As you roll out your your yoga mat to do your practice, you may not give much thought to the effect your routine will have on your brain. Yet there are great benefits that a yoga practice brings to brain development and neural wiring, cultivating strengths which are particularly useful for reducing stress.
As Dr M Storoni explained in The Science behind Yoga and Stress, yoga is beneficial in rewiring your nerve connections and training the neural circuits that respond to stress. In Dr Storoni’s theory of how to beat stress, there are five key players in the ‘stress team‘: the ’emotional brain’, the ‘logical brain’, the reflex reaction that cause you relax, the reflex reaction that causes you to tense and agents that affect brain cell growth, such as BDNF.
Locating emotional and logical centres in the brain
Of these key players, the emotional brain and the logical brain are the parts of the brain that play a key role in stress by serving emotional and cognitive functions. Dr Storoni, (a MD with a PhD in Neuro-ophthalmology) is referring to the amygdala and its connections. The logical brain refers to parts of the prefrontal cortex including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, parts of the cingulate and parts of the hippocampus.
Nervous system signals and brain growth agents
The reflex reactions that control the signals of relaxed and tense conditions, are the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. An active emotional brain enhances the sympathetic nervous system, suppressing the logical brain and the relaxation response which is signalled by the parasympathetic nervous system.
Engaging in activity such as moderate exercise has been shown to raise the levels of Brain-derived Nuerotrophic Factor in the brain, BDNF is a protein that supports the survival of existing neurons, and encourage the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses. Engaging in activity such as moderate exercise has been shown to raise the levels of Brain-derived Nuerotrophic Factor in the brain, BDNF is a protein that supports the survival of existing neurons, and encourage the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses.
If you want to identify yoga postures which deliver maximum benefits to your brain, in terms of its stress response, Dr Storoni suggests you pick yoga postures which contain these four components.
1. Forward and backward bending
The bending results in fluctuations in intracranial pressure and these movements trigger switches in your neck and elsewhere (baroreceptors) which connect to your tense and relaxation signals. When the stress response is ‘turned off’, our parasympathetic nervous system signal is ‘turned on’. This signal ‘relaxes’ the body.
2. Concentration and being still
Postures should have a large component of focussing and concentration. Often this is achieved by forcing you to balance on one leg. This focussing and concentration and balancing is achieved through activity in your logical brain, which has to overcome any stress response signals being triggered in order to be still and concentrate during a posture.
While you’re stretching your raising your tense signal and hence providing a resistance load to train your logical brain. This ‘extra’ resistance the logical brain is having to work against, ‘trains’ it like a muscle.
4. Muscle contraction
Contracting muscle also raises your tense signal and hence provides yet another load against which your logical brain needs to work. Training the logical brain in this way for a long time can result in a rewiring of the nerve connections within the logical brain.
“If a series of yoga postures meets these criteria, you are likely to be giving your logical brain a great workout!”
– Dr M Storoni, PhD
Watch the video below if you would like to see a couple of examples and how different yoga postures are affecting the brain.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tested a group of 30 female college students after 20 minutes of yoga (see the sequence below) followed by deep breathing and meditation and 20 minutes of aerobic exercise. The participants then completed mental tasks that tested their ability to maintain focus and absorb, hold on to and utilize new information. The findings demonstrated that the participants performed significantly better immediately after the yoga session than after moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise lasting the same duration.
Here is the 20 minute routine utilized by the study:
- Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana) 1 minute
- Tree Pose (Vrikshasana) 1 minute
- Triangle Pose (Trikonasaana) 2 minutes
- Reverse Triangle Pose (Parivrtta Trikonasana) 2 minutes
- Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Shvanasana) 2 minutes
- Easy Camel Pose (Ustrasana) 2 minutes
- Hare Pose (Shashankasana) 2 minutes
- Sun Salutation (Suryanamaskar) 4 minutes
- Deep Breathing in Lotus Pose (Padmasana Pranayama) 4 minutes
When deciding which yoga sequence to practice, it is worth considering which postures will best train your brain. Now you can add brain cell growth and improved stress response to the list of reasons you love doing yoga!
BASED ON THE WORK OF DR M STORONI MD PhD