Anyone who regularly practices yoga can attest to the enhanced levels of happiness, well-being, calmness and centeredness that follows their practice. But now science is proving how and why these feeling come about so consistently and reliably after yoga practice.
Cutting edge brain scanning techniques and blood analysis are now showing that practicing yoga results in profound changes in our brain chemistry that gives us that amazing feeling of well-being that yogis over the centuries have come to know and love.
How Yoga Changes Your Brain
Whilst the bio-chemical and brain-mapping research into yoga is only just gathering pace, compelling evidence is showing that yoga changes our brains in a way that is clinically proven to elevate and optimise mood, prevent anxiety, lower depression, increase levels of happiness and enhance pain tolerance. And it does all of this by unleashing GABA!
GABA is short for gamma-aminobutryic acid, sometimes referred to as your body’s “chill out” neurotransmitter. GABA is crucial for suppressing neural activity in a way that leaves us feeling calm, relaxed and chilled out, but in an alert and empowered way rather than acting as a “behavioural sedative”.
The impacts of yoga on GABA are so significant that regular practice can bump up your brain’s natural GABA production to a level typically produced by traditional anti-anxiety drugs such as benzodiazepine. Furthermore, yoga has been shown to unleash more GABA in the brain’s thalamus than many other forms of relaxation and exercise, such as walking, watching films or reading. For example, a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine compared pleasure reading for an hour with a 60-minute yoga session. Those practising yoga increased their GABA levels by 27% more than those reading!
Due to the powerful role that elevated GABA plays on our levels of happiness and mental health, these benefits alone should be enough to motivate us to embed yoga into our weekly exercise and self-care routines. However, the benefits don’t stop there. To date, over 100 published medical studies have shown that regular yoga practice results in:
Fewer depression symptoms
Better balance and flexibility
Improved sleep quality
Increased immunity due to stimulating the lymphatic system
Detoxification through helping rid the body of toxins and heavy metals
Increased strength and stamina
Improved blood flow
Better digestive functioning, including reduced symptoms of IBS
Less chronic pain, including those caused by musculoskeletal problems like lower back pain, or from frequent headaches
Better body acceptance and reduced body image disorder symptoms
The foundation of evidence into the collective benefits of yoga, above and beyond increasing the release of GABA, are so compelling that there are now large, government-funded studies currently underway researching the benefits of yoga in a wide variety of health areas. These include reducing diabetes risk factors, managing HIV and low immune function, arthritis, menopausal symptoms, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions and smoking cessation to name but a few.
The best way to start practising yoga is to join a class; this allows you to obtain personalised instructions with the support and guidance of a qualified teacher. However, if this is not possible, we recommend starting a daily Sun Salutation practice. This is one of the most revered yoga sequences of them all. It is easy to learn, provides a full body workout and allows you to do as many rounds as you want, making it incredibly time efficient. For guidance on the sequences, check out the infomatic below:
Current evidence suggests that yoga could be one of the most important self-care practices to increase quality of life and optimise mental health, reduce stress and combat anxiety. While there are many different forms of yoga, I encourage you to start out with gentle yoga and experiment to find the type that works best for you.