Written by By Staff Writer
Ananda Sharma, CNN
Not many health experts want to take yoga out of their everyday lives. Meditation, even, can be considered as crucial to keeping people healthy as yoga — the ancient physical practice with its focus on breathing, breath control and mental acuity.
Now scientists say the way our bodies respond to the two practices suggests a new approach to health advice.
Understanding the role of bodily and psychological processes in yoga and meditation has long been one of the challenges of Western medicine. But researchers from the University of Connecticut, led by psychologist Neil Cox, say the latest results — published in the journal PLOS One — offer insights on how meditation and yoga benefit both our bodies and our brains.
What happens when we meditate?
The researchers’ study, which involved 40 adults, was based on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology and looked at the brains of participants while they were not meditating or practicing yoga.
They then compared those results with those obtained while the participants engaged in regular aerobic activities, such as jumping rope.
Participants in the study did three rounds of yoga over a period of three weeks. Here, pictured are the brain scans of those who meditated on a regular basis. Credit: Courtesy: Neil Cox/Suffolk University
In total, they measured the blood flow of the brains of the participants’ using brain scans.
A key finding was that the nucleus accumbens — a region of the brain known to have a prominent role in brain reward — increased the amount of blood coming into the area. This occurred even when the scans were taken when participants were not meditating.
When asked why this area of the brain seemed to be affected by meditation, Cox said that he and his team were “not sure exactly why this happened.”
“Given that the nucleus accumbens is an area of the brain highly activated in the reward circuit, we think there is some connection between the two activities,” he added.
Focusing on physical sensations
In a second study published in the same journal, the team found that oxygen injection through nasal tubes — something known as Serenity nasal spray — significantly reduced a stress response in the participants’ brains and caused the release of hormones that counter fatigue.
“These preliminary studies are saying we can change the structure of the nervous system to help with stress reduction, immunity and other aspects of health,” Cox said.
But some of the participants in the two studies also felt stressed while meditating and they had been given Serenity nasal spray, suggesting that some, albeit select, people might benefit more from the practice than others.
The frequency of inhaling the nasal spray, during meditation or not, played a significant role, the team said.
Smoking marijuana, similar to the technique used in both studies, affects the activity of white matter in the brain in the same way as meditation and yoga. In this case, brain scans showed a significant increase in white matter in that area during smoking marijuana, particularly in the prefrontal cortex — responsible for executive function.
Experts consulted by CNN said that while the results were intriguing, more studies need to be done to test these ideas in relation to meditation and yoga.
“This is just one study suggesting this linkage, but it’s a very intriguing one,” Dr. Neil Das-Verjee, a clinical neurologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told CNN.
“While these studies are interesting, they cannot confirm the claim, but rather, they look at how our brains might respond to certain mental activities. Therefore, more studies are needed to tease out why this change occurs.”
The relationship between the brain and food
This isn’t the first time that yoga has been investigated for its effects on the brain. Earlier studies have uncovered similar results.
For example, one international review of research published in 2014 reported that people who practiced mindfulness meditation for only a short period of time and at a regular time may experience a clinically significant reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms.
In the same review, though, another study published in the same year revealed that 40 years of scientific research into the impact of yoga on the brain failed to find that the practice had any health effects other than improved flexibility and reduced pain.
The researchers also found that the central nervous system and the central nervous system’s function in the brain continue to respond in a different way to different types of exercise.
The Columbia University study found that only the central nervous system in athletes increased activity and responded to physical activity that they specifically engaged in.
One person who may benefit from the rise in these studies is Rohan Koppie, founder of Koppie Sessions , an innovative meditation app — and a mindfulness teacher.
Koppie, who trains companies such as Hewlett Packard and Philips — the world’s largest lighting manufacturer — said that mindfulness yoga classes help bring people out of their