Can Yoga and Meditation Change Your Brain? A Recent Review of the Evidence Says Yes

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E RYT-500
Updated: 
December 06, 2017

Yoga and meditation are two ancient disciplines known to promote positive physical and mental health. While we know that yoga can change your body, a recent review of the research suggests that these practices can also change your brain.

Among other effects, a regular yoga practice enlivens areas of the brain responsible for body awareness, coordination and motor control, and yoga/meditation practices produce numerous other changes as well.

Two researchers at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMR) in Chandigarh, India, conducted an extensive review of all English-language articles that describe the neuroimaging of yoga and meditation practitioners. Published in Alternative and Complementary Therapies, their review suggests that the brains of yogis and/or meditators are unique in a number of ways.

The review identified 47 studies in which brain imaging was conducted on healthy yoga and meditation practitioners. Of these studies, 31 compared both yoga and/or meditation practitioners with a matched control group. Some compared participants before and after practice, while others looked at baseline brain states and compared them to states of meditation.

There was a great deal of variation in the types of yoga and mediation practices that were used in the studies that were reviewed. The more common techniques included Kundalini Yoga, Yoga Nidra, Kriya Yoga, Vipassana, Zen, and loving-kindness and mindfulness meditation. Most studies examined change in a particular brain region of interest, or ROI. A number of brain imaging strategies were used including fMRI, SPECT and PET scans.

Most studies provided evidence of a consistent change in activation in the prefrontal cortex – particularly the dorsolateral prefrontal region. These regions are implicated in interoceptive (produced within an organism) and exteroceptive (stimuli external to an organism) awareness. Other areas of the prefrontal cortex that have a role in memory of past events, planning for the future, and an understanding of the viewpoints of others were also different in yoga and/or meditation practitioners.

Some studies using functional imaging techniques also provided evidence that areas of the brain and their interconnectedness with other regions were affected by these practices. Yoga practitioners were found to have better functioning in the cerebellum, a region of the brain responsible for body awareness, coordination and motor control.

There were some effects that appeared to be unique to the type of yoga or meditation practiced. Kundalini yoga was found to effect hippocampal and parahippocampas formation in most cases. These structures are related to the consolidation of short-term to long-term memory, spatial navigation, and the encoding and memory of environmental scenes.

Integrated body-mind training, on the other hand, seemed to have the greatest effect on the corpus callosum and corona radiata, two structures associated with motor relaxation.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is one of the most widely studied mind-body techniques. Studies of MBSR suggested the greatest effects on the insula and prefrontal cortex in general, and the anterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortices in particular. These are often associated with a variety of autonomic functions (e.g. heart and respiratory processes), as well as decision-making, empathy, impulse control and emotion, planning complex behavior, personality expression, and moderating social behavior.

Lastly, Buddhist meditation techniques were found to affect the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This area is responsible for functions including working memory, planning, organization, abstract reasoning, cognitive flexibility, and self-regulation.

When considered in their entirety, the results of this review make a great deal of sense to yoga and meditation practitioners. We commonly reflect on how these practices enable us to be present with uncomfortable feelings, to deal more effectively with stress, to be more sensitive to the messages of our bodies, and much more.

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500, is the Founding Director of the International Science & Education Alliance, a firm that provides strategic planning, research consultation and assessment design to support the empirically rigorous evaluation and sustainable implementation of programs in education, leadership, health and human services. Grace is an intervention scientist, psychologist, yoga educator and author who has worked extensively in integrated behavioral health settings. Her research, clinical practice, teaching and writing emphasize the incorporation of empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy and mindfulness practices to relieve the symptoms of stress, trauma, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote healthy relationships. She is Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy therapist training program, and Professor of Yoga & Neuroscience at the Taksha University School of Integrative Medicine. Grace is the former Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.com or see http://isaeaorg.wix.com/isaea and http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.

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