It used to be common knowledge and widely believed by most neuroscientists, that we were born with all the neurons we were going to have, and that after a certain stage in a child’s development, the brain stopped changing.
We thought that the neurons in our brain were limited and the neurological pathways were fixed, so the brain cells that died couldn’t be replaced. Pretty grim, right?
In 1962, scientist Joseph Altman challenged this belief when he saw evidence of neurogenesis, the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain.
Now, thanks to new technologies, like MRIs, we know that the brain structure can change. Neurogenesis is now accepted to be a process that occurs normally in the healthy adult brain, particularly in the hippocampus, which is important for learning and spatial memory.
So that’s the good news, the brain can produce new cells. Hooray!
But how? There is now enough evidence showing that the environment, food and activity can have an impact on the production of new neurons. Basically, what we do has an effect on the birth or death of our brain cells.
Therefore, we could say that if we want to improve memory, prevent the decline associated with ageing, continue learning… o even find our way around a new town… we have a choice.
We can choose activities that stimulate neurogenesis or activities that block it. It’s that simple.
Wait, but what has this got to do with yoga, you ask?
Although it’s still early days, research of what sort of activities can stimulate the growth of new brain cells point out at some types of exercise, meditation, learning new things, and being out of your comfort zone. Well, I’d say that sounds very much like yoga, if you ask me!
By now you may know what yoga can do for your body. Not only helps your body increase flexibility, it also increases muscle strength and tone; it improves respiration, endurance, energy and vitality; and helps us maintain a balanced metabolism.
And now we start to see what can yoga do for your brain.
Yoga and meditation can create positive changes in the structure of your brain, improving memory and attention amongst other things.
A growing number of scientists are looking into the cognitive effects of meditation, including studies on Buddhist monks. And they’re learning that meditation is a very powerful tool indeed. Particularly practices that use focused attention as a tool.
In mindful meditation, we focus the attention in an object, like the breath or a sensation or a feeling. Equally, in japa meditation, widely used in yoga, the repetition of a mantra either silently or aloud, helps us to focus the mind.
In a study in 2009 called: ‘Long-term meditation is associated with increased grey matter density in the brain stem’, neuroscientists used MRIs to compare the brains of meditators with non-meditators. The structural differences observed led the scientists to speculate that certain benefits, like improved cognitive, emotional, and immune responses, can be tied to this growth and its positive effects on breathing and heart rate (cardiorespiratory control). And as the title of the study indicates… increase of grey matter, or neurogenesis.
Yoga integrates exercise and moving the body in a mindful way. And as we are learning, any time we exercise, the brain grows new neurons, but unless we take those new neurons and do something useful with them, they often don’t last. We also need ‘fluid intelligence’.
The concept of being able to solve new problems and adapt to unfamiliar situations, is called fluid intelligence. And something as simple as learning a yoga sequence, or try to get the body into a new asana can help develop it.
During our yoga practice we not only focus on the breath, we also focus on body sensations. Our attention goes inward. We challenge ourselves by learning new ways of being in the space and moving our bodies. Moreover, we teach our bodies and mind to be out of their comfort zone in balancing poses, some challenging asanas, some of the pranayama work, etc.
Unfortunately, just one day here and another there won’t do it.
The key to this ‘magical’ change is steady practice, whether in asana, pranayama, meditation, chanting, any of the yogic practices (or all of them!). The good news is that you don’t need to do a full on 90 min practice everyday.
A little bit every day is enough to firmly place you well in the path towards transformation.
Personally, I spent years practicing only for 10 min a day, and then the occasional studio class. I had no idea how transformative those 10 min would become!
If you don’t have time for a longer practice, the worst thing you can do is to feel guilty and do nothing… Just do a few stretches whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, or close your eyes right now and focus on your breath for 1 min. Your brain will thank you for it!
If you want to know more about neurogenesis, watch this Ted Talk
For more information about the effects of meditation on your brain, follow this link