By Melissa Luyben
If you’ve been practicing yoga consistently for a certain length of time, you might have begun to notice that your overall functioning in the world is enhanced. Mentally, you may start to feel more relaxed, grounded, and focused. Physically you may recognize that your strength, flexibility, and coordination have improved. Maybe, emotionally, you feel a little bit lighter, happier than before.
This transformation is not in your imagination.
Thankfully today there is real science to back up what is happening in our bodies when we practice yoga. To investigate this a bit more I recently sat down with Dr. Monika Mathur. Dr. Mathur is a pediatric neurologist, specializing in sleep medicine. She sees adults for sleep disorders at Hoag Hospital in Irvine and sees children at Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach. She practices at West Coast Sweat and also happens to be a certified Bikram Yoga Teacher. (bonus!) We sat down the other day and she shared some fascinating information on how yoga affects the brain and how it can even prevent aging.
ML: I have really been looking forward to this interview. I know that you have taught at several yoga-teacher trainings on this topic. So let’s jump right into it. Can you explain how yoga affects our brain?
DM: One of the biggest concepts to understand is neuroplasticity. Essentially, our brain is made up of billions of neurons and all those neurons have different connections. Those connections get stronger the more we practice something and then they basically get hardwired in the brain. People often wonder why, in Bikram yoga, we do the same sequence every time. The neuroscience aspect of it is that the more you are doing the same practice the same way, the more you are strengthening those connections between neurons. This also helps your muscles because those neuropathways are activated.
ML: Interesting. Does yoga affect your overall function in the world? Does your brain become a more powerful tool? Or does it only affect your physical body and, in turn, yoga practice? (I have so many questions!)
DM: There was a study done looking at the volume of gray matter (the substance of the brain) in people that practiced yoga regularly. Normally as we age, there is a decrease in the volume of gray matter in our brains. In people that practiced yoga regularly, however, this same decrease was not seen. It suggests that yoga is actually protective against normal age-related declines in functioning. Also, the study showed that emotions were shifted and those that practiced yoga had a more positive affect. Other studies have also shown that yoga practice results in less negative thoughts and more parasympathetic activation (state of relaxation vs. fight or flight), leading to less inflammation, muscle tension, pain and stress.
ML: That is amazing and wonderful for all us yogis.
DM: What’s most interesting to me is that our brains use this process of neuroplasticity to heal from a stroke or repair damaged areas. This got me to thinking about yoga, and the idea that, even in someone that’s healthy, we can use this innate process of neuroplasticity to actually strengthen our brains through practice and prevent changes related to aging and disease.
ML: When you talk about neuroplasticity, are some postures or breathing techniques more effective at creating stronger connections than others? For example, balancing poses versus forward or backward bends?
DM: It’s really just the practice. Most of the postures actively involve all four parts of the brain (occipital, temporal, frontal, and parietal). The more you practice, the more you engage all those different parts at the same time. The further you get into your practice, your approach changes from “what do I need to do” to “how can I fine tune the minute details.” Your focus is more concise, and every practice is different because you discover new things. It gives you space to go deeper because, after a while, you already know the basics and can then develop more within the pose.
ML: So would you say that yoga is more beneficial than other exercises for your brain? As compared to running or weightlifting?
DM: I think all exercise is good but there’s a mind-body element to yoga that is meditative. You have to focus to hold a pose and, when combined with the concentration and the repetition, it is very powerful. If you are running that can be meditative too but you only engage certain muscles. Imagine your brain as a big map of your whole body. Typically, we are not using much of our brain, but yoga activates different areas on the map and connects the whole brain and body together.
ML: Wow, so interesting! Let’s talk a little about breathing and savasana. What is happening in the body during this pose?
DM: When you move into savasana and start to slow your breathing it will slow down your heart rate and also drop your body temperature. The blood vessels dilate with the heat, which also helps your body to cool off. Your parasympathetic nervous system is also activated in savasana, which initiates the “rest and relaxation” drive through the body. All of those processes go hand in hand and your body cools down just by intending to breathe slow and deep. If you can really just focus on your breathing your body will take care of the rest. All you have to do in the moment is breathe.
ML: It sounds so easy yet the breath requires so much awareness and practice. I have one last question about the how the heat (since we practice Bikram yoga) affects our bodies and the process of neuroplasticity, what are the benefits of heat if any?
DM: There was a study done recently comparing people that practiced the Bikram series in a heated room versus the same series in a non-heated room. Both groups saw benefit in terms of heart health, but the heated room group saw more changes in body fat reduction. This suggests that the heat is good for our metabolism. It can also help decrease stress by reducing the cortisol response to stress that leads to things like emotional eating. In terms of neuroplasticity, I think it’s more the practice and repetition than the heat. Which is a great advantage in practicing Bikram yoga considering the repetitiveness of the practice.
ML: Dr. Mathur, thank you for everything you’ve shared today. I learned so much and appreciate my yoga practice and brain even more. I know the West Coast Sweat community will be very grateful to hear you speak on this topic.
DM: You are so welcome.