By: Meg Graure
You just attended a yoga class. You probably feel more relaxed, a little stronger. You may even feel a sense of mental clarity and balance that you didn’t have prior to class. Have you ever wondered why you feel this way after going to yoga? While it is clear that yoga has some benefits involving mental health and relieving stress, how exactly does a simple sun salutation or tree pose change and impact your brain?
Research suggests practicing yoga a few times a week can positively impact your body’s response to stress as well as your cognitive abilities. Johnathan Greenberg, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School who has deeply researched the benefits of yoga. He says, “Yoga is highly recommended for those who suffer from anxiety conditions, insomnia, depression, and eating disorders.”
Greenberg’s research shows the deep breathing and meditation exercises that occur during yoga work on your sympathetic nervous system (which keeps your body cued up) as well as the parasympathetic nervous system (which tells your body to chill out). Essentially, yoga reduces the system that cues your body up, and increases the system that chills you out which results in a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure. Your brain takes signals from your body (and vice versa, of course), so when your body is calming down, your brain gets the message to do the same.
A study done on mindfulness and meditation found that completing even just a 20-minute yoga session has been related to cognitive improvements in memory, speed, and accuracy.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts recently published research finding that the brain changes before and after yoga. For the study, images were taken of the brain structure of participants two weeks before and after they took part in a mindfulness yoga program. Brain activity involving awareness, attention, and self-related thinking changed in structure and increased in volume. These changes allow for a significant increase in awareness, attention, and thinking across the board. Relaxation and meditation can significantly enhance your working memory by increasing attentional control. These cognitive enhancements are beneficial because your working memory plays a huge role in academic success.
One research study that focused on the impact yoga has on academic performance was recently done at California State University. The study started with 800 student participants who were each given a test to assess academic performance. Then, each participant completed a stress test to identify high-stress and low-stress level students. 50% of students who identified as high-stress and 50% who identified as low-stress were put into an experimental group. The experimental group attended yoga classes for 7 weeks. After completing the trial, the participants from both the experimental group and control group were given the same two tests as before. The results showed that the students, who practiced yoga for the 7 weeks performed better in academics. The study further showed that low-stress students performed better than high-stress students, meaning that stress affects student performance.
Personally, I can say that starting to practice yoga has enhanced many aspects of my life. Attending a yoga class with some friends has become part of my weekly routine at Elon.
Socially, it has become a great way for me to de-stress after a busy week while still being able to spend time with friends. Academically, I feel as though I can pay more attention to the material being discussed during lectures in class. I have also seen improvement in my memorization and comprehension skills while studying for tests.
So the next time you are having trouble focusing or memorizing class material while studying for a test or while sitting in class, consider attending a yoga class or going to Elon’s yoga club!