Yoga retrains neurological pathways...

Saturday, 07 November 2020 10:26
Given over the past weeks I have been investigating and ruminating upon the Yamas and the Niyamas you would expect me to continue onto the next Niyama, Santosha (contentment). But those who know me understand that predictable does not sit well with me!
Last week, my daughter read my blog and says: “Is that true? Is there any scientific proof for that?” She is questioning the following statement from the Sauca blog:
… Science now reinforces the connection between asana (and pranayama) and health. Showing that asana practice can retrain neurological pathways in the brain meaning yoga can literally change the way we think.
Central to understanding how the brain works, we need to get a picture of the role of neurons. ‘Neurons (also called neurones or nerve cells) are the fundamental units of the brain and nervous system, the cells responsible for receiving sensory input from the external world, for sending motor commands to our muscles, and for transforming and relaying the electrical signals at every step in between.’ (University of Queensland, Queensland Brain Institute)
We start at birth with a brain that has created a thousand trillion connections. Unfortunately, when the neurons are unused they are ‘pruned’ and fade away so new connections can be made and strengthened. The average adult has about half the connections of a three-year-old. Neurons are made more rapidly when a new mental activity is undertaken. From the perspective of a yoga practice, this may mean trying something different or looking at something from a different perspective. We are constantly being challenged in our practice to nudge at the edges of what we think is possible. We are also in a state of constant flux causing us to adapt and adjust our mental perspective and our physical state. 
A study by University of Illinois found that ‘yoga has a positive effect on the structure and function of key brain areas associated with memory. Findings provide evidence that yoga may hold promise in mitigating age-related and neurodegenerative decline.’
The following information is based on the research conducted by the University of Illinois:
“Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature”. Neha Gothe et al.
Brain Plasticity doi:10.3233/BPL-190084.S
Scientists have known for decades that aerobic exercise strengthens the brain and contributes to the growth of new neurons, but few studies have examined how yoga affects the brain. A review of the science finds evidence that yoga enhances many of the same brain structures and functions that benefit from aerobic exercise.
The review, published in the journal Brain Plasticity, focused on 11 studies of the relationship between yoga practice and brain health. Five of the studies engaged individuals with no background in yoga practice in one or more yoga sessions per week over a period of 10-24 weeks, comparing brain health at the beginning and end of the intervention. The other studies measured brain differences between individuals who regularly practice yoga and those who don’t.
Each of the studies used brain-imaging techniques such as MRI, functional MRI or single-photon emission computerised tomography. All involved Hatha yoga, which includes body movements, meditation and breathing exercises.
“For example, we see increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice,” said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Neha Gothe, who led the research with Wayne State University psychology professor Jessica Damoiseaux. Many studies looking at the brain effects of aerobic exercise have shown a similar increase in hippocampus size over time, she said.
The hippocampus is involved in memory processing and is known to shrink with age, Gothe said. “It is also the structure that is first affected in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”
The research points to other important brain changes associated with regular yoga practice, Damoiseaux said. The amygdala, a brain structure that contributes to emotional regulation, tends to be larger in yoga practitioners than in their peers who do not practice yoga. The prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks such as the default mode network also tend to be larger or more efficient in those who regularly practice yoga.
“The prefrontal cortex, a brain region just behind the forehead, is essential to planning, decision-making, multitasking, thinking about your options and picking the right option,” Damoiseaux said. “The default mode network is a set of brain regions involved in thinking about the self, planning and memory.”
Like the amygdala, the cingulate cortex is part of the limbic system, a circuit of structures that plays a key role in emotional regulation, learning and memory, she said.
The studies also find that the brain changes seen in individuals practicing yoga are associated with better performance on cognitive tests or measures of emotional regulation.
The discovery that yoga may have similar effects on the brain to aerobic exercise is intriguing and warrants more study, Gothe said.
“Yoga is not aerobic in nature, so there must be other mechanisms leading to these brain changes,” she said. “So far, we don’t have the evidence to identify what those mechanisms are.”
She suspects that enhancing emotional regulation is a key to yoga’s positive effects on the brain. Studies link stress in humans and animals to shrinkage of the hippocampus and poorer performance on tests of memory, for example, she said.
“In one of my previous studies, we were looking at how yoga changes the cortisol stress response,” Gothe said. “We found that those who had done yoga for eight weeks had an attenuated cortisol response to stress that was associated with better performance on tests of decision-making, task-switching and attention.”
Yoga helps people with or without anxiety disorders manage their stress, Gothe said.
“The practice of yoga helps improve emotional regulation to reduce stress, anxiety and depression,” she said. “And that seems to improve brain functioning.”
Gothe is an affiliate of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the U. of I. Damoiseaux is an affiliate of the Institute of Gerontology at WSU.
Original Research: Open Access
Get on your mat :)
See you all in class next week, remember to book your place
1 place left in the Intro L1 Course on Wed 6.30pm.
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Yoga Path
An Iyengar Yoga School
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Newport Vic 3015
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