How Yoga and Meditation literally change the physiology of the brain.
Yoga and meditation are one of the many ways to unite mental and spiritual well-being for a healthy outlook on life. Certain asanas in yoga aim to relieve mental stress, and meditation is naturally one of the most effective ways to calm the mind. With meditation, one learns to be content with their surroundings and be accepting of one’s self. With the help of scientific research, more and more benefits of meditation are being researched and proven. Besides psychological benefits, meditation is now being proven to slow down aging, promote recovery from addiction and pain relief.
The basis of meditation is in breathing exercises. Breathing exercises in yoga are one of the key elements, and yogic breathing is different from regular breathing. Yogic breathing focuses on depth of breath rather than frequency, and can be practiced in the given steps.
• Sit comfortably in a chair.
• Close your eyes and imagine a swan gliding across a lake.
• Like the swan has gentle movements as it glides, let your breathe take the swan’s place. Gently inhale, hold your breath for as long as you can, then exhale. Use both your mouth and nose to breathe deeply.
• Continue this in a cycle for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes, you’ll feel positive and energized. Breathing also sets the pace for yoga routine. Long deep breathing has the following benefits:
• Deep breathing promotes a more efficient release of toxins from the tissues, and ensures their exit from the body.
• Deep breathing helps relieve anxiety and stress. When you’re agitated, the muscles become taut and breathing becomes shallow. Taking deep breaths when anxious or stressed out helps the muscles unwind, which increases the blood supply to the brain and heart, which helps you think clearly.
• Deep breathing strengthens the heart and lungs, as it increases their capacity to deliver blood and oxygen to the whole body.
• One deep breath sends a gush of blood to the brain, which is supplied with instant energy. Deep breaths hence strengthens the nervous system, and avoid buildup of toxins in the brain.
Further research has proven that meditation changes brain structure, such as altering the level of neurotransmitters in the brain, as well as changing the amount of grey and white matter in the brain. Meditation increases grey-matter in the brain, and is associated with increased concentration ability as well as reduced anxiety and depression. Meditation is proven to increase mindfulness – which helps in recovery from addiction to substances. Mindfulness allows a person to look beyond craving the substance for fulfillment, hence improving rehabilitation outlook. Meditation helps improve social skills as well, as it allows you to be attentive of other people in a conversation while simultaneously reducing social anxiety.
So how does meditation affect the brain? The brain structure comprises of neurons arranged in two distinct areas – the grey and white matter. Collectively called the cerebral cortex, certain areas of the brain control specific body functions as well as behavioral patterns. The Limbic System is the name given to the parts which govern emotions, and it contains the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus. Each of these has specific functions, controlled by the release of neurotransmitters.
• Thalamus: associated with control of consciousness, sleep, and sensory interpretation.
• Hippocampus: Regulates emotions and long-term memory
• Amygdala: controls emotions, survival instincts, and memory.
Any imbalance in these centers can lead to anxiety, depression and other symptoms of stress. A study conducted by Sara Lazar in 2011 explained the effects of meditation on the grey matter and cerebral cortex by observing these changes by brain scans. The study involved two parts, one to look at the effect of meditation on brain aging. It involved comparing the grey matter of 50 year olds, divided into meditators (those who had been practicing meditation) and non-meditators. The brain scans of meditators showed increased grey matter thickness in specific areas, similar to the cortex of 25year old non-meditators. In contrast, the brain scans of non-meditating 50 year olds showed reduced grey matter, confirming that aging does shrink grey matter, hindering the person’s ability to concentrate and perform simple tasks as they age. The second part of the study involved observing the effects of 8 weeks of regular meditation (30-40 minutes everyday) on a group of people. Comparing with the pre-meditation scans, the hippocampus showed increased thickness after meditation. Another area identified was the temporal-parietal junction, which is important for perspective building, empathy and compassion. People who practice meditation report increased empathy and compassion, and this was reflective in the brain scans which showed increased thickness in the experimental group of people in the study. Another area of importance is the amygdala, which controls the body’s response to stress. The size of the amygdala increases in stress and decreases in non-stressful situations. In the study, the meditators’ brain scans showed decreased size of the amygdala, corresponding to decreased stress as a result of meditation.
Hence, meditation has now proven to be of significant value in healing of the brain, as it changes the physiology and structure of the brain. People who have suffered from traumatic brain injuries, such as athletes or victims of road traffic accidents initially reported depression and decreased mental function. As part of alternative therapies, these patients were offered meditation and craniosacral therapy. They reported a reduction in negative thoughts, as well as improved higher mental function and a feeling of hope regarding their future after the incident. It may not be significant, but meditation has proven to play a significant rule in healing of the brain. It is now included as part of alternative therapies in hospitals, as well as to children in schools to help with stress and social anxiety.