A common misconception about yoga, is that it is just another form of exercise or relaxation. The reality is that the effects of yoga are far deeper reaching than just the physical. With the aid of modern technology and functional MRI scans we are now able to see how a good Yoga practice changes your brain.
Yoga’s numerous mental and emotional benefits occur because a good yoga practice is able to change the structure of your brain.
Before I explain in detail, it is important to note, that over the recent years many new styles of Yoga have emerged. Not all of these styles of Yoga have the same benefits. Some are focused on just physical training and flexibility. Also, teachers of Yoga have different experience and training, hence all yoga classes do not have the same effects. To experience the mental and brain altering benefits of yoga, choose a teacher who is appropriately trained.
With the appropriately trained teacher and practice, you too can experience the brain and mind enhancing effects of yoga.
There are two main structural changes that occur with a good Yoga practice.
- Yoga Increases Grey Matter in the Brain
- Yoga Increases the Folds in Your Brain
Grey Matter in the Brain
Our brains are primarily made up of two types of tissues: white and grey matter. A normal human brain consists of about 60% white matter and 40% grey matter. Both play important roles in healthy cognitive functioning. However, each type of brain tissue has a different function.
Grey matter consists of brain cells or neurons. Even though it’s called grey matter it is actually pink in colour. Its pink because blood continuously flows through it. However, after you die and there is no blood supply, it turns grey. Due to the concentration of brain cells, grey matter is responsible for many of your brain’s functions. This includes learning skills and memory. It is also responsible for decoding the information received from your senses. The grey matter also affects muscle control and self-awareness.
White matter is made up fibres that extend from your brain cells. The fibres of white matter connect different the sections of your brain. White matter works in the same way as telephone lines or radio signal. It allows areas of your brain to send and receive signals. White matter allows your brain to coordinate your thoughts and your movement.
Grey and white matter complement each another enabling you to think, move and interpret the world around you. Damage in any area affects your cognitive abilities. Recent research has shown that yoga increases the volume of grey matter.
How does having more grey matter help you?
Research shows that a person’s general intelligence is associated with the volume of grey matter in specific areas of their brains. The denser the volume of the grey matter in a particular region of your brain, the more brian cells are present in this area. This results in enhanced performance in skills associated with that particular area.
Here are a few examples of how increased brain cells or grey matter improves performance.
- London black cab taxi drivers are well reputed for their knowledge of local streets and their ability to navigate traffic. Correspondingly, these individuals have higher volume of grey matter in their hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and spatial navigation.
- Professional musicians, when compared to amateurs and non-musicians, have more grey matter in motor, auditory, and visuospatial regions of the brain. This is due to their years of music training. The higher the volume of grey matter in these areas, the more accomplished the musician.
Yoga practice shows similar effects. When practiced correctly with the appropriate instructions and by using controlled movement into and out of postures, correct breathing and appropriate mental focus and awareness – grey matter density increases. This is the reason for the detailed instructions in the I-Yogaa practice.
With increased grey matter – the following abilities also improve.
- Focus and concentration
- Emotional and impulse control
- Sense perception
- Decision making
- Evaluation of rewards and consequences
- Willpower – enables you delay gratification
Increases the Folds in Your Brain
If you at a photo of the human brain, you will notice that its surface is made up of bumps and wrinkles. While this is not pretty to look at, it plays an essential role in your ability to think.
These wrinkles are called cortical folds, or gyrification if you prefer a more scientific term. These folds contain brain cells. And the more folds, the more brain cells. That’s a good thing. After all, who doesn’t want more brain cells?
Why is Your Brain Folded?
Because your brain has to fit in your head. And, because your skull is small, it has to find a way to ‘squeeze in’ as much as it can into the small space.
To understand this, think of packing a travel bag. Every travel bag has a confined amount of space available. If you lay out your clothes, everything may not fit in. However, if you fold your clothes or even better, roll them up, you will fit more into the same travel bag. This is the same concept as gyrification. By folding your brain tissue more brain cells can fit in your skull.
How Yoga Increase Brain Folds
Classical yoga consists of three main practices that work together to improve your physical, mental and creative ability. The three main practices are posture (asanas), correct breathwork (pranayama) and mind training or meditation (Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi). When it comes to your brain folds, the mind training aspect of Yoga plays the largest role. In a study done by UCLA researchers, MRI brain scans showed that long-term meditators had more folds of their brain’s cortex than non-meditators. Researchers believe that this was a result of the brain’s neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to create more brain cells as it learns new yogic skills. The study showed that the number of years of yoga practice is correlated with the amount of folds.
Since your cerebral cortex is responsible for things like language, reasoning, perception, information processing, memory, and voluntary movement, the increase in brain fold allows for better functioning and faster information processing thereby improving your performance in a number of activities.
How the I-Yogaa Program Improves Physical and Mental Performance
The I-Yogaa 4 Step program is designed to strengthen, tone and relax the body while bringing awareness to the breath and focus to the mind. This method of practice enables structural changes to the brain. These changes increase not only physical strength and flexibility but also mental perception, awareness and cognitive abilities. The I-Yogaa 4 steps are
- MyoRelease to release trigger points and areas of contracture in the muscle and fascia.
- ReAlign to correct posture and alignment of the spinal column, hip and shoulder joints.
- Strength & Sculpt to strengthen and lengthen muscles of the abdomen, chest, shoulder, arms, back and legs. This enables easier movement and reduces injuries. These classes also improve cardiovascular fitness and build strength and endurance.
- MediTate to deepen awareness, concentration and focus. While instructions that encourage deeper awareness are used in all I-Yogaa classes, the MediTate class helps bring it all together to enable deep restful awareness while you intensify your mental abilities and wisdom.
The I-Yogaa program includes daily 1 hour classes over 12 weeks. During this period marked improvement in strength and flexibility is noticed. Awareness, concentration, focus and discipline also improve and notable changes are seen on brain scans.
For more information on the I-Yogaa program contact us at [email protected]