How yoga changes the brain’s stress response

Ha ha! Psychology Today includes a column called PreFrontal Nudity: The Brain Exposed. Love it!

This column, Yoga: Changing the Brain’s Stressful Habits, by Alex Korb, Ph.D. in neuroscience, is about the stress of yoga.

Yoga is controlled stress, as Leslie Kaminoff says.

Yes, that’s right. Yoga is stressful. If you don’t believe me, then get down on all fours with your hands shoulder width apart and your feet hip width apart. Push your hands and toes into the floor and lift your butt high. Stick your sacrum up as high as it will go.

Let your head drop.

Oh, and be sure your fingers are spread as wide as they can spread, middle fingers pointing forward, and without moving your hands, rotate your arms so your inner elbows are pointing more forward than toward each other.

Straighten your back. Don’t let it collapse! Let your shoulder blades flatten into your back but keep your kidney area full. Imagine you’re making one long line from wrist to tailbone.

Pedal your feet up and down if you need to, but really, try to get your heels to the floor with your legs straight. Feel that hamstring stretch! Feel those calf muscles and Achilles tendons!

Now push your hands and feet into your mat and away from each other!

Are you feeling relaxed yet?

So don’t forget to breathe. Keep your breathing calm and steady. Breathe through your nose while constricting the back of your throat to make a sound like the ocean.

Now how are you doing? Congrats on your downward facing dog, by the way.

Korb accompanied his dad to a yoga class and learned first-hand how yoga retrains the brain. He thought it was going to be all pretzel twists and enlightenment, until his dad explained ujjayi breathing to him.

This next statement may sound to you either profound or extremely obvious, but it comes down to this: the things you do and the thoughts you have change the firing patterns and chemical composition of your brain. Even actions as simple as changing your posture, relaxing the muscles on your face, or slowing your breathing rate, can affect the activity in your brain…. These changes are often transient, but can be long-lasting, particularly if they entail changing a habit.

As a neuroscientist, despite my initial incredulity, I came to realize that yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit.

 The fascinating thing about the mind-body interaction is that it works both ways. For example, if you’re stressed, your muscles will tense (preparing to run away from a lion), and this will lead to more negative thinking. Relaxing those muscles, particularly the facial muscles, will push the brain in the other direction, away from stress, and toward more relaxed thoughts. Similarly, under stress, your breathing rate increases. Slowing down your breathing pushes the brain away from the stress response, and again toward more relaxed thinking.

It [the physiological stress response] is, in fact, just a habit of the brain. One of the main purposes of yoga is to retrain this habit so that your brain stops automatically invoking the stress response.

Here’s the real kicker in my opinion, where a Ph.D. western scientist new to yoga really gets what it’s all about:

The good news is that you don’t actually have to go to a class to practice yoga. The poses most people associate with yoga are just a particular way of practicing yoga called the asana practice (“asana” translates to “pose”). The asana practice challenges you in a specific way, but life itself offers plenty of challenges on its own. Under any stressful circumstance you can attempt the same calming techniques: breathing deeply and slowly, relaxing your facial muscles, clearing your head of anxious thoughts, focusing on the present. In fact, applying these techniques to real life is what yoga is all about. Yoga is simply the process of paying attention to the present moment and calming the mind.

Yogis, does that not warm your hearts?

Nonyogis, does this not inspire you to practice yoga?

Couldn’t we all use a little more attention in the present moment and a calmer mind?

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