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Yoga And The Brain: A Possible Explanation For Yoga's Stress-Busting Effects

The Huffington Post     First Posted: 03/07/2012 11:54 pm EST   Updated: 01/07/2013 2:59 pm EST

The health benefits of yoga are far-reaching, with studies demonstrating its effects on easing chronic back pain, aiding sleep and relieving menopausal symptoms, as well as its intriguing role in helping the mind, by bettering mood and taming stress.

A new look at the research, published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, sheds light on just how yoga might have such benefits for the brain.

"Western and Eastern medicine complement one another. Yoga is known to improve stress-related nervous system imbalances," study researcher Dr. Chris Streeter, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at BUSM and Boston Medical Center, said in a statement. "This paper provides a theory, based on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy, to understand how yoga helps patients feel better by relieving symptoms in many common disorders."

Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine, New York Medical College and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons hypothesized that there are certain imbalances in the brain when a person has depression or stress-related conditions. Such imbalances include low activity of something called gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA); low activity of GABA is linked with epilepsy, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and PTSD, researchers said.

The researchers hypothesized that yoga works to increase the activity of GABA, "resulting in amelioration of disease symptoms," they wrote.

"This has far-reaching implications for the integration of yoga-based practices in the treatment of a broad array of disorders exacerbated by stress," the researchers wrote in the study.

Earlier this year, a study published in The Journal of Behavioral Health Services and Research showed that yoga seemed protective/preventive for secondary school students when it came to controlling anger and feeling fatigue.

The researchers of that study wrote that the finding showed yoga has "the potential of playing a protective or preventive role in maintaining mental health."

Want to try yoga, but not sure where to start? Here's what to expect at your first yoga class:

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  • Pre-Class Etiquette

    Most studios provide yoga mats, though many of them charge a few dollars to use them each class. You have the option of bringing your own yoga mat with you to class as well as a bottle of water and if you tend to sweat a lot you can also bring a small towel. Out of respect for the other participants, skip putting on perfume before class (or even on the day of class). While you may love it, the scent can be irritating and distracting to others.

  • Be Quiet When You Enter The Room

    People will be either meditating, stretching on their mat or lying on their backs waiting for the yoga teacher to start class. Just join in!

  • The Room May Be Crowded

    Depending on the popularity of the class time or teacher, the class may be very full. In these situations you will be asked to move your mat closer to other students to accommodate the size of the class. As a result you will be practicing yoga on your mat very close to others on their mats. While strange at first, you get used to it quickly.

  • Yoga Is Practiced Barefoot

    Trade your soccer shorts and and running socks for comfortable clothing and bare feet. For women, this usually means some kind of stretchy workout pant and a tank top. For men, wear shorts (of a modest length so there are no "surprises") and a t-shirt.

  • Use Yoga Props To Help You Modify Poses

    Most studios provide blocks, straps and blankets to help you modify yoga poses. Take two blocks, one strap and one or two blankets to your mat when you enter the class room. If you're stuck in a pose and need a little help use your props. To sit up taller sit on the edge of the blanket, to raise the floor up, place your hand on a block instead of overreaching to touch the floor if your legs are tight.

  • Class May Begin With The Chanting Of 'OM'

    Many yoga classes begin and end with a collective chant of "OM" and often a little mantra in Sanskrit that is sung in a call and response format. No one expects you to know it. Just close your eyes and listen.

  • The Most Important Thing Is To Breathe

    Some yoga classes may incorporate a breathing practice called "pranayama" in Sanskrit. While some instructors may teach breathing techniques to build heat in the body or cool the body down, the most typical practice is just to breathe fully and freely through each pose.

  • You Should NEVER Experience Pain In Yoga Class

    Pain is described as a ripping, searing, burning or pinching feeling in your body when practicing a yoga pose. If you experience any of these sensations stop the pose immediately and/or modify it so you are not in any pain. You will most likely feel actual pain if your body is out of alignment. You can ask your instructor after class to help you properly -- and safely -- practice the posture. If you experience sensations of intense stretching but no actual pain, then you are in no danger. Make a distinction between the two and practice accordingly.

  • Yoga Poses Are Taught In A Sequence

    Depending on the style of yoga you take, the postures will be taught either as a quick-paced flow with one pose linked to the other or more slowly with pauses and space between postures. Some styles of yoga, like Bikram, have a set sequence of poses that you practice each time. Other styles leave it up to the instructor to choreograph the class. Some classes may put more of an emphasis on twists, for example, or back bends.

  • The Yoga Teacher May Physically Adjust Your Body

    Proper alignment is key in yoga. As such, yoga teachers often walk around the room while they're teaching and adjust your body so that you are in a safer anatomical position. Some will adjust you so you just feel better and others will give you a little personal assist. This should feel good. If you don't want to be touched, just say so!

  • You Will Not Be Able To Practice The Poses Perfectly

    You will think many people are "better than you" at yoga. Don't let this deter you. Some people are naturally more flexible. It is also a goal in yoga not to compare yourself to the person next to you. So be forgiving with your body and know that flexibility comes with repetition. You're not expected to be advanced on your first class.

  • You Don't Have To Practice Every Pose

    If you begin to feel light headed, tired or your muscles are shaking, you always have the option to move into child's pose until you are feeling ready to rejoin the class. Child's pose is practiced by pointing your toes, sitting back on your heels and stretching your arms straight in front of you with fingertips on the mat.

  • Sometimes People Get Teary

    You may experience what some refer to as an "emotional release" during certain poses, this is normal. Sometimes when we don't move our bodies for so long there is an emotional as well as a physical reaction to the new movement. It may manifest as tears.

  • Don't Skip The Final Resting Pose

    Yoga classes end with a final pose called "shavasana". It's basically laying on your back in deep relaxation. During this time the teacher may come around and massage your shoulders or neck. The posture is very important to help your body find balance again after twisting and stretching in so many new ways. Also, it is disturbing to other students if you start packing up your belongings while they're still resting.

  • Keep Quiet When Class Ends

    Many people remain in the room after the official end of class to continue their practice or adjust back into the "real" world. Walk quietly and on the balls of your feet so you don't disturb them and silently return your yoga props -- blocks and straps -- to where they are stored. Roll up your yoga mat and tiptoe out of the room.

  • Post-Class Etiquette

    Drinking water after class is a good rule of thumb, but particularly important if you feel light-headed at all after your yoga practice. It is also customary to thank your yoga instructor for the class before leaving the room, though it is not a requirement. You will see students doing both. You can also use this time to ask your instructor any questions you have about the class, poses taught or have him or her help you understand how to align your body in a posture you struggled with to practice the pose pain-free.

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