Next time you’re being grilled before a House Select Committee, you might want to prep by practicing yoga. At least that’s what former secretary of state Hillary Clinton did. And there’s scientific research that shows how brain function benefits from yoga. Time to listen up and get on your yoga mat!
That research, a series of studies out of Stanford University’s university brain institute, suggests that the combination of the two can be helpful. What we know at the moment is that yoga and meditation can help to improve cognitive performance, more specifically with specific kinds of yoga and meditation — particularly those styles that combine meditative techniques with physical exercise.
These researchers showed that some yoga poses, one in particular, increase the metabolism of neurons in the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain involved in learning and memory. We know that exercise helps increase our metabolic rate, and that increases brain volume. We know that yoga increases the metabolism of both of these regions. Those are good reasons to move, as it were.
As the hemispheres of the brain compete for control (the sides switch dominance in a rhythmic cycle), we perceive situations and information differently. Bringing the connection between the hemispheres closer and more in alignment in terms of connectivity allows us to function more clearly, with greater stamina, and even to grow in intelligence. The cross-lateral and midline movements of a regular yoga practice will enable the body and brain to find more excellent balance physiologically and in the way, we perceive our circumstances.
Yoga regularly involves cross-lateral movement, as in the pigeon pose. When we engage both sides of the body evenly and alternately, we engage the full brain and find increased ability to think more clearly. The sun bird pose engages alternate sides of the body, as can the warrior poses.
To challenge the brain, we cross the midline. Crossing the midline of the body increases the infrastructure of the brain, building pathways or roads between the hemispheres. Eagle pose is a great example. Arms and legs transverse the midline and return, causing the hemispheres of the brain to send information back and forth between them. It’s a lot like building a muscle: the more you do it, the stronger it becomes.
Finally, and perhaps most simply, are the exercises of yogic breathing. Ancient literature indicates that the breath is the key to controlling the mind, and as modern science has learned, the mind has a great deal to do with how the body functions. So to contribute to our own more excellent health, learning to control the breath is essential. A short practice of yogic breathing every day can calm the mind, clear energy channels in the body, and bring balance and health.
The simplest form of this practice for the busy professional, parent, and even young child, is Nadi Shodhana. Breathing through one nostril at a time, we increase focus as well as essential proteins necessary for nervous system function. A simple breath can bring us closer to wellness. If you have no time for any kind of wellness practice, commit to only 10 minutes of yogic breathing. This is a practice that I have been practicing for years, and it helps me overcome my fears about taking on this profession.
Once you begin to feel the benefits, you may just find a little more time for other brain-balancing and body-supporting yoga practices. You might even find that it’s just another way you can practice healthy living skills without having to worry about diet or a gym membership (and it’s completely free, too!).