Yoga and Your Brain

Yoga has powerful effects on improving mood and health. Yoga and mindful breathing are now used by millions of U.S. children, and especially benefits those with anxiety, depression, and learning issues.  Movement therapies are especially helpful to children and adolescents because developmentally they have less top-down cognitive control (so emotions dominate over reason more easily). Bottom-up control, using the strong signals from body to brain, are an invaluable tool for highly sensitive youth.  Yoga turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, such as increasing vagal tone, and this turns down arousal in the limbic areas and increases personal control over emotions. 

How does yoga do this? There is now a critical mass of high quality research supporting it’s use and showing the mechanisms, reviewed below.   

Yoga improves mood, sleep, and attention.  In rigorous clinical trials, yoga significantly helped reduce feelings of depression, improved sleep, and reduced ADHD symptoms.  

(A review of 16 clinical trials, Balasubramaniam et al, 2013, Yoga on our Minds, Frontiers in Psychiatry).

Mindfulness (including mindful breathing) when practiced in the classroom increases cognitive performance, resiliency, and reduces stress.

(A review of 19 controlled trials, Zenner et al, 2014; Mindfulness based interventions in schools – a systematic review and meta analysis.  Frontiers of Psychology) 

HOW do yoga and mindful breathing have effects on stress and distress?

Yoga increases positive emotions,  self-compassion, and reduces the stress hormone cortisol.

(Riley and Park, 2015, How does yoga reduce stress? A Systematic review of mechansims. Health Psychology Reviews)

Yoga increases brain waves in key areas for self control, such as the prefrontal cortex, the ‘thinking’ part of the brain that can help us think clearly and calmly. This applied to all 3 parts of yoga – breathing, postures, and sitting meditation.

(A review of 15 studies, Desai et al, 2015, Effects of yoga on brain waves and structural activation: A Review, Complementary Therapy and  Clinical Practice)Yoga and mindful breathing (which includes calming to stimulating breath exercises) reduces anxiety and depression in part through balancing the autonomic nervous system (increasing vagal tone, reducing sympathetic activity).

(Zope et al, 2013, Sudarshan krya yoga (Sky): Breathing for health, Int J Yoga. Brown & Gerbarg, 2005, SKY yogic breathing in treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part 1: Neurophysiological model). 


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