Healthy Living

Why yoga matters to gray matter

For a creative yogi, moving into artistic endeavors after practice may help access inspired brain space, which is freed from extraneous brain activity. The reason? The brains of people who practice yoga benefit biochemically during and after practice.

Research demonstrates that the neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a naturally-produced chemical inhibitor, regulates the human nervous system. It slows the firing of the 86 billion neurons (gray matter) in the human brain, making them less excitable and thus calming the mind and relaxing the body. Yoga practice increases the human production of GABA — in some cases nearly doubling the normal levels of this essential neurotransmitter.

At any given moment, brainwaves are pulsing through the human mind as masses of neurons communicate with one another. Scientists measure activity at the scalp, recording an array of brainwaves and linking them to human activity.

Gamma waves, the fastest and most frenetic, are measured anywhere from 25 to 100 cycles per second. These waves represent the brain working rapidly to synthesize information from innumerable inputs at once.

The more commonly understood Beta waves, at 15 to 40 cycles per second, characterize the brain’s normal activity when a person is active, working, engaged with others and alert.

After a complicated project is finished and a human sits down to relax, the brain slows down to Alpha, where waves flow at nine to 14 cycles per second. A person in Alpha might be walking through a garden, settling in to meditate or leaving a public gathering, be it party, conference or lecture.

As activity and stimulation reduce, brain activity may release into Theta, with cycles of five to eight per second, wherein a person may meditate, daydream or lose focus on routine tasks. A person idling in Theta might not remember driving from home to the office, but might burst through the door with a creative solution to a previously vexing task.

The slowest brainwaves are Delta waves, oscillating at 1.5 to four cycles per second. These are present when a person sleeps without dreaming. This deep relaxation of brain function is essential for brain and physical health.

A highly functioning brain vacillates among brainwave speeds throughout the day. Working with the sympathetic nervous system, the brain is hard-wired to work overtime, taking in information from countless sources and processing it at Beta speed. Managing so many impulses at once makes it hard to relax and find space for new, creative ideas.

Yoga practice, with its guaranteed GABA boost, inhibits the brain’s natural tendency to over-process in Beta, instead slowing the brainwaves from Alpha perhaps even to Theta, stimulating creative activity and problem solving with little critical oversight.

This article was originally published in YogaIowa’s Summer 2017 issue.


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