by Ellen Tousaw
It occurred to me recently that yoga is a drug. It’s as simple as that.
A drug is “a substance that has a physiological effect when introduced into the body”. Replace the word “substance” with “practice” and I’d say that’s a pretty good definition of yoga. We introduce asana, pranayama, and meditation into our bodies, and they have profound physiological effects. Like any other drug, yoga alters our brain chemistry, signaling, and structure. It’s no wonder many doctors recommend yoga and meditation in addition to medical therapy for many different conditions.
Here are a handful of ways this powerful drug affects our brains.
It is well documented that mindful practices like yoga, meditation, and breath work regulate the nervous system. When we are anxious, our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. Yoga helps lower heart rate and blood pressure, calm respiration, and put us at ease. In other words – it’s an antidote to anxiety.
The anti-anxiety benefits of yoga extend to the brain, too. In fact, regular practice is so powerful that it actually changes the physical structure of the brain. The amygdalae are two almond-shaped structures in the brain that play a huge role in anxiety. They are also responsible for fear and impulsive (but sometimes maladaptive) reactions to threats. Brain MRIs of long term yoga practitioners show amygdalae that are smaller in size than those of non-yogis. Pretty powerful stuff.
Finally, yogic practices not only physiologically activate the parasympathetic nervous system and inhibit the amygdalae’s fear response, but they also provide a simple distraction from negative thoughts. When you’re focusing mindfully breath or mantra, it’s hard to think about your bank account, a fight with your girlfriend, or whatever else is stressing you out.
Countless research studies have shown that people who practice yoga sleep better. The relationship here is a complicated one; it’s likely many different factors are at play, such as tiredness from physical activity and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Deep in the brain, though, yoga causes the pineal gland to produce melatonin. This hormone helps regulate sleep-wake cycles. Yoga could therefore be a great addition to the toolkit of those suffering from insomnia or poor quality sleep.
Mindful practices help regulate the limbic system, the part of the brain that deals with emotions, among many other things. While we often assume we are hard-wired to react certain ways to certain situations, the brain is actually incredibly flexible. Mindfulness can help re-train the limbic system so our emotional responses are more controlled and productive. A limbic system that is well-controlled also sends healthier signals to higher brain structures like the cerebral cortex, leading to more effective decision-making, rationalization, impulse control, and conscious reactions to stress.
So there you have it. The reason you feel blissed out after a great yoga class is because your brain’s reacting to a highly potent drug. It’s no wonder we keep going back for more.
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Infante J, Peran F, Rayo J, et al. Levels of immune cells in transcendental meditation practitioners. International Journal of Yoga. 2014 July; 7(2):147-151. DOI 10.4103/09736131.133899: 10.4103/09736131.133899
Stevens, I. Case report: the use of medical yoga for adolescent mental health. Complimentary Therapies in Medicine. 2019; 43: 60-65. DOI https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2019.01.006