s just not coming to you, it’s because cortisol is hindering memory recall. When you go to another question and you’re distracted, all of a sudden the answer for the first question will pop into your head. It’s because you’ve relaxed a little bit. So using Yoga practices with a greater and broader understanding of neurobiology tremendously impacts on our ability to self-regulate, heal, and have resiliency.

What does neuroscience say about the effectiveness of Yoga for reducing and healing negative emotions, thoughts, and behaviors compared to other healing practices?

Studies that have been done in this area are very promising.  Research has continually found that practicing mindfulness, meditation and Yoga has a powerful effect on our nervous system, mind, and brain.  This is still a new science in many ways, so there’s still a lot of research to be done. There are also other practices such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that show positive effects in our neurobiology and brain.  So I wouldn’t necessarily say that any healing practice is better than any other.  A lot of these practices intersect and have similarities.  For example, parts of CBT are similar to pratipaksha bhavana.  But all in all, I would say that the intersection of neuroscience and Yoga brings us full circle in understanding why Yoga works and what is happening during meditation practices that creates such a powerful healing opportunity and environment in our systems.

Want to learn more?

Join M. Mala Cunningham to discover what neuroscience says about how and why Yoga works during Neuroscience, Yoga, and Mindfulness Workshop on July 20–22 and Neuroscience, Yoga, and Mindfulness Five-day Retreat on July 20–24.

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