The Evidence

Yoga & Meditation – Solving the Problems of Stress, Anxiety, Depression and Negative Energy – The Evidence

Yoga Reduces Stress

In a recent study conducted by Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and the Yoga Research Society researches discovered a significant drop in the stress hormone cortisol in students after participating in a yoga class compared to before the class.

George Brainard, M.D., a Professor of Neurology at Thomas Jefferson Medical College conducted a similar study that also showed a significant drop in cortisol levels of subjects following asana (physical postures) practice.

The findings suggest that practicing yoga—even for the very first time—can normalize cortisol levels that are either too high or too low, says Vijayendra Pratap, Ph.D., president of the Yoga Research Society in Philadelphia. “My hypothesis,” he adds, “is that yoga brings the body to balance.”

Yoga Helps Reduce Anger, Depression and Anxiety

Another yoga researcher, Boston University’s Dr Chris Streeter, found evidence of yoga’s potential to help treat workplace anxiety and depression. In her studies, Dr. Streeter scanned the brains of yoga practitioners and found that, compared with walking, yoga produced a decrease in anxiety and a boost in a brain chemical that enhances our mood. In a 12-week study, a group of 34 physically and psychologically healthy young men and women were randomly assigned into two groups: one that walked for an hour three times a week, and one that practiced Iyengar yoga for the same amount of time.At four-week intervals, Streeter used a technique known as magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a technique that is used to study metabolic changes in the brain to monitor the subjects’ levels of a brain chemical called gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA). When elevated, GABA is associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety. The study showed that yoga boosts GABA production by a significant 27 percent. The yoga group also reported a greater boost in mood than the walking group, with GABA levels correlating with those 8 improvements. Although the role of GABA is still not completely understood, Streeter’s study is the first to demonstrate the GABA-mood-yoga connection by looking at actual changes in the brain.

Yoga Reduces Blood Pressure

Evidence suggests that yoga not only reduces high blood pressure in patients, but it has been demonstrated to lower blood glucose level, cholesterol level and body weight, risk factors for major heart and other diseases that affect people today, according to a recent study conducted by the Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon, and Kennesaw State University, Georgia. As the 2012 article reviewing studies of yoga on  blood pressure in hypertension patients states:“This review is significant because yoga presents an effective method of treating hypertension that is nonpharmacologic (i.e., without the use of medications) and therefore has no adverse effects in addition to having other valuable health benefits.”

Yoga Helps Reduce Depression, Anger & Anxiety

Researches Dr David Shapiro & Dr Ian Cook from the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioural Sciences – Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behaviour, studied yoga as a complementary treatment for workplace depression. Their preliminary findings support the potential of yoga as a complementary treatment for depression. Of the people practicing yoga, significant reductions were shown for depression, anger, anxiety, neurotic symptoms and low frequency heart rate variability. In addition, they discovered that moods improved from before to after the corporate yoga classes. They concluded that yoga practice appears to be a promising intervention for depression and that it produces many beneficial emotional, psychological and biological effects.Yoga also has the added benefit of being cost effective and easy to implement.

Yoga Improves Brain Function More Than Aerobic Exercises

Researchers from the University of Illinois reported in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health that people have significantly superior brain function after a bout of yoga exercise compared to aerobic exercise. Study leader, Professor Neha Gothe and team set out to determine what the effects of an acute yoga exercise session, compared to aerobic exercise, might be on cognitive performance. Cognitive performance refers to a person’s mental processes, including memory, attention, producing and understanding language, learning, problem solving, reasoning, and decision making. The researchers found that after the yoga exercise, the participants’ cognitive performance had improved much more compared to after their aerobic sessions or at baseline.

In fact, cognitive performance after aerobic exercise was not statistically different from the readings measured at baseline, contradicting some previous study results. Prof. Gothe said:

“The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities.”

The researchers suggested that perhaps enhanced self-awareness that comes with meditational-type exercises is possibly one of the mechanisms that helps cognition. We know that meditation and breathing exercises help in stress management, which in turn may lead to better cognitive performance.

Forever Young

Researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), including a renowned Nobel Laureate, investigated how intensive brief daily yogic meditation practice over just 8 weeks could affect an enzyme called telomerase, which is strongly associated with aging. A rigorous, randomized controlled study of 39 participants, found the meditators had a 43% increase in telomerase activity. The scientists concluded that the positive effects of meditation may well reduce the aging of cells and also increase cellular longevity.

Meditation Improves Your Brain Function & Makes You Smarter

Several groundbreaking studies have shown how meditation, especially when practiced over the long-term, can produce significant changes in the structure and mass within certain brain regions. For example, continued meditation practice can produce a thickening of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that plays a key role in memory, attention, awareness, thought, and language. Like a body builder who pumps iron, the bigger his biceps get, the heavier weights he can lift. Likewise, when we meditate, we exercise the parts of the brain that involve the regulation of emotion and mind-body awareness that lead to changes in brain activity and structure, which in turn improve our memory and attention.

Dr. Sara Lazar of the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, found these brain changes to be especially apparent in long-time meditators. In her 2005 study, for example, fMRI brain scans were used to assess cortical thickness in participants with extensive meditation experience (averaging about 9 years of experience and 6 hours per week of meditation practice), and a control group that did not practice yoga or meditation. Dr. Lazar found the brain regions associated with attention, sensory, cognitive and emotional processing were thicker in meditation participants than those in the control group who did not engage in yoga or meditation.

While research reveals long-term meditation can produce structural changes in specific areas of the brain that enhance our ability to learn, one does not have to practice for thousands of hours to reap the positive brain benefits. Dr. Lazar also found that these increases in grey matter in some regions of the brain occurred after just 8-weeks of  Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a formal program involving meditation
and some yoga practice. These results suggest that even short-term participation in meditation-related practices can lead to changes in grey matter concentration in brain regions that are involved in learning and memory processes, as well as in emotion regulation.

Experts who study the brain have discovered a biological component to happiness. It seems people who describe themselves as “very happy” have a larger and more active left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with positive mood (or affect), than people who are in a negative mood state. Activation in the right prefrontal cortex is associated with negative feelings. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, one of the foremost researchers to study the effects of contemplative practices on the brain, found that meditation increases the activity of the left prefrontal cortex associated with positive mood states. These changes are associated with greater levels of equanimity and happiness and well as more emotional resiliency.

The good news is you don’t necessarily have to settle for the brain you were born with. We know that we can change our brains when engaging in specific behaviors or activities through a feature of the brain called plasticity. So if you feel that you are incapable of dealing with stress, or that you your mood is deteriorating, yoga and meditation is one way to climb out of this emotional abyss.