How Yoga Affects Your Brain

Neuroplasticity, Yoga, and Transformation – How Yoga Affects Your Brain

By: 
Meagan McCrary

Think you’re just exercising your body when you’re at the gym or on your yoga mat? Think again. Neuroscience has proven that yoga and other exercise are just as good for your brain as they are the rest of you.

Scientists used to think that the brain was immutable, and degenerated with age, leaving little room for growth or change. We now know, however, that the brain and nervous system are continuously regenerating, as we gain new knowledge and experience. And, practices that combine concentration and movement, like yoga, are especially powerful for facilitating change.

Yoga and Neuroplasticity

The brain’s ability to change is known as neuroplasticity. Derived from the root words neuron (or nerve cells in the brain linked together by synapses) and plasticity (or the capacity to be sculpted, molded or altered), neuroplasticity is the brain’s potential to create neural pathways and reorganize itself according to how it’s being used—or not being used.

Similar to muscles, regions of your brain become larger and stronger the more they are used, and unused regions become weaker and atrophy.

For example, every time you have the experience of being “stressed out,” the neural networks and areas of the brain responsible for the experience are reinforced and grow stronger. Meanwhile the structures that produce the experience of being “calm, cool and collected” are neglected and weaken.

Here’s why: Neurons that fire together, wire together. Our habitual thoughts, behaviors and reactive patterns fortify neural networks. The more that we engage a particular pattern of thought, feeling or behavior, the stronger the network becomes. This is why it can be difficult to change chronic, overlearned patterns.

This also means that the first step in making any change is to be aware of what you are doing as often as possible, and to detect your patterns and habits whenever they occur. Once you become aware of your patterns, you have the ability to try on new ways of thinking and being, and create new neural pathways.

How Yoga Helps To Change Your Brain

Studies of the brain show that the same areas and structures of the brain that are active in cognitive function (all aspects of thinking, reasoning, evaluating, judging, remembering and feeling) are also active during movement.

That means that whatever you think, perceive and feel (whether intentional or unconscious) while you’re practicing yoga is essentially training the brain to think, perceive and feel in those ways.

Your mind and body are essentially rewiring when you practice yoga. Therefore, your attitudes, judgments, and inner dialogue are just as important as your breath and alignment when you practice.

Beyond physical form, the practice of yoga is about becoming aware of what’s occurring on the inside. So remember to pay attention to your thoughts, feelings and internal dialogue as you practice. When it comes to neuroplasticity, the inner journey is just as important as creating new musculoskeletal patterns. 

Meagan McCrary is an experienced yoga teacher (500 ERYT) and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion and joy on the mat and in their lives. She is the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga a comprehensive encyclopedia of prominent yoga styles, including each system’s teaching methodology, elements of practice, philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, class structure, physical exertion and personal attention. Currently living in Los Angeles, Meagan teaches at the various Equinox Sports Clubs, works privately with clients and leads retreats internationally. You can find her blog, teaching schedule and latest offerings at www.MeaganMcCrary.com, as well as on Facebook.