I have recently discovered the benefits of yoga and I deepen everyday the effects of asanas on my well-being. I’m obviously looking for scientific evidence because I’m trying to explain how these posts work in my mental balance.
Dr. M Storoni, a physician with a doctorate in medicine, explains in the article The Science Behind Yoga and Stress (www.upliftconnect.com) the proven scientific mechanisms demonstrating why yoga has so many benefits to people’s mental state.
How do yoga postures influence brain chemistry and neural circuits?
There are two functional parts of the brain that play an important role in stress management. They serve emotional and cognitive functions. The brain is called “emotional” (the amygdala and its connections plus the structures of the anterior brain including the prefrontal medial cortex) and the “logical” brain (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, other regions of the prefrontal cortex, the cingulate cortex and the hippocampus).
The emotional brain is able to initiate a stress response through the sympathetic nervous system that helps release adrenaline and cortisol in the bloodstream. The logical brain always tries to stop this response to stress and tries to limit the actions of the emotional brain.
The more logical our brain is, the more effective it is to do these two actions. When the stress response is “off”, the parasimpa system signal is “on”.
This signal relaxes the body, which means that a stronger logical brain is synonymous with relaxation.
The brain’s response to stress and relaxation signals have a certain circuit through the body, and some parts of this circuit have certain “buttons” that we can manipulate to activate or inactivate certain signals. The neck is an eloquent example where many such “buttons” are located (especially in the carotid artery area).
How to train the stress circuit
It has been shown that yoga trains the stress circuit on two levels. First, whenever we are in a posture – either standing or trying to keep our balance – the logical brain activates. When we lean forward, the “buttons” located at the neck level activate the “relaxation” signal. So bending forward and concentrating on an asane also involves activating the logical brain and the “relaxation” signal at the same time. Also, the bending to the back activates the signal to respond to stress through the “buttons” on the neck. And contracting a muscle activates a relaxation mechanism.
So, when we lean back and contract our muscles while we must remain motionless and focused on balance, the logical brain gets a challenge. It has to counterbalance the stress response (release of adrenaline and cortisol in the blood) and at the same time keep the body motionless and focused in a posture. This situation “trains” the logical brain as if it were a muscle.
Recovering neural circuits
A series of asanas represents for the logical brain what is meant for the body for a series of physical exercises. The logical brain has thus had a “workout.” This explains why after a yoga session you feel the mental calm, because the emotional brain is quiet. By training your logical brain for a long time, you can reorganize your neural circuits. So new circuits can be formed to help you manage your thoughts more easily. You will notice that you can channel them in the direction you want. This might explain, at least in part, why yoga has a positive effect on depression and anxiety. Stronger connections in the logical brain imply less emotional brain inflection and less responsive stress response.
This is why yoga is so effective in dealing with stress.
It is important to learn to practice yoga, to stay in asanas, to concentrate, to maintain your balance, to breathe properly, and thus begin to balance yourself emotionally and to reduce the effects of stress on your psyche and body.