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Yoga and the Brain
Yoga, including physical postures (asana), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation, have been studied extensively. Yoga has so many benefits, but for this article, I will focus on its effect on the brain and brainwaves.
Studies show that yoga decreases anxiety while boosting cognitive function.1
A meta-analysis of 15 studies found that yoga (asana, breathing, and meditation) increases overall brain activity. Increased brain activity is associated with increased volume (size) in the amygdala (emotional cortex) and frontal lobes, which are the brain’s control panel, overseeing emotional expression, problem solving, memory, language, judgment, and sexual behaviors.
Researchers also saw increased activity and volume in gray matter, which governs muscle control and sensory perceptions, such as seeing, hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.1,2
Yoga to Change Your Brainwaves
Brainwaves can either speed up or slow down based on our level of physical and mental activity. When we become more calm or unconscious, brainwaves slow down. As we become more active or conscious, they speed up.
For example, in deep sleep (when we are unconscious), extremely slow delta waves (0.5-4 Hz) increase. In a half-conscious state (say between sleep and wakefulness), theta waves (4-8 Hz) can predominate. During a rested, relaxed, and meditative state, alpha waves (8-13 Hz) will increase. During normal wakeful activity, most of us live with a brain where higher frequency beta waves (13-36 Hz) predominate.5
In the same meta-analysis mentioned above, effects of yoga on brainwave function were measured. It was concluded that after yoga, breathing, and meditation, the following brainwave changes were seen:
Brainwave Changes from Yoga2,3
- Increased positive brainwave states.
- Increased alpha waves, associated with relaxation + pain tolerance.
- Increased theta activity, associated with decreased anxiety + increased focus.
In another study measuring effects of yoga, breathing, and meditation on university students, researchers found a significant boost in alpha and delta brainwaves. Increased delta activity is associated with heightened efficiency of brain functioning and may improve mental performance and overall health. Increased alpha activity is associated with wakefulness, vigilance, and is the essential requirement for student efficiency.4
In the same study, they found higher brainwave coherence (two or more parts of the brain functioning in synchrony). The brain works better as a whole than as isolated parts. Higher coherence is associated with more integrated and effective thinking and behavior, including greater intelligence, creativity, learning ability, emotional stability, ethical and moral reasoning, self-confidence, and reduced anxiety.4 These findings exactly match what we see in my nose-breathing exercise study.6,7
Finally, in another study, after two hours of kriya yoga, a significant rise of alpha and theta rhythms in the brain was observed in ten out of eleven subjects. This suggests better access to one’s subconscious and emotions—particularly old pent-up emotions. For some, alpha waves more than doubled. Interestingly, the area that the most alpha and theta waves were seen in was the area that supports healthier mood and lowered anxiety and depression.5 In this study, researchers concluded that yoga, breathing, and meditation practices demonstrate a cleansing of the unconscious, where many of us hold old unwanted emotional patterns of behavior.
Take Your Yoga Brain into Your Life
So we can see that yoga, breathing, and meditation can change our brains. But perhaps the most important message and goal of yoga is how to take that calm nervous system off the mat! In other words, how can we take meditative alpha and theta brainwaves into our daily activity?
Think of it like functioning from inside the eye of a hurricane. The eye represents slower meditative brainwaves, while the winds represent faster more stressful activities, or faster beta brainwave function. The bigger the eye of the storm, the more powerful the storm—or the more productive you can be in your life. Yes, we can be more productive, but when we learn to keep our brain in the eye of the storm, we can be productive without the usual stress, wear, and tear.
Remember, the goal is to take the calm with you into your life. In my book Body, Mind, and Sport, I use exercise as model for learning how to handle stress from a meditative, calm, and coherent alpha brainwave state. In our study, we were able to reproduce the runner’s high or “zone” (where athletes say, “My best race was my easiest race”) that athletes desperately seek.6,7
So next time you want to balance your brainwaves and function from the eye of the storm, turn to the ancient wisdom of yoga: breathe, stretch, and meditate