By Grant J Everett
Although yoga has been practised for thousands of years, many people dismiss it as a lot of boring stretching. Yoga fans, on the other hand, will list numerous benefits in everything from an improved mood to a sharper mind to a slimmer waistline. However, as yoga involves meditation as an integral part of its workings (and seeing as though the benefits of meditation have been scientifically proven in numerous studies), does the “yoga” part of yoga have any real benefits, or would you get the same results just by meditating?
Some neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School decided to answer this question by putting a bunch of yogis in MRI machines and scanning their heads. According to the MRIs their enlightened brains contained more grey matter than the average person, especially in the region that deals with the “mental map” they have of their bodies (the somatosensory cortex), their visual cortex (sight), the hippocampus (a region that is very important for reducing stress levels) the bit that deals with memory and executive decision making (the frontal cortex), as well as the parts that contain their concept of self. Now that the researchers knew what bits of the brain they should watch, this meant that the next stage could begin.
Part two of their research involved bringing in a control group of people who wouldn’t know Hatha yoga from banana-flavoured yogo, and these newbies were randomly split into two distinct groups. Group one took a weekly yoga class as well as practicing for forty minutes a day at home for two months, while the other group only used these times to meditate. As you’d expect, the brains of both groups were extensively scanned, documented and compared. Within just eight weeks the neuroscientists were able to see pretty noticeable differences between the groups: the people who only learned meditation had thickening in the regions of the brain that dealt with learning, cognition, memory, emotional regulation, perspective, empathy and compassion, but the people who did yoga also grew extra grey matter in other places, too, such as their frontal cortex, which we already mentioned is associated with working memory and executive decision making.
The reason this is exciting news is because it’s well-documented that our cortex tends to shrink as we get older, which is why it can get harder to understand things and remember things as we age. Modern medicine is highly reliant on medication and drugs, so any kind of treatment that doesn’t rely on chemicals is worth pursuing. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to process information and remember things better when they get older?
Yoga, like other forms of low-impact physical activity (such as walking) also appears to reduce anxiety and the symptoms of depression in people who practise it. In one study there was no significant difference between treating stress and anxiety with yoga versus treating it with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Also, the meditative stretching and breathing that yoga involves will signal the brain to release calming chemicals, and these can have a real effect on your mood for hours after a session.
The way it works
“Mindfulness” is at the very centre of yoga, and it means paying attention to your whole self: your muscles, your mind, your emotions. Paying attention to things you usually take for granted can help all of your separate parts to get to know each other better, and just as physical exercise will grow muscle and burn fat, mindfulness will pump up your emotional regulation, sharpen your mental edge and help boost your attention span.
Our resident yoga expert, Clare, spoke to Panorama about the topic.
“Yoga is far more than stretching,” Clare explained. “It’s about having mindful control over your body and emotions, and learning to breathe and focus can save me from the most stressful of physical postures. Controlling frustration and discomfort while you’re doing physically demanding postures in the classroom is an excellent way to train your emotions for stress and hardship in real life.”
Clare says the most important thing when you start off with yoga is to find a good teacher, as yoga is one of those tricky things that are both very simple and very complex at the same time. Clare also highly recommends the Dhamma Yoga Facebook page run by her yogi, Amit, and Amit also has a webpage at
http://www.dhammayoga.com.au if you have any questions.
Yoga isn’t for everybody. Some will hate it with a passion, others will have trouble believing they ever lived without it. However, yoga does seem to be able to provide benefits for most people. Despite its advanced age (it’s thought to be 5,000 years old, which is more ancient than Stonehenge), it’s still early days when it comes to figuring out what yoga can or can’t do and how little you can do to make a difference in your health.
Even if you adopt yoga into your lifestyle it will still only be a single component. This means that you’ll still require medication, a good diet, proper sleep hygiene, adequate nutrition and all those other things you’re already doing to maintain your health and wellbeing. There’s no magic bullet for our struggles, and recovery is a jigsaw puzzle made up of many equally-important pieces.