192
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
New research shows us that yoga changes how our brains work, for the
better. Due to the neuroplasticity of our brains (see pp.26–27), these changes
demonstrate the potential for yoga to become an effective adjunct to our
medical and psychological care.
THE BRAIN AND
MENTAL WELL-BEING
QWhat does yoga do to my brain?
When your brain becomes
accustomed to a well-worn neural
path, it becomes a habit, such as
mindlessly looking at your phone
when you’re bored. New neural
paths can form in the same way,
and repeated activation makes
these paths bigger and stronger.
By reinforcing positive behaviors,
yoga gives us the tools to break
thought and emotional patterns
that no longer serve us. This allows
the choice of healthier patterns
when challenges arise, making
yoga a powerful practice for our
mental health and well-being.
8 weeks of
mindfulness
meditation can help
reduce fear-related
activity in the
brain.
Yoga gives us
the tools to
break thought
and emotional
patterns that
no longer
serve us.
Q
How can yoga help my
mental well-being?
Sometimes we get stuck in a
rajasic (the energy of agitation),
reactionary pattern or a tamasic (the
energy of resistance) slump. Yoga
alone is not enough to manage a
serious mental health concern, but
it can be an effective supplement to
your medical and psychological
care because it affects how your
brain responds to mental challenges.
In simplified terms, there are three
structures within the brain:
The instinctual brain (brain
stem), which asks, “Am I safe?”
The emotional brain (limbic
system), which asks, “What am
I feeling?”
The thinking brain (frontal cortex),
which asks, “What does this mean?”
Under trauma, depression, chronic
stress, or anxiety, you may have an
overactive emotional brain. Signals
from your amygdala (the
“fear center”
of your emotional brain) encourage
fight-or-flight responses from your
instinctual brain, causing the stress
response to override the relaxation
response. When this happens often,
your thinking brain is less effective
at regulating. Yoga—including
asanas, pranayama, and meditation—
teaches the thinking brain to better
regulate mood and emotional states
amid stressors in life (see p.188).
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193
Q
What evidence
is there to
show that yoga
really changes
our brains?
A number of studies have
focused on this. One 2015 review of
two decades of research found that
specific areas of the brain are
commonly affected by the yoga-
based practice of mindfulness, as
shown in the diagram, right. It
showed that key areas of the frontal
cortex are strengthened, helping
you effectively recognize and
regulate emotions. Brain scans
reported in a different research
article, from 2018, also demonstrated
that yoga asanas and meditation
both reduced amygdala volume on
the right-hand side of the brain,
which is more associated with
negative emotions and fear. In
addition, researchers at Stanford
University found that eight weeks of
mindfulness meditation enabled
Did you know?
researchers believe that somatic
practices (or movement practices that
emphasize perception, such as yoga asanas)
are useful for helping people to process
trauma without retriggering because
they help us release tension
held in the body.
Posterior
cingulate
cortex
Multiple
prefrontal
regions
Medial
prefrontal
cortex
Insula
(location based
on lateral view)
Parts of the brain
associated with
emotional regulation
are strengthened
The striatum,
associated with
emotional regulation
and attention control,
is strengthened
Parts of the brain
associated with
self-awareness
are strengthened
Anterior cingulate
cortex, associated
with attention
control, is
strengthened
The amygdala,
associated with
fear, is reduced
Anterior
cingulate
cortex
Striatum
Amygdala
MIDSAGITTAL VIEW OF THE BRAIN
people to better reduce fear-
related amygdala activity. This
seems to work largely as a result
of participants being mindful of
sensations and emotions instead
of pushing them down.
KEY
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