Modern Yoga and the Brain

May 30, 2014

Today’s focus on body and image may seem like a far cry from the original purpose of yoga and may, instead, be the initial goal of modern yoga and the Western student.  However, scientists have discovered what perhaps the Rishis of old knew about the benefits of the physical practice of yoga, and how this physical focus can lead to a change in brain wiring. Modern yoga has proven to be an intrinsic part of the more vast science of yoga, which includes a combination of meditation and movements aimed at bringing the brain and nervous system into a natural rhythm and be more in tune with many aspects of life.


A well-designed physical activity program can contribute to a healthy mind, as noted by Dr. Roy J. Shephard, a specialist in exercise science, sports medicine, and environmental physiology in health and disease, who has authored numerous books on the topic. He emphasizes that physical activity specifically contributes to increased arousal, improvement of self-esteem and body image, relief of anxiety, stress and reactive depression, and maximization of intellectual and psychomotor development.

Studies in neuroscience produce evidence that the brain grows and rewires itself (neuroplasticity) through experience, which means the brain can be deliberately and systematically influenced and changed. The act of changing your posture, slowing your breath, focusing on the present moment and relaxing during intense concentration all engage in the physical process of modern yoga to reshape and rewire the brain.

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, wired several Tibetan monks and novice practitioners to compare the activity within their brains as they meditated. He discovered that the monks could reach unprecedented low levels of brain activity. Slower wavelengths reduce the chattering of the mind, enabling the practitioner to observe and adjust thoughts, and subsequently change those thoughts and future actions. Through the practice of yoga, modern students can train the brain with meditation, breath work, intention setting, imagination and visualization.

Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuating patterns of the mind, as explained in Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Repeatedly changing responses, intentions and corresponding thoughts forces the brain to create new and more efficient neuronal pathways, which makes your body produce healthier automatic physiological responses (unlearned reactions such as a reflex, sweating or blinking) and stronger interoception (sensory systems). This will affect how you perceive feelings from the body that will, in turn, impact your mood, well-being and emotions.

The practice of modern yoga as physical activity opens the door to the larger science of yoga and its deeper connection with the brain to produce happiness and well-living. So, if you’re looking to live a sustainable life filled with lasting happiness, it’s time to hit the yoga mat!