Yoga Changes the Brain to Improve Body Awareness, Attention, and Present Moment Awareness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Similar to the effects of meditation, yoga is a neurological vacation – but it also awakens parts of the brain that are typically inactive during normal day-to-day activity. . . The mind becomes deeply intertwined with the body and the two become one – opening up the flow of communication.” – Morgan Garza
The practice of yoga has many benefits for the individual’s physical and psychological health. Yoga has diverse effects because it is itself diverse having components of exercise, mindfulness meditation, and spirituality. So, yoga nourishes the body, mind, and spirit. As a result, yoga practice would be expected to produce physical changes. These include the relaxation response and stress relief. These should be obvious in the muscles, tendons and joints, but, less obvious in the nervous system. The nervous system changes in response to how it is used and how it is stimulated in a process called neuroplasticity. Highly used areas grow in size and connectivity. Mindfulness practices in general are known to produce these kinds of changes in the structure, connectivity, and activity of the brain. Indeed, yoga practice has been shown to protect the brain from age related degeneration.
The research on yoga effects on the nervous system is accumulating. It makes sense to pause and look at what has been learned. In today’s Research News article “What Has Neuroimaging Taught Us on the Neurobiology of Yoga? A Review.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7362763/) van Aalst and colleagues review and summarize 34 published research studies of the effects of yoga practice on the brain. The studies mainly included healthy adults.
They report that the published research studies used a wide variety of different yoga practices and as a result there were differences in the reported changes to the brain. Regardless, there were a number of similarities in the changes. They report that yoga practice increased the volume of brain areas especially the insular cortex and the hippocampus. Studies of activation of the brain have demonstrated that yoga produces increased activation of prefrontal cortical areas. Finally, studies of connectivity of brain areas have demonstrated that yoga practice increases functional connectivity in a series of brain areas that are known as the default mode network.
Yoga is known to increase body awareness. So, it is no surprise that the insular cortex is expanded by yoga practice. It has been shown to be involved in interoceptive body awareness. Yoga is also known to increase attentional ability. So, it is no surprise that the prefrontal cortical areas have increased activation with yoga practice. They have been shown to be involved in attention processing. Yoga is known to increase present moment awareness and decrease mind wandering. So, it is no surprise that yoga produces increased functional connectivity among the structures of the dorsal mode network. They have been shown to be involved in mind wandering and a lack of present moment awareness.
So, although differences in yoga practices produce differences in observed changes in the brain, there appear to consistent similarities. Yoga practice changes the brain in areas underlying body awareness, attention, and present moment awareness. It can be speculated that these changes in the brain underlie many of the physical and psychological benefits of yoga practice.
So, yoga changes the brain to improve body awareness, attention, and present moment awareness.
“We can talk about anxiety, depression and blood pressure lowering in yoga, all of those are proven. But the biggest thing we see that results from yoga is that your quality of life will change for the better,” – Amy Wheeler
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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van Aalst, J., Ceccarini, J., Demyttenaere, K., Sunaert, S., & Van Laere, K. (2020). What Has Neuroimaging Taught Us on the Neurobiology of Yoga? A Review. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 14, 34. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2020.00034
Yoga is becoming increasingly popular worldwide, with several implicated physical and mental benefits. Here we provide a comprehensive and critical review of the research generated from the existing neuroimaging literature in studies of yoga practitioners. We reviewed 34 international peer-reviewed neuroimaging studies of yoga using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), or single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT): 11 morphological and 26 functional studies, including three studies that were classified as both morphological and functional. Consistent findings include increased gray matter volume in the insula and hippocampus, increased activation of prefrontal cortical regions, and functional connectivity changes mainly within the default mode network. There is quite some variability in the neuroimaging findings that partially reflects different yoga styles and approaches, as well as sample size limitations. Direct comparator groups such as physical activity are scarcely used so far. Finally, hypotheses on the underlying neurobiology derived from the imaging findings are discussed in the light of the potential beneficial effects of yoga.