We all know that exercise can improve us physically – lowering our cholesterol, decreasing our predisposition to heart disease, and enhancing our immune system – but, what we might not be aware of is the mind, not to be left out, can also be improved through exercise. The reasons for this are biological and emotional, benefiting the exerciser on several levels and leaving us to discover, when it comes down to it, that the mental benefits of exercise are as important to our overall wellbeing as the physical ones.
Rather than mindlessly putting on the running shoes, or climbing onto the treadmill to discharge energy and get the blood flowing, participating in yoga can give you both exercise for the brain and the heart. While providing physical benefits, it also powers your brain’s ability to focus and to recognize unconscious habits that don’t support your structure in gravity or your full potential as an emotional spiritual being.
Yoga is often described as a type of exercise, although much more than an exercise routine, when practiced consciously, it greatly aids our mental capacity. While mental health can be difficult to quantify – there is no blood test that reveals emotional health – people who practice yoga regularly can not help but adopt better moods, possess more energy, and have an outlook submerged in positivity. In a nutshell, yoga makes you feel good, and good energy always results in better mental clarity and performance. When you are filled with positive, life affirming emotions, your mind reacts in a way that makes thinking and achievement virtually limitless.
From a biological standpoint, the ways yoga aids the brain can be explained in medical journal fashion. To begin, yoga is a science and an art that coordinates the movement of the body with the breath, improves oxygenation of the blood, allowing better blood flow to the brain, ultimately producing clearer, more concise thoughts. Yoga can also boost dopamine and other neurotransmitters, boosting both moods and the retention of memories.
An essential part of yoga, breathing, is also a cornerstone of the mental aid exercise provides. While breathing does facilitate circulation – allowing vital minerals and nutrients to get where they need to go and letting all organs of the body, including the brain, function more adequately – breathing also helps the brain in a more direct manner. For example, a practice that is sometimes used in yoga is the act of concentrated breathing through one nostril at a time. In EEG studies – studies that monitor a person’s brain pattern – this practice shows that breathing through one nostril can increase activity on the opposite side of the brain (i.e., breathing through the left nostril will increase activity on the right side of the brain). This ultimately results in better communication between the brain’s two sides, creating better mental function and enhancing a person’s ability to learn.
Mindfulness, a foundational component of yoga helps students to embrace, and focus on, the present moment, can also assist mental function. This is because those who practice mindfulness train their brain to work in a certain way. By relaxing, and severing the rope that keeps you clinging to stresses and worries, yoga calms the mind. A calm mind is better at retaining information, remembering information, and concentration skills. A calm mind focuses on attention, and possesses an advanced ability to perceive sensory information. Because of this, some people suggest that yoga, a vehicle
of calmness, gives you the amazing ability to open up completely to the present moment and just be more “on” – whether it is in making a decision quickly, being emotionally responsive, or seeing another solution to a problem with ease.
There have also been studies that concluded certain yoga positions can alter a person’s position on things; specific poses relay specific moods. Researchers at the University of California, for example, performed a study that found certain yoga poses were more mood-altering that others. One finding concluded that bending over backwards was one of the best ways to improve your frame of mind, giving those in bad moods something to fall back on.
While the spotlight tends to shine on the physical benefits of exercise, the mental ones are quickly coming out of the shadows and into their own. Yoga, because it exercises your physical body, is a mindful practice that helps you to embody your thoughts, emotions and your spirit. Providing the physical benefits of other exercise, yoga is helping the mental benefits of fitness to get discovered and becoming increasingly well known for giving those who practice it a piece of open mind.
TWISTED is a medical yoga studio at the Center for Osteopathic Medicine in Boulder, Colorado. Twisted integrates osteopathic medicine, hatha yoga and mindfulness practices to teach optimal balance between physical, mental, and emotional health. It aims to educate and help people to live a healthy life from the inside out. Rehabilitation programs offer a comprehensive treatment regime for the whole being, empowering each person one breath at a time to stimulate the body’s natural healing potential.