ARE THE ANCIENT PRACTICES OF YOGA AND MEDITATION A CURE ALL?
Imagine, you’ve had a hard day at work, gotten through a tiring commute, and now you’re home and there things to be done but you’re exhausted and just want to drop on the couch. What do you do?
If you’re liking millions of Americans and counting, you might do something that originates from the other side of the world: yoga or meditation. There are unfortunately a lot of misconceptions about both, especially yoga — that it’s religious, that it’s for yogis, that it’s new-agey, that it’s for women, that it’s no different than regular exercise.
Well, it might surprise you to learn that scientific research has shown that not only do yoga and meditation have positive physical health benefits but they can reorganize brain structures in a positive way.
THE BENEFITS OF YOGA AND MEDITATION
WHAT IS YOGA? WHAT IS MEDITATION?
There are actually several forms of yoga — many of which are fairly new. Some focus on physical exercises; others are forms of meditation. In fact, YogaTrail.com lists as many as 48 types — but that might be incomplete, as new forms are still appearing, such as Broga — yoga for guys. However, before the explosion of types (mostly created in the United States), there were five main forms, depending on what time frame you’re talking about.
- Hatha, which focuses on breathing and meditation — one of the most basic forms, and is a particularly good place for beginners to start. In fact, most other forms are arguably derived from Hatha.
- Vinayasa, which focuses on breath and movement for building lean muscle mass.
- Ashtanga, which focuses on physical moves including yogic-style lunges and pushups.
- Iyengar, which focuses on bodily alignment and incorporates Ashtanga. Extended-duration standing poses are a large part of Iyengar.
- Bikram, which is known as “hot” yoga, and focuses on a combination of muscle tightening and sweating (due to a 95-105 degree room, with 40% humidity) and often practiced by athletes and other sports-minded people.
These are just a few of the non-North American yoga forms. Most of the other of 4 dozen forms of yoga are generally derived from these five types, each having a different focus.
Yoga has become so popular that there’s a National Yoga Month, which is September. Please note that not all forms are suitable for all people, and you should research and preferably find a teacher to get you started before practicing any forms.
Likewise, meditation has many forms. Some are yogic, some are associated with certain religions — such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, even lesser know Christian and Islamic forms — and some are simply a form of mental discipline.
SOME GENERAL BENEFITS OF YOGA AND MEDITATION
For convenience, here are quick lists of potential benefits for meditation and yoga.
In the general sense of meditation (long, deep breaths and possibly focused on mental visualizations for a specific topic), here are some of the benefits.
- Improved breathing
- Increased concentration and discipline.
- Reduced anger.
- Reduced stress.
- Reduced anxiety.
- Decreased feeling of loneliness, which can cause any number of heart illnesses.
- Reduced aging of the brain.
- Increased compassion.
- Improved test scores for students.
- Increased cortical thickness in the brain, as the result of more neuronal connections.
As yoga includes some forms of meditation, its benefits include most of those listed above. Here are some additional benefits of yoga, depending on the type performed.
- Improved oxygen flow in the bloodstream
- Improved coordination.
- Improved stamina.
- Improve balance — particularly relevant for stroke survivors.
- Reduced weight.
- Improved body strength and flexibility.
- Helps with recovery from muscle injuries.
- Relief from physical ailments including arthritis.
- Reduced risk of heart disease.
- Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Reduced blood pressure.
- Reduced depression.
- Reduced or slowed-down effects of body aging from stress or other factors.
- Cleansing of the body from toxins.
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON YOGA AND MEDITATION
To back up some of the potential benefits listed above, here are some of the findings of a sampling of studies, with an emphasis on brain changes.
- Stave off depression and reduce anxiety. Depression and anxiety are are linked to low levels of GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid). Just 12 weeks of yoga practice can increase GABA levels in the thalamus region of the brain compared to equivalent time spent in “metabolically matched” walking exercises.
- Reduce stress and mental health problems. An excess of the hormone cortisol is associated with some mental health problems.
- A 2010 Boston University study found that practicing yoga increased GABA levels in the brain. Low GABA levels are associated with depression.
- A Japanese study from 2000 found that yoga increased alpha waves — associated with wakeful relaxation — in the brain and decreased cortisol levels in the body. Alpha waves are thought to aid in neuroplasticity since, during such activity, brain regions are inter-communicating. (Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to restructure itself throughout life and most especially after physical or brain trauma.)
- PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) sufferers have reduced insula cortex volume. In a 2010 Harvard University study, participants who had gained long-term yoga practice were found to have greater cortex volume than control participants who had not practiced yoga.
- Another Japanese study found increased levels of neuro-chemical BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) in participants who had practiced “a special yogic breath technique called Sudarshan Kriya”. Neuroplasticity requires BDNF.
- Improve speed, accuracy and focus for memory. In a study of 30 female college students, Hatha yoga was found to be more effective on tests of working memory than aerobic exercise. Students participated in 20 minutes of meditation and deep breathing and also in 20 minutes of aerobic exercise (walking or jogging on a treadmill). Testing was conducted after each type of exercise session.
- Improve balance for stroke survivors. A 2003 study of 47 people (75% male veterans) conducted by Indiana University and Roudebush Veterans Administration-Medical Center found that people with balance issues were 5 times more likely to fall. Yoga practice of as little as twice a week had improved balance as well as less fear of falling.
- Overall improved health. According to studies published in various medical journals between 2006 to 2010, meditation in general has been scientifically shown to: overcome stress; boost creativity; improve sex life and libido; instill healthy eating habits; improve digestion; lower blood pressure; decrease risk of heart attack and stroke; help overcome anxiety, depression, anger and confusion; decrease pain; improve cognitive processing; increase focus and attention; and increase the size of your brain. These benefits drive the increase in meditation practices in the United States:
- In a 2007 study, 9.4% of American adults had practiced meditation in the previous 12 months.
- This is roughly 20M people, at the time, who had practiced some meditation — an increase from 7.6% (15M people) in 2002.
- Reduced anxiety. A study of 40 American test subjects practicing a form of meditation known as “transcending” showed a drop in anxiety after 2 weeks of 15 minute sessions twice daily.
- Improved brain function. Participating in an 8-week meditation training program had later positive effects on brain function, even without active meditation — as measured by brain MRIs on 12 participants in a study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Boston University. Meditation training reduced activation of the amygdala, which is associated with “processing memory and emotion.”
- Improved self-awareness and empathy. In a similar study of 16 people by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers, participation in 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation showed “changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.”
- Increased concentration and mental discipline. In one study of 22 practitioners and 22 non-practitioners, practitioners of meditation with 5-46 years of experience had more gray matter in their brain, as determined by MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans — than age-matched non-practitioners. The net result of this is the potential for greater “attention, emotion, regulation and mental flexibility”.
- Improve course grades. Meditation before classes can increase grades for students. Studies show the effects of meditation appear more positive for freshman students — possibly meaning that meditation is most useful to people who have focus and concentration problems.
- Prevent or slow down brain aging. 72M Americans will be over age 65 by 2030. As many 7M Americans might be afflicted with Alzheimer’s by 2025 (most common form of dementia). Meditation has been shown to prevent or slow brain aging and can improve brain function. It has also been show that it causes positive changes in brain structure.
- A 2005 Harvard study matched 20 participants who had practiced “Buddhist Insight” meditation for 6 hours per week, at an average of 9 years per person, against 15 non-meditator participants. In general, the brains of meditators had thicker areas in parts of their cortex — areas associated with “attention, higher thought and planning,” as well as other functions. Thus, meditation might decrease the amount of thinning of the cortex associated with age, and strength the entire brain.
- 2011 UCLA study showed meditators have more cerebral cortex folding (gyrification) — which “is associated with brain processing and memory formation.” The study compared brain MRIs of 50 experienced meditators and 50 non-meditators. Practitioners of various meditation forms had an average of 20 years experience. Their brains had less shrinkage and “stronger connections throughout the brain.”
- Positively-changed brain activity. A difference in the brain activity of Buddhist monks with tens of thousands of hours of meditation practice has been noted. While most Americans do not have time for this, studies show that even short-term meditation can have positive effects.
- A landscape architect had positive changes in her SAD-based depression after only 5 weeks of meditation.
- In an University of Wisconsin study, 11 of 21 people averaged 7 hours total time spent (at least two 1/2 hour sessions per week) in meditation training over 5 weeks. Their EEGs different brain activity than non-meditators. In particular, meditators showed more activity in the left frontal region of their individual brains.
Critics point out that many studies on the benefits of yoga and meditation have a very small sample set of participants. While that’s true, the fact remains that at least some people are reaping benefits. At the worst, yoga provides some exercise, and meditation helps with overall self-awareness. This alone in a win for the well-being of millions of Americans.