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Nutrition and dietetics research: Yoga and the brain

By: Taylor Zetocha

The word, “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word “Yog”, meaning union. The practice of yoga is the unification of the organ systems with the conscious mind (Sharma, 2017). Yoga has been shown to have abounding physical benefits such as weight loss, flexibility, and strength. Studies have proved that it even reduces stress among college students (Kumar, Bhanagari, Mohile, Limaye, 2016). Not only does it have physical gains, but it also immensely impacts the brain. Most people leave a yoga class or finish a yoga practice feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and in a state of peace.

The brain is a complex organ of the nervous system that has many intricate components. Everything we do is either promoting a healthy brain or injuring it. Regular yoga practice causes changes to the neural circuitry of our brains. According to the National Institute of Health, neural circuitry is comprised of, “neurons (that are) organized into ensembles or circuits that process specific kinds of information,” such as thoughts or emotions. (Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick, et al., 2001). Through the choices we make about our overall health and well-being, we have the ability to change the pathways in our brain.

In a study conducted by the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, scientists studied the brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), circadian salivary cortisol levels, and pro and anti- inflammatory cytokines. In the study, they found that yoga engaged neuroplastic brain mechanisms were shown to boost neural circuitry and neuroplasticity in the brain (Cahn, Goodman, Peterson, Maturi, Mills, 2017). In addition, scientists found that yoga improved symptoms of patients suffering from depression, possibly linked to increased BDNF levels and neuroplasticity (Cahn, Goodman, Peterson, Maturi, Mills, 2017). This means it is possible to “rewire” the neural circuits in the brain through yoga and meditation, giving people a sense of self- empowerment and fortitude.

As yogis, it is important to know and understand the neuroscience behind a yoga practice. By knowing what is going on in the body, particularly the brain, self-awareness and mindfulness increase. Adjusting how the brain functions changes behaviors and perceptions of the world. Yoga allows us to become fully connected with our bodies, in turn allowing us to, overtime, change the wiring of even the most intricate organ in our bodies.

Being mindful and aware of our bodies in the midst of crazy college life can be tricky for many. College is a time where students are neurocognitively maturing and are figuring out what path in life to take, and for many, it is filled with a lot of uncertainty. As exciting and new as this journey of independently discovering yourself is, it also is a time for tremendous anxiety and stress to set in. In this time of expected rigorous academic work, it can be tricky to be physically active and step away from the stressors in life. We all know the lasting effects stress can have on our minds and bodies, especially in college, which puts us at a greater risk for diseases like anxiety and depression, and even cardiovascular disease. Being aware of how to handle and cope with stress and what action we can take to confront it is key.

As busy college students it can be easy to get caught in the craziness of life and forget about the importance of taking time for ourselves. This may lead to being overwhelmed, stressed, and mentally fatigued, all of which have long term effects. By practicing yoga, you not only are taking the necessary time for your wellbeing, but engaging your mind and body in a practice that is whatever you make of it. Yoga could be the 30 mins you need that takes your mind away from the demanding homework you encounter. Through the abundance of obstacles we all face and will continue to face throughout our lives, find a practice that allows you to mindfully connect your mind and body amidst chaos. For me, that practice is yoga, and as a brain injury survivor, I can affirm the positive impact it has on the complex brain. All in all, even though college can be stressful, caring for our mind and body is vital for overall well being, and yoga is just one of the many ways to do so.

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