Mens Sana in Corpore Sano – A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body
It may just seem like complicated poses and salutations to the sun, but yoga is a physical activity with surprising health benefits. While one of the oldest practices in the world1, yoga also involves intimate psychological reflection that can reap benefits among today’s often overwhelming society. This mind-body activity has become increasingly popular in the past decade, both among people practicing the exercise and studying its impact.
Recently, neuroscientists have started to investigate the brain mechanisms behind yoga practice. As shown by brain scans, compared to non-yogis, regular yoga practitioners have a greater volume of grey matter in regions that are important for executive functioning2. Executive functioning describes a collection of cognitive processes such as attention, memory performance, fluid intelligence and decision making. In fact, studies have reported improvements in memory tasks after just one yoga session3.
The benefits of yoga on the brain stretch beyond improved cognition. Yoga practice also shapes the neural mechanisms involved in how our body responds to stress. When facing a stressful situation, such as running late for the last train, our sympathetic nervous system brings about a “fight or flight” response. Such a response enables us to cope with the circumstances. For instance, this would trigger an increase in our heart rate and greater energy to be available for us to run and catch the train. Moreover, stress induces cortisol release in the bloodstream, providing extra energy sources. Once the stressful situation has ended, our parasympathetic system takes over. This causes a “rest and digest” response, bringing our physiological states back to equilibrium – a condition known as homeostasis. Once you have jumped on the train, for example, your parasympathetic system slows down your heart rate and makes you relax on your seat.
However, stressful situations can last longer than a couple of minutes, prolonging the sympathetic activity. Eventually this becomes detrimental, wearing out the body, and making it more vulnerable to disease. Interestingly, yoga-based practices have the potential to reduce the stress response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, as well as by decreasing cortisol (the “stress hormone”) release4.
Given the benefits of yoga practice on cognition and stress, this discipline could be adopted in the design of protocols with the potential to improve our mental health5. Depression and anxiety, are two affective disorders which impair sharp functioning of our prefrontal cortex (involved in planning, reasoning and, social behaviour). These conditions are also known to increase cortisol levels in the bloodstream. Evidence suggests that yoga practice can improve these conditions, however more insight into the typology and frequency of training is needed. Further research would allow for a standardised design of yoga-based interventions6.
With poor mental health affecting our society at a global level7, it is essential to start investigating non-invasive treatments, such as yoga practice, that can help improve, and prevent detriment to our well-being.
This may just be the beginning of our understanding of the beneficial roles of yoga on our brains and psychological wellness. While scientists continue to clarify how and why yoga influences our wellbeing, you may want to grab a mat and aim at “mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in healthy body, through yoga practice!
Edited by Frankie Macpherson
- https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S0306987712000321?via%3Dihub or DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2012.01.021 for https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22365651
- More information about yoga, depression and anxiety:https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/yoga-for-anxiety-and-depression