Why do people do yoga?
When Dr. Marlynn Wei was asked that question, she realized that, while a lot of people know that yoga is beneficial for the body, most don’t know much (if anything) about its positive effects on the brain. A Harvard and Yale-trained psychiatrist, therapist, certified yoga teacher, and author, Dr. Wei is nothing short of an expert on the subject, and recently shared her knowledge in Psychology Today:
As a psychiatrist I am […] naturally interested in the brain. While most people intuitively get that yoga reduces depression, stress and anxiety, most people—even physicians and scientists—are typically surprised to find out that yoga changes the brain.
A new, May 2015 study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain to show that yoga protects the brain from the decline in gray matter brain volume as we age. People with more yoga experience had brain volumes on par with much younger people. This finding has also been true in brain imaging studies of people who meditate. In other words, yoga could protect your brain from shrinking as you get older.
Even more interesting, the protection of this gray matter brain volume is mostly in the left hemisphere, the side of your brain associated with positive emotions and experiences and parasympathetic nervous system activity—your “rest and digest” relaxation system. Emotions like joy and happiness have exclusively more activity in the left hemisphere of the brain on positive emission tomography (PET) brain scans.
But the truth is that the practice of yoga is not just about changing the brain, the body, headstands, or even about gaining greater joy or happiness. If it were, it'd be just like another spinning class or weight-training at the gym. Yoga aims toward transcendence of all those things. In a culture in which we rush from one day to the next, constantly trying to change our health, body, or emotions, or to plan the future, yoga opens up the possibility of connecting to what we already have—to who we already are.
This is just an excerpt of Dr. Wei’s fascinating perspective on the positive effects and real purpose of yoga – you can check out the article here.