Healthy Beginnings

Yoga brain: What’s the science behind that positive post-session feeling?

Studies have shown an increased amount of gray matter in the brain in people who practice yoga.

My students often tell me that I should provide a limo service after a yoga class … so they can retain that blissed out feeling that occurs after a great yoga session. Who wants to battle traffic after a wonderful class? At my studio (and, no doubt, at others), we call that feeling “yoga brain.” We know the feeling, but what’s the science behind the feeling?

As it turns out, there are good reasons, validated in recent scientific literature, for that feeling of wellbeing and joy we feel at the end of our yoga class.

Researchers Chantal Villemure and Catherine Bushnell of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, used MRI scans and discovered a greater amount of gray matter (brain cells) in certain areas of the brain, which showed a correlative increase with more hours of yoga practice (we have more gray matter when we spend more time on our mats).

These areas include the somatosensory cortex (which contains a mental map of our body), the superior parietal cortex (involved in directing attention), the visual cortex and the hippocampus (a region that assists in damping stress). Two other areas were also enlarged — the precuneus and the posterior cingulate cortex, which are key areas in relation to our concept of self.

According to the National Institutes of Health, yoga also seems to increase gray matter in areas involved with pain modulation — making yoga a possibility as an effective natural painkiller.

In a 2012 study published in “Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice,” yoga was also shown to significantly reduce symptoms of depression in at-risk pregnant woman, making yoga a possible aid in the toolbox for effectively treating depression, with less medication.

Anecdotally, I observe a profound decrease in observable signs of stress in the students in my own classes. I offer a combination of breath work, centering, asanas (postures), meditation and relaxation techniques. This seems to be quite an effective combination in reducing observable signs of stress.

Part of this overall reduction in stress may also be due to the reminders to “stay with the discomfort” that may arise and to “breathe through the discomfort.” This discomfort may be physical, but it also may be mental, emotional, or spiritual.

Yoga may help, not because the poses themselves are relaxing (although they may be!), but because they put a certain amount of stress on our bodies, emotions, and thought processes — while giving tools to manage the discomfort. We learn that discomfort has something to communicate and teach to us.

In a class we can respond to discomfort and perhaps fear — fear that we can’t manage the pose, fear that we aren’t good enough, fear of failure — by learning that we can Face Everything And Rise.

Yoga gives us the tools to face the discomfort and fear and rise above it. We are encouraged to take these techniques off the mat and into our daily lives, which may help us feel more empowered. When we Face Everything And Rise, we feel less stressed, we feel good about ourselves … and we experience that blissed-out feeling called “yoga brain.”

Reverend Dr. Kathaleen Martin Midcalf is the founder and master teacher at The Yoga Pearl in Sparks, Nevada. She is an ordained minister who holds a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies, a master’s degree in natural health and a doctorate in natural health. For more information, call 775-750-7610 or visit www.TheYogaPearl.com.