“Yoga offers a top-down solution to the hard problem of consciousness.”
Recently, I attended an event put on by Yoga Journal in which bestselling author Deepak Chopra was the keynote speaker. You may be scratching your head at the above quote, which was one of the crucial points of the lecture. Allow me to explain: Chopra asserts that the two central questions that science is currently trying to answer are: “What is the universe made of?” and “What is the biological basis for consciousness?”.
These questions are typified as the “hard problem.” A general assumption in science is that the former gives rise to the latter — that is, the universe creates our bodies which creates our minds which creates consciousness. Chopra claims that it is in fact the opposite: our consciousness creates the universe, and yoga is the practice of getting in touch with this greater truth.
Regardless of the spiritual implications of his lecture, this linking of science and yoga got me thinking: are the effects of yoga something that can be studied empirically? And, if so, are there neurological benefits to this ancient practice?
The answer is an overwhelming yes.
One study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience employed MRI scans to reveal that there were increases in gray matter in the brains of yogis. These gains were seen in a variety of regions, including “the somatosensory cortex, which contains a mental map of our body, the superior parietal cortex, involved in directing attention, and the visual cortex … [as well as the] hippocampus, a region critical to dampening stress … [and] the precuneus and the posterior cingulate cortex, areas key to our concept of self.”
Furthermore, beyond the growth of brain matter, there appears to be some changes in neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers. Another study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine illustrates a correlation between “regular asana practice and increased GABA levels” — a neurotransmitter that is linked to depression and anxiety when it is deficient.
The mechanisms behind these enhancements are unclear, but Dr. Alex Korb suggests that, “Yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit.” Korb goes on to explain that a mindful and consistent yoga practice retrains our stress response. This stress response is automatically triggered during an intense asana flow, but “just because this response is automatic, does not mean it is necessary. It is, in fact, just a habit of the brain. One of the main purposes of yoga is to retrain this habit so that your brain stops automatically invoking the stress response.”
And these positive changes are not just felt in the brain — studies demonstrate a link between yoga and enhanced gene expression (which can ultimately serve as protection against disease), declines in cortisol levels, and “reductions in blood pressure, blood glucose (sugar), cholesterol, body weight, and other risk factors for heart disease.” Other research shows that yoga “may also help alleviate specific kinds of pain, including migraine headaches, lower back problems, arthritis, and pain during childbirth.”
Ultimately, yoga is about setting the intention to live more mindfully. It is “a scientific technology that harnesses the innate capability of the body as a vehicle for transformation,” says neuroscientist and yoga practitioner Dr. Gabriel Axel. So whether you’re twisting into a pretzel or laying still in corpse pose, the important thing is to breathe, to focus, to check in with your body, and check in with your thoughts. The more you do this, the more likely it is that it will become a habit, so you can remember to live in the present moment off of your mat, when you are sitting in traffic, eating your breakfast, and washing your hair.