Yoga and meditation are some of the most widely researched wellness activities in the world. And you all know that at Bumblebee Yoga, we’re all about that high-quality evidence-based practice!
In this post, we’re going to dive into our Science Made Simple blog series for National Science Week 2020 with 5 Fast (ish) Facts about what goes on in your brain when you practice yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. Through the post, you can click on the links to read the abstracts of research papers that help show some of the facts that we’re talking about.
1. Yoga and meditation increase serotonin levels.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for maintaining mood balance and is often known as the 'good mood chemical'. Low levels of serotonin are closely related to depression, mood disturbances, and poor mental health.
In the fields of neurotransmitter and neuroendocrine research, they’re exploring ways to increase serotonin levels without the use of drugs, which may be able to be used in addition to (or in some cases instead of) prescribed medication.
It’s long been known that exercise is a strongly supported way to increase serotonin levels, and in turn, can have some antidepressant effects. But we now know that yoga and meditation can also have similar effects. This study found that yoga practice increased plasma levels of serotonin, and this one found that meditation also has a strong relationship with increased serotonin levels, which was related to a greater relaxation response.
While there are lots of evidence-based ways to increase the production of serotonin in your body, yoga and meditation can certainly be added to the list!
2. Meditation and mindfulness lead to an increase in Alpha brain waves
Your brain shows different types of brain wave activity depending on what state you’re in, and we can study these waves using a machine called an Electroencephalogram (or EEG). For example, when you’re in a deep sleep, your brain will have long and slow Delta waves, and when you’re learning something new and concentrating hard, your brain will show quick Gamma waves.
Alpha waves fall smack bang in the middle of the wave spectrum and are associated with a feeling of being settled and relaxed. It can also be that feeling of flow as you get ‘in the zone’ when you’re not concentrating too hard, and your cognitive attention moves away from thoughts and goal-orientated tasks, and more towards your present moment experiences.
Studies have recently shown that Alpha brain waves are associated with improved creativity. There is also some evidence coming up that Alpha brain waves can help manage anxiety, and could even be electrically stimulated in the brain and used in the clinical treatment of Major Depressive Disorder.
But you don’t have to send electric currents into your head to get your Alpha waves going! One of the strongest evidence-based ways to get into this state is through meditation.
For the most part, it doesn’t particularly matter what kind of meditation you do, whether that is through yoga, breath focus, mantras, or visualisations. This study showed that nondirective meditation (i.e. letting the participants choose their meditation style) still showed more Alpha wave activity than those simply asked to rest.
While meditation is shown to have great outcomes after just one session, there is also evidence that says you can get even more benefits from practicing long term, especially when it comes to emotional regulation.
So you know that feeling you get as you’re sitting up from Savasana at the end of a yoga class and you feel all floaty and chill? Yeah, I call that being ‘Yoga Stoned’, and in part, you have your Alpha brain waves to thank for that!
3. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness have been shown to increase Gamma-aminobutyric Acid
Gamma-aminobutyric Acid sounds a little intimidating, so let’s call it GABA.
GABA is technically an amino acid, but it works like an inhibitory neurotransmitter, so it acts as a chemical messenger in your brain and body. What does it inhibit? Excitatory activity in your nervous system. In other words, GABA is responsible for signaling your body to calm down. It does this by telling your body to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is your ‘Rest and Digest’ system (and the opposite of your sympathetic ‘Fight or Flight’ system).
Now I don’t think I need to convince you that reducing feelings of stress, fear, and anxiety, and increasing feelings of calm, balance, and responsiveness is something we could all use a little more of!
Studies have shown that yoga can be a fantastic way to improve GABA levels and functioning in your body, due to the combination of movement, breathing, and meditation, and the increase could be up to 27% after a session. Both this study and this study found that yoga improved symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder due to increased GABA levels after 12 weeks, and this study found similar effects on anxiety and mood.
And even for the average person, increasing your levels of Gamma-aminobutyric Acid can help you feel more calm, centered, and ready to tackle your day!
4. Meditation, yoga, and mindfulness change the grey matter in your brain
Grey matter makes up about 40% of your brain, and essentially it’s job is to process information and take care of our cognitive functioning (it’s a little more complex than that, but for our purposes, it’ll work!).
Because we know that human brains have neuroplasticity- that is, our neural connections can adapt, change, and grow through our lives- grey matter is something that we can use to research how different things shape our brain.
This study found that experienced yoga meditation practitioners, compared to non-meditators, had larger grey matter volume across several areas in the brain, including areas associated with attention, emotional control, and compassion. This study also found that long term meditators had increased pain tolerance due to a grey matter increase in a brain structure called the Insular. Beyond just meditation, similar effects in grey matter growth and cognitive performance have also been found among yoga practitioners.
And it’s not just experienced practitioners who get to reap the rewards. This study took people who had never meditated and put them through an 8-Week course of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, finding an increase in grey matter in several areas. Most interestingly, there was an increase in the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and regulating emotional responses from the amygdala. This could lead to better emotional regulation, as we've seen in some other studies.
These studies also tend to be use-dependent, which means the more you do it, the more benefit you get!
5. Yoga breathing and meditation can strengthen your vagal tone
So your Vagus Nerve isn't technically a part of your brain, but it connects your brain to all of your major organs and controls your parasympathetic (rest and digest) system. The stronger the tone of this nerve, the quicker you can recover from stress (i.e. how quickly you can switch from ‘Fight or Flight’ to ‘Rest and Digest’).
Strong vagal tone is also associated with things such as self-regulation, coping, and social engagement. It could also mean the difference between effective and maladaptive cognitive processing (i.e. if you can cope well with emotional stimuli or if you’re hypervigilant).
There are lots of ways to activate the vagus nerve, including cold therapy, singing, and exercise. But one of the quickest, most effective, and most evidence-based ways to activate and strengthen the nerve is through deep, slow, breathing. The rate that is generally accepted as an effective relaxation response activation is 5-6 breaths per minute, which roughly translates to a 5:5 or a 4:6 second inhale and exhale ratio.
Vagal tone is generally measured indirectly as Heart Rate Variability, which measures how your heart responds to change in activity through the day. Kind of like measuring how quickly a sports car can go from 0-100kms, and back to 0. As we’d expect based on the knowledge that we have about the vagus nerve, studies show that yoga, meditation, and breathing are all effective ways of increasing heart rate variability, becoming more parasympathetic-dominant, and improving vagal tone.
But again, it’s not only long-term practitioners who get the benefit. In each moment, anyone (no matter their meditation or yoga experience) can take a few deep breaths to activate their vagus nerve and bring themselves into their parasympathetic nervous system. Then the more you do it, the better you become at it!
And to make this full-circle, researchers believe that GABA (from fact #3) is released during yoga by way of stimulating the vagal nerve fibres, which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s a complex system, but these three dimensions play really important roles in getting you from strung up to chilled out!
Let me know if you want me to go more in-depth about any of these topics! I could nerd out and talk about science all day, so hit me up with your post requests and content ideas.