The stretching feels awesome, and it’s a great excuse to buy more stuff at Lululemon. But devoted yogis know there’s a lot more to yoga than the fashion and flexibility perks. New research shows the ancient practice triggers deep, almost fundamental shifts in the way your brain functions. And the benefits of those shifts can improve your mood and banish anxiety in remarkable ways.
Happy Genes, Happy Brain
You read a lot about stress and its attendant health hazards (inflammation, disease, poor sleep, and more). But your body has a built-in mechanism to counteract stress. It’s called the “relaxation response,” and yoga is a great way to fire it up, shows a study from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Among both novices (eight weeks of practice) and long-time yogis (years of experience), just 15 minutes of yoga-like relaxation techniques was enough to trigger biochemical changes in the brains and cells of the downward doggers. Specifically, yoga enhanced activity among those genes that control energy metabolism, cell function, blood sugar levels, and telomere maintenance. Telomeres, if you’re not familiar with them, are caps on the ends of your chromosomes that protect the important genetic material inside. (An oft-used comparison: Telomeres are like the plastic tips that prevent your shoelaces from fraying.) Lots of research has linked long, healthy telomeres to lower rates of disease and death. So by protecting your telomeres, yoga may help your body ward off sickness and disease, the Harvard-Mass General study suggests.
At the same time, those 15 minutes of yoga practice also switched off some genes related to inflammation and other stress responses, the study authors found. (They linked similar benefits to related practices like meditation, Tai Chi, and focused breathing exercises.) These benefits help explain why a large review study from Germany linked yoga to lower rates of anxiety, fatigue, and depression.
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Great GABA Gains
Your brain is filled with “receptors” that respond to chemicals called neurotransmitters. And research has linked one type, called GABA receptors, to mood and anxiety disorders. (They’re called GABA receptors because they respond to gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA.) Your mood tends to sour and you feel more anxiety when your brain’s GABA activity drops. But yoga appears to boost your GABA levels, according to research from Boston University and the University of Utah. In fact, among experienced yogis, GABA activity leapt 27 percent after an hour-long yoga session, the researchers discovered. Curious to find out whether physical activity was behind the GABA gains, the study team compared yoga to walking indoors on a treadmill. They found significantly greater GABA improvements among the yoga practicers. The yogis also reported brighter moods and less anxiety than the walkers, the study shows.
How does yoga accomplish this? It’s complicated, but the study team says yoga stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for “rest and digest” activities—the opposite of the fight-or-flight stress responses managed by your sympathetic nervous systems. In a nutshell, yoga seems to guide your brain into a state of safety and security, the study indicates. Most of the research on yoga focuses on types that put a premium on technique, breathing, and blocking out distractions (like Iyengar and Kundalini styles). That’s not to say Bikram and power yoga aren’t as good for your noodle. But the meditative, distraction-blocking aspects of yoga seem to be essential to the activity’s brain benefits, the research indicates.
So grab your mat and your favorite stretchy pants, and put your mind at ease.