Written March 2013
As a self-proclaimed subtle anatomy junkie I’ve left little room in my study plan for scientific reasoning. My life practice and learning path is one of intuition and experiential proof, energetic observation and a big dose of visualization. Although this path will always be my first love, a recent yoga study opened up a new curiosity within me. As we peeked into the brain science of dendritic connections which explain the connection we feel to our favorite song or yoga flow, my interest in this magical organ was piqued as well.
So what happens when science begins to support as true some abstract ideas and inferences that have been spoken about, experienced and shared by yogis for thousands of years? Well, I’ll tell you what happens: subtle energy dorks like me get VERY excited! Now feelings and intuitive conclusions are backed up with the muscle of laboratory research at an ever-increasing rate. Of course you scientists out there are waiting for the evidence so here are a few mind-blowing but digestible morsels for all brainiacs:
•Yoga practice has a positive effect on GABA levels and mood. GABA being one of the most common neurotransmitters in our central nervous system which decreases brain activity (that’s a good thing). You may be interested in noting that most anxiety medications (benzodiazepines) work by amping up the release of GABA. Boston University Medical Center came to this conclusion after extensive study – every yogi for thousands of years has simply called this “quieting of the mind”.
•As Rachael Grazioplene of Quilted Science says “it is maybe intuitively obvious why [yoga] might combat depressive symptoms and promote mood stability” but just to provide the scientific truth to our intuitive prior knowledge: in a study by the University of Minnesota there was NO SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE between two varied stress treatments; one being yoga and the other being cognitive behavioral therapy.
•Baroreflex (which helps maintain blood pressure) is increased and heart rate variability positively affected during asana practice and mantra chanting. Professor Luciano Bernardi of the Italian University of Pavia compared the benefits of chanting both “Om Mani Padme Hum” and “Ave Maria” – both slow the breath rate to six breaths per minute; turning off sympathetic nervous system and more deeply activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Chant it up! Now even more so because science says so! If you feel at peace during pranayama or mantra practices know that your baroreflex levels are up and your parasympathetic nervous system on point. Go you!
•Scientific research has proven that with repetitious action comes an increase in the sprouting of dendrites. These dendritic connections bridge old memories to new ones, the brain begins to retrieve more efficiently and voila! New muscle memory, actions and reactions are born. Now when your yoga instructor prompts you to embody peace, patience, grace or compassion…know that (even if you don’t feel that way now) with practice your brain function is actually helping you build these qualities into habit!
So maybe it’s the GABA that grabs you, the baroreflex babble or the discourse on dendrites that does it for you. All of this talk of neurotransmitters, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, mood and behavioral stability would have been of little interest to me 15 years ago when I first unrolled a mat. Back then I did yoga because feeling good was good enough for me (cue the Bobby McGee fans). I still do yoga because it feels good, but now brain science and research has given me a new set of vocabulary to explain exactly what “good” means and why. If the scientific rap session is too much for you to soak up right now then just stick with it “because it feels good”. Simply feeling good has been good enough for thousands of years and for countless generations of yogis before us. And that’s sure still good enough for me, too.