Yoga is Good for Our Brain!

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    Do you know someone who suffers from migraine headaches? Maybe this someone is you. The symptoms can vary. Some describe it like a vice tightening around the head, stabbing pain in one or both eyes. It can be accompanied with severe nausea and hypersensitivity to light and sound. They are unfortunately common and difficult to treat. The good news is that migraines are one of the neurological conditions that can be helped by yoga. 

    For Brain Awareness Week, I reviewed: "Therapeutic role of yoga in neuropsychological disorders”, a peer-reviewed, open access article published in the World Journal of Psychiatry in October 2021. This article was a collaboration between university researchers in Iran & Germany. There were an amazing 228 references!

    The authors referred to yoga as ”an ancient Indian non-religious mind-body method, considered a philosophical and spiritual discipline that alleviates suffering and promotes human health” (p.755). Yoga has been practiced as a healing method for over 4000 years and includes postures, breath work and meditation.

    The authors looked at the role of yoga in the treatment of a number of neuropsychological conditions. These included: tension & migraine headaches, Azheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, neuropathy, Parkinson's disease, stress and anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder & schizophrenia.

    Modern neuroscientific methods have opened a new and exciting chapter on the study of yoga’s effects on  brain structure and function.Yoga and meditation affect brain waves and increase brain activity; enhancing cognition and decreasing anxiety.

    Yoga has been shown to increase brain activity, brain volume and grey matter thickness in a number of key areas of the brain. Studies of older adult populations have demonstrated physical, emotional and cognitive benefits of yoga practice. The precise mechanism of how yoga and other mind-body practices serve to improve cognitive functioning and delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease is uncertain. However, it is suggested that increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, serotonin and melatonin produced during yoga practice are protective against neuronal loss.

    With respect to tension and migraine headaches, studies have found yoga to result in decreased intensity and frequency. This is attributed to yoga’s effect of alleviating pain by modulating parts of the brain involved in the pain perception system. Yoga is also thought to help migraine by improving vascular functioning, in part by increasing oxygen to the brain.

    Most studies on yoga for anxiety and stress found yoga to have a beneficial effect and can be used on its own or combined with another therapy. Functional MRI studies have shown how yoga acts on areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation. Yoga practice reduced the stress response and anxiety in a wide variety of populations and had other benefits such as increased mindfulness and attention in children.

    Many studies have shown the effects of yoga on neurotransmitters (chemical messengers produced in different parts of the brain). Neurotransmitters include: GABA, dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Increases in GABA and dopamine and decreases in norepinephrine reduce anxiety.

    Both yoga and mindfulness have been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression. With major depressive disorder, yoga has a significant effect as an added treatment. Combined with antidepressants, yoga helped reduce severity of symptoms and likelihood of relapse.Yoga increases GABA and serotonin neurotransmitters, which reduce depression. Depressive symptoms can also be alleviated with an increase in neurotrophic factors, which support the brain’s capacity for change (neuroplasticity). Yoga has been suggested as an effective intervention to address depression and anxiety in people with Parkinson's Dissease. It serves to interrupt negative thinking and improve quality of life for people with depression.

    The authors mention studies of yoga that show positive effects for other psychological conditions including obsessive-compulsive disorder, professional burnout, and somatic symptom disorder. They also reference several studies promoting the psychological health benefits of yoga during the COVID pandemic.

    In their conclusion, the authors discuss limitations in yoga studies that explain the inconsistencies in results. Differences in multiple factors such as yoga approaches, outcome measures, lack of controls, sample size, and short-term follow up have prevented clear conclusions to be drawn about the benefits of yoga for neuropsychological disorders.

    What I took away from this article is hope. Despite the challenges and limitations in studying yoga’s application to brain health, I see it as a holistic way forward. Yoga and meditation are accessible. Yoga can be adapted to suit individual needs. Yoga can be guided or learned and practiced on one’s own, making it affordable and empowering. It has few risks and many potential benefits, especially when supervised by a qualified instructor who is trauma-informed.

    Yoga means ‘union’ and provides a path to connection with self, other people and everything else. The benefits of overcoming separation with unity are not measured in yoga studies. The philosophy and practice of yoga provide a holistic system to help restore health and well-being. However, the results are challenging to measure using the scientific method and our current tools. I, like many people, had to try yoga myself to be convinced of its benefits. Now, it’s an essential part of my daily life & health practices.

    Do you know someone who might be interested or helped by this article? Please share it with them! 

    Reference: Nourollahimoghadam E, Gorji S, Gorji A, Khaleghi Ghadiri M. Therapeutic role of yoga in neuropsychological disorders. World J Psychiatr 2021; 11(10): 754-773.

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    Spiritual Lineage Acknowledgement

    Yoga's historical roots originated in India more than 5000 years ago.  I am evermore grateful to my teachers and for the ancient wisdom that informs my yoga practice and teaching. I strive to practice and uphold the ethics of yoga to create a more peaceful, just world. I commit to engaging in continuing education and self-reflection to avoid cultural appropriation.

    Land Acknowledgement

    I offer respect and gratitude to the First Peoples and caretakers of the land I call home: the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Huron-Wendat nations.