It has been proven that practicing yoga comes with many benefits for both our mental and physical health. That is probably one of the reasons why yoga has become one of the most common activities that most people nowadays engage in.
People who practice it have said that they do it because it helps them relax, stretch their bodies and eventually let their minds loose, if only for an hour.
However, it turns out that yoga does much more to our brains than just that.
Sara Lazar is a neuroscientist of yoga and meditation at the Mass General and Harvard School. She became interested in yoga and meditation shortly after she suffered injuries from running. The suggestion came from her therapist who told her that she needs to stretch more.
So, Lazar took up yoga.
“The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart,” said Lazar. Still, she didn’t really buy into all that. She only had one goal. To stretch and recuperate.
However, after a period of being an active yogi, Lazar started to notice that she was calmer than before. She felt like she is no longer afraid to handle a hard situation. This change of heart inspired her to research the scientific literature on mindfulness meditation. And what she found blew her mind. She came upon an ever-increasing body of evidence that explained how meditation actually decreases stress, reduces pain and increases the overall quality of life.
So, she started doing some research on her own. All in the name of neuroscience.
In her first study, she analyzed a group of long-term meditators (7-9 years of experience) versus a control group. The final results showed that the people who had a bigger experience with practicing yoga had increased gray matter in many important areas of the brain, including the sensory and auditory cortex, and also the insula and the sensory regions.
The was due to the fact that mindfulness meditation has a very calming and regenerative effect on both the body and the mind.
But that was not all. The neuroscientists also found that the meditators had more gray matter in another brain region which is linked to decision-making and working memory – the frontal cortex. While it is known that most people cortexes shrink as they age, 50-year-old meditators who participated in the study had the same amount of gray matter like the ones who were half their age.
Still, Lazar and her team of neuroscientists wanted to make sure that these results were due to the fact that the meditators had more gray matter to begin with, so they decided to conduct another study. This time, they asked people with no meditation experience whatsoever to enroll in an eight-week of mindfulness program.
After eight weeks of meditating and practicing yoga, their brains were changed for the better. Several regions of their brains were thickened, including the hippocampus (responsible for learning, memory, emotional regulation), the TPJ (responsible for empathy and open-mindedness) and also a part of the brainstem called pons (responsible for generating regulatory transmitters).
Another thing that surprised Lazar and her team of neuroscientists was the fact that there was an evident shrinkage in the amygdala of the new meditators’ brains. This region is associated with fear, anxiety, and aggression. The reduction of the amygdala in their cases correlated to reduced stress levels.
The participants were asked to meditate for 40 minutes per day. The average amount of time they actually spend on yoga and meditating was 27 minutes. However, it is important to mention that other studies suggest that people can notice positive changes even If they do it 15-20 minutes a day.
As for her meditation routine, Lazar says “It’s highly variable. Some days 40 minutes. Some days five minutes. Some days, not at all. It’s a lot like exercise. Exercising three times a week is great. But if all you can do is just a little bit every day, that’s a good thing, too.”
There you go. Meditating or simply enjoying the silence on your own will not only help you relax, but it will also give you a new, improved brain. The one of a 25-year-old.
So, what are you waiting for?