Did you ever wonder how yoga changes your brain? As it turns out, that post-session happiness you feel isn’t just in your head. Using brain scans, scientists can now prove that yoga actually changes your brain chemistry. And that’s a good thing. Just like practicing tai chi moves, using yoga as a form of exercise and meditation can help naturally treat a range of health issues, particularly ones rooted in the brain.
How Yoga Changes Your Brain
While natural therapies, including yoga, don’t have a ton of funding for major studies compared to the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, we are starting to see some compelling science emerge. Some of the best science to date showing how yoga changes your brain involves yoga’s impact on anxiety, depression and pain tolerance.
Yoga Unleashes GABA
Did you know yoga is a natural remedy for anxiety? That’s because yoga impacts our brain’s GABA levels. GABA is short for gamma-aminobutryic acid, sometimes referred to as your body’s “chill out” neurotransmitter. GABA is crucial for suppressing neural activity. Your GABA neurotransmitters produce a calming effect similar to of drinking alcohol (without the harmful side effects). And, of course, alcohol’s calming effects are only temporary, with anxiety often rising once the buzz wears off. (2)
Yoga bumps up your brain’s natural GABA production without traditional anti-anxiety drugs designed to help your body release GABA. (Getting off of these benzodiazepine drugs can lead to serious withdrawal symptoms.) Yoga sounds much better than insomnia, seizures and, ironically, more anxiety linked with drug withdrawal. (3)
Bring on the asanas! And get this. While walking to lose weight really works, it may not be your best defense against anxiety. Practicing yoga unleashes more anxiety-quelling GABA in the brain’s thalamus than walking, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Compared to pleasure reading for an hour, a 60-minute yoga session increases GABA levels by 27 percent. (4) Because of its combination of breathing, meditation and movement, yoga could be one of the best exercises to combat anxiety.