Neuroscience of Yoga

By: Berrak Ugur

Perseverance. It is a word that I had to deeply internalize during my graduate studies.  It is repeated over and over starting with your graduate school applications and continued throughout your training. But how do we manage to stay in power when everything seems like it’s falling apart? And more importantly, how do we make sure that our whole world does not burst into flames when one tiny little thing goes wrong? How do we deal with the fluctuations of mind that seem to go into places that are not always made of rainbows and unicorns? Especially in the beginning of my graduate research, I struggled a lot with these thoughts. Sometimes, it can be challenging to acknowledge a thought without letting it become a constant worry. In order to take my mind off of failed experiments and worries about the future, I tried many physical and mental activities. Among these, yoga has helped me a lot to become a better researcher. I started practicing yoga a couple of years ago and now it has become a fundamental part of my life; along the way, I became a yoga teacher. Through the practice, I am able to acknowledge a thought and then let it go and focus on my work.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says ‘yogaś-citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ,’ which translates as ‘yoga is the cessation (nirodhah) of fluctuations (vrtti) of the mind (citta).’ I do not know or understand how practicing yoga changes my mindset and that is totally fine. Nevertheless, I wanted to see if there were any studies performed to document if practicing yoga actually changes neuronal communication.

I turned to Pubmed and came across a nature neuroscience review titled ‘The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation’ (Tang, Hölzel and Posner, 2015), which is a good summary of the current state of the field. This review summarizes a handful of current studies, mostly focused on brain imaging. According to the review, initial studies on meditation were cross-sectional, meaning that they compared a larger group of meditators (e.g.~100 monks) to completely unrelated group of non-meditators and observed differences in their brain morphology. However, the authors make a very important point that “although these differences may constitute training-induced effects, […] it is possible that there are pre-existing differences in the brains of meditators, which might be linked to their interest in meditation, personality or temperament.” In other words, perhaps the brains of those inclined to meditate were different even before they started meditating. On the other hand, longitudinal studies that are performed at multiple time points with more directly comparable control subjects offer a better understanding of how brain morphology/function is altered through meditation.

The part of the review that surprised me most was about studies that document increase in volume and density of grey matter (the part of central nervous system that contains majority of the neuronal cell bodies) in people who mediate compared to non-meditators. One study, performed by Sarah Lazar in 2005, shows that the thickness of cortical regions related to somatosensory, auditory, visual and interoceptive processing correlates with meditation experience (Lazar et al., 2005). Of note, the authors show that the mean thickness across the entire cortex is not significantly different between meditators and non-meditators, indicating that meditation affects certain areas of the brain selectively. Currently, the research in Sarah Lazar’s lab completely focuses on neuroscience of yoga and meditation. You can check out her lab page for more info:

http://scholar.harvard.edu/sara_lazar

Also you can check-out the TEDx talk she gave about meditation and brain morphology:

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxCambridge-Sara-Lazar-on-how

Certainly, there needs to be more detailed and case controlled studies on how meditating changes neuronal communication. One thing that is sure is that meditating trains people to acknowledge a thought and then let that go. After all that is all you need to persevere.

Namaste 🙂

P.S. : In case if anyone has any questions about yoga, don’t hesitate to write a comment. I would be more than happy to discuss any questions.

 

Berrak is a guest author for Science ACEs. She is a PhD student studying molecular and human genetics and she teaches yoga in her spare time.

Featured image credit: http://magazine.uclahealth.org/body.cfm?id=6&action=detail&ref=835

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