Yoga For Your Brain (and mind)
I immediately fell in love with kundalini yoga when I accidentally stumbled upon it 2 years ago. I didn’t know I wanted something other than talk therapy to engage my mind, brain, and nervous system, but when I found it I was hooked. I left each class feeling like I had a better handle on myself. Kundalini has grown my ability to take on difficult developmental tasks; it’s helped me learn more about emotional regulation and compassion. And there’s a growing body of literature that supports kundalini’s ability to change the brain- even for those who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
What is Kundalini yoga?
Kundalini yoga is a blend of spiritual and physical practices that incorporates movement, dynamic breathing techniques, meditation, and the chanting of mantras. The goal is to build physical vitality and increase consciousness.
We’re beginning to understand how we can work with our brains’ inherent neuroplasticity to change and improve our experiences.
Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a neuroscientist at UCLA and an experienced Kundalini yoga instructor, believes in the power of mindful movement to affect not only the body, but our overall health, emotional states, and well-being. She has conducted meta-analysis of different mindful movement practices including yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and dance therapy. Below is an overview of how she understands yoga’s impact on the brain.
Gentle, restorative yoga activates the calming parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This practice helps people reduce their stress levels, lower blood pressure, manage pain, overcome insomnia, and relieve symptoms of anxiety. It reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body and improves immune function. It reduces inflammation and prevents disease. By increasing the release of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, Yin yoga contributes to relaxation and improved mood. This, in turn, supports increased attentiveness to our experiences and enhances overall health, ease, and well-being.
Strong, vigorous yoga activates the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and promotes oxygen uptake in the body. This fuels the brain for better cognitive and memory functioning. Aerobic practice causes the brain to release Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which causes new brain cells to grow in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that translates experience into long-term memory. (Neuroscientists don’t know how it does this, but they know that it does.) Yang yoga increases the blood levels of endorphins, which are the brain’s “feel good” neurotransmitters.
Research indicates that regular, vigorous aerobic exercise is as effective an anti-depressant as Prozac. It also maintains the health of the brain’s telomeres that keep the structure of our chromosomes from unravelling, a great protection against dementia and other diseases of the aging brain. Practicing a combination of vigorous and meditative yoga, like Kundalini, can reduce stress, anxiety, OCD-type behavior, and improve mood, resilience and overall brain health.
How To Start
Doing something new can be hard. And changing the way we engage with our struggle takes commitment.
Take 1 minute to breathe deeply before you get out of bed.
Take 3 minutes to practice one simple Kundalini exercise. Maybe add in aromatherapy as you practice for added relaxation.
When you feel overwhelmed, stuck, lethargic acknowledge you’re in pain and then decide what you want to do about it.
We know it takes a lot of time and practice to become good at running, or playing the guitar, or learning a new language, and it takes practice to change and grow our brain. Think of it like you’re working a new muscle- this can help manage your frustration when you feel stuck or like your slipping back into old ways of behaving and thinking.
Kundalini Exercise To Get Your Brain Back Online
Transcendental meditations have a breath rhythm and a hand mudra linked to the mantra. It allows you to control the senses and thoughts improving lung capacity. Improved lung capacity strengthens your nervous system with each breath, strong nerves give you patience and endurance when life gets tough!
Sit in easy pose and begin with an inhale. Whistle through the mouth as you breath in. Exhale through the nose. Do this for 5 minutes.
2. Then come into cobra pose- find a spot on the ceiling and stay focused on it. Inhale through he nose and whistle out through the mouth for 3-5 minutes. Rest for 2 minutes.
3. Then lie on your back with the knees pulled into the chest. Hug your knees and lift your head up putting your nose between the knees. Hum “hunnnnnh”. You will feel this vibration through your nose and throat. Continue for 3 minutes.
4. Then relax on your back with your legs crossed on the ground (like easy pose, but flat on the ground). Rest here for 5 minutes.
5. Spinal twist: sit in easy pose, place your hands on your shoulders with your thumbs near the back and fingers in front. Swing from left to right and synchronize your breath. Do this for 1 minute.
Rest in baby pose for 3-5 minutes to complete this exercise.