Yoga and Brain

Studies by Streeter and colleagues demonstrate that regular practice of gentle yoga, but not walking, releases a chemical called GABA in the thalamus.1,2 GABA is sort of the “grand inhibitor” in the brain, and plays a central role in suppressing neural activity3. Classical anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, work by encouraging the release of GABA in the central nervous system. GABA was shown to be significantly higher in the brains of those subjects who had been doing yoga. The study also compared GABA levels directly before an after an hour of yoga, and showed a 27% increase! GABA is what alcohol mimics, by temporarily binding to the same chemical receptors; you can thank GABA receptor binding for those feelings of relaxation and decreased anxiety that come with enjoying an adult beverage. Streeter et al’s findings suggest that somehow, the meditative stretching and breathing that yoga involves is signaling the brain to release calming chemicals, which play out their mood effects in the hours following a session of yoga. Though research remains very preliminary regarding the specifics of such a mechanism, we do know that the connections in the brain use chemical signals to actually change their strength and configuration. It may be that the GABA released over a period of regular yoga practice can help boost baseline levels of this calming chemical, helping the brain rewire itself to have a calmer, less anxious response in the face of everyday stressors.

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