The Changing Power of Yoga

The practice of Yoga has often been called a ‘transformative’ practice. Exactly what does this mean? And how does Yoga ‘transform?’

There is a great deal of interest presently in the brain...and in the way that our mind works. We do know that the brain changes over time – or else why would we be able to learn how to acquire new skills like learning a new language or just managing your iphone?! The old way of thinking that we were endowed with a certain # of brain cells at birth which slowly died off over the years has been absolutely de-bunked!

Understanding Neuroplasticity: Dr. David J. Hellerstein states “In the past decade, it has become clear, that the brain keeps remodeling itself throughout life. One amazing discovery is that parts of the brain (such as the memory center, the hippocampus) keep growing new brain cells even in adult life. Another finding is that disorders like depression and anxiety disorders cause damage to the brain, or a kind of 'negative plasticity.' Other research suggests that treatments of depression and anxiety can actually slow this damage, and possibly even stop and reverse it.

But the take-home message of the New Neuropsychiatry's understanding of neuroplasticity is that your day-to-day behaviors can have measurable effects on brain structure and function. One of my favorite examples is a study that University of London researcher Eleanor Maguire did of British taxi drivers. To get a London hack license, you have to memorize the map of the city of London - a massive project that takes many months. Prospective cabbies ride bicycles through the old city's tangled streets, trying to memorize an incredibly complex map. What Maguire found in a fascinating study published in 2000 was that there were physical changes in the hippocampi of London taxi drivers - with greatest enlargement in those who had been driving the longest!”

There are many reports in the literature of patients suffering from anxiety and depression who have found a passion in yoga, and have seen a very considerable decrease in their symptoms. It is postulated that the practice of yoga contributes toward a decrease in the activity of the brain's fear center, the amygdala. This, of course, results in a more centered approach to life, without unwarranted panic and fear.

Yoga practices (of which there are MANY), act directly on the CNS...the central nervous system...and its subsidiaries....the Parasympathetic NS, and the Sympathetic NS. Put briefly, the Sympathetic NS is our ‘fight or flight’ go-to system when we feel frightened and/or stressed. It was never intended to be operating at full steam for days/weeks/months/years at a time. When this happens, the entire physical, mental and emotional centres of the body suffer greatly. Conversely, when we are calm and centered, the Parasympathetic NS is running the show. This is our natural state.

Very complex chemical reactions within the brain and its affiliate nervous system of highways serve to regulate the messages which travel the paths.

Suffice to say when the messages are down-regulated, we feel GOOD!

It is now thought that negative feeings/thoughts affect the brain negatively and positivity affects the brain in a positive way

The question that is now important to answer is: does the practice of Yoga bring about long-lasting effects? Does the brain actually CHANGE during the practice? Interesting. Very interesting.

For the more scientific minded of you yogis….please read on…..

Below is a picture of the very narrow fibers at the ends of two neurons. (A neuron is a nervous system cell.) The upper one is called an axon. It takes chemical messages away from the brain. The lower fiber is a dendrite. Dentrites bring messages to the brain. The little bubbles in the middle are drops of neurotransmitters – chemicals which carry the messages. When the neurotransmitters stay longer in the gap between the fibers (the synaptic cleft) the person who owns this brain feels calmer.

When the neurotransmitters are out of control, the owner also feels that way.

Below is an image of a typical neuron.

An axon is typically an extension at the end of a neuron which transmits electrical energy away from the body of the cell.

Dendrites are treelike extensions at the beginning of a neuron that help increase the surface area of the cell body. These tiny protrusions receive information from other neurons and transmit electrical stimulation to the soma (the body of the cell.) They have a lot of branches and they are short. Dendrites are also covered with gaps called synapses.