Celebrating International Yoga Day: Exercising the Mind

In 2014, 177 nations of the United Nations General Assembly co-sponsored a resolution declaring June 21 the International Day of Yoga.This was the highest number of nations to date for this kind of resolution. Today is the second annual celebration. Not only are millions of people around the world practicing yoga, but to mark the occasion, the UN had a special discussion on how yoga can be used for the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a global initiative to improve well-being of every person on the planet by the year 2030. This discussion focused on each person using yoga to create increased consciousness through stress reduction and greater psychological well-being in order to generate worldwide changes. How might yoga accomplish all of this?

To answer the question, let’s look at some of the recent science analyzing how yoga changes the brain. In 2013, a group of researchers from Duke University reviewed over 100 studies focusing on the effects of yoga on mental health. While the reviewers found that many of the studies used insufficient controls or did not have enough study subjects, they did identify and focus on 16 particularly strong studies. The reviewers concluded that there was significant evidence to support the hypothesis that yoga improves symptoms of many psychiatric illnesses, including mild depression, sleep disorders, schizophrenia, and ADHD. One of the common contributors to depression and anxiety is low levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. Basically, GABA acts as a brake to prevent over-excitation of neurons in the brain. One fascinating study looked at GABA levels in the brain of subjects after either doing yoga or reading quietly for one hour. They found a 27% increase in GABA levels immediately after yoga with no changes in GABA after reading. This may provide some insight into how daily yoga can both reduce depression and anxiety and improve wellbeing.

In addition, evidence suggests yoga can help with later life disease. One study took older adults with mild cognitive impairment who feared progression to dementia and taught them either memory boosting mental exercises or yoga for 12 weeks. While there was significant cognitive improvement for both groups, the group trained in yoga had a reduction in depression and anxiety (including less fear of impending dementia), improved visuospatial memory, and greater attention and focus compared with the group trained in mental exercises. Another interesting study even examined stressed caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients. Having the caregivers practice a simple 12 minute yoga sequence over 8 weeks actually changed gene expression of inflammatory genes and reduced stress for the caretakers.

These are just some of the exciting studies demonstrating that yoga could make a huge difference in brain function and mental illness, in addition to the physical benefits it provides. Studies have shown yoga can lower blood pressure, increase lung capacity, reduce chronic pain, improve sugar levels in diabetics, improve bone density, and lower the risk of heart attacks. While the International Day of Yoga is only one day a year, practicing yoga the rest of the year could greatly improve both physical and mental wellbeing. For me personally, yoga and meditation have changed my life completely, eliminating my anxiety and stress and making me a more productive person. For more on this, check out my journey through mindfulness post from last year!

Luna Loves good science

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