Scientists have discovered since decades that aerobic and mental exercises strengthen the brain, create new pathways and contribute to the growth of new neurons. There are multiple studies that have examined how yoga rewires the brain. When we speak about neuroplasticity through yoga, we don't point only its physical aspect- the asanas but the whole yogic lifestyle with its numerous techniques. However, the two main yogic branches, proven by many sources to be effective for encouraging neuroplasticity are yoga asanas and meditation. In this article we will review how exactly yoga changes your brain, and all the factors contributing to neuroplasticity, which is crutial for maintaining good mental health, prevention of dementia and even helping conditions like Alzheimers, Parkinsons, post stroke and brain injury recovery.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s brilliant ability that allows us to acquire new skills, drop bad habits, adapt to new environments, prevent degeneration and even heal from severe trauma and injury. It is the brain's ability to rewire, to change and adapt in response to learning new things. Our neuronal pathways are constantly rewiring, or reinforcing the existing pathways, based on what is happening in our environment and our responses to those events. Every new experience or challenge, from breaking an ankle to shopping at an unfamiliar grocery store, compels the brain to rearrange its synaptic connections. And the more you do something, the more established—and less new—these connections become. Repetition is the key to rendering a behavior second nature. That’s how you learned to walk or to ride a bike.
There are two main types of neuroplasticity:
Functional plasticity: The brain's ability to move functions from a damaged area of the brain to other undamaged areas
Structural plasticity: The brain's ability to actually change its physical structure as a result of learning
The benefits of brain neuroplasticity are responsible for our:
Ability to learn new things
Ability to enhance our existing cognitive capabilities
Rate of recovery from strokes and traumatic brain injuries
Strengthening areas if some functions are lost or decline, due to dementia for example
Improvements that can promote brain health
Overcoming bad habits and addictions
Now, when we know how important role neuroplasticity plays in our life, come the natural question: What can I do to improve my brain plasticity?
Ways to Improve Brain Plasticity
There are plenty of things you can do to help encourage your brain to adapt and change.
The key is: Do something new each day. Then practice it. It takes 21 days to form a new habit.
Some of the ways that you can boost neuroplasticity in beneficial ways include:
Learning a new skill
Learning a new language
Learning how to play an instrument
Traveling, exploring new routes and new places
Creating art and other creative hobbies
Studying anything new
Play logic games and puzzles
Get plenty of rest and practice good sleep hygiene
Avoid illicit drugs
Have a good support circle
Bad Habits & Neuroplasticity
See, we need to understand that most of us, we are like monkeys jumping from pleasure to pain. There is a scientific explanation behind this but we have to see the importance of working daily towards creating and maintaining healthy habits. One simple article, like this one, will probably not build this awareness and understanding in most of you but let's give it a go.
Dopamine system works in each one of us. The brain's reward pathway encourages us to seek out activities essential for species survival- food, shelter, sex, nurturing. When our wishes and cravings are satisfied, we feel happy, and brain floods with dopamine. Of course, if we feel good, we seek to repeat the activity. If we experience pain or struggle, we try to avoid the activity. Then the brain remembers all that for the future with the help of the hippocampus, leading to desire or avoidance. In the picture below you can see the addicts pattern. Addictive drugs release 2-10 times more dopamine and much quicker than natural rewards system.
In yoga, here comes the role of tapas which is the way to take us out of the illusion of pleasure and pain. Understanding our harmful routines, breaking them and embracing new healthier ones can change our lives in a positive way. The first step is creating awareness to recognize the problem and the triggers. The second step is tapas ( self-discipline, the burning of desires, the fire of self-transformation) which is tightly connected with neuroplasticity. Rewiring requires setting new goals and practicing the healthy pursuit of reward while the brain is creating new pathways.
Remember that mental state is a trainable skill and for that mindfulness and meditation are the techniques which need to be practiced. It was estimated that we need 21 days to form a new habit, so practice, practice, practice.
10 Tips for Better Neuroplasticity
1. Find yourself- Swadhyaya
Before setting out on any new behavior change, most people miss the critical step of self-study. Knowing exactly what you want to accomplish, and more importantly, why you want to accomplish it, is foundational to making any real changes for the long-term. Some questions to ask yourself and self-reflect:
-What are my long-term goals?
-What are my short-term goals?
-What inspires me?
-What are my strengths?
-What are my weaknesses?
-What am I most proud of and why?
-What I can do to improve myself?
-I am harming someone with my words/actions? Why that happens?
2. Set your goals - towards community, growth, giving back, health and finance
3. Practice Kryia Yoga and take daily steps towards your goals, no matter how small they can be- Tapas, Swadhyaya and Ishwara Pranidhana have the power to make you overcome anything
4. Practice mindfulness- Self-awareness is so powerful when developing any new (and good) behavior. Once you’re more aware of your surroundings and thoughts, and when you’re more awakened to what’s happening in your brain and consciousness, you’ll be more likely to make value-based decisions, which are basically better more meaningful decisions. All this will stimulate your self-control towards positive changes.
Keep a gratitude journal and write 10 things you’re grateful for daily
Develop a consistent daily and sleep routine
Meditate or practice Sakshi Bhava (develop a witness-like attitude)
Practice yoga asana for balance, health and wellbeing
Reconnect with nature- even better if you aim for a new place each day
Commit to an exercise routine
Regularly detox from social media and devices like phones and TV
Focus on your goal
Spend meaningful time with friends and family
Mindfulness—an intentional state of focused, nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment—doesn’t just foster a pleasant moment of calm. Scientists find it can be a powerful tool for altering and strengthening key brain networks for the better. Mindfulness techniques have been proven to promote positive change in the brain pathways involved in stress, focus and attention, memory, and mood. Some research has even found that a steady dose of mindfulness over a certain amount of time can physically change brain structures long term, including age-related brain degeneration.
5. Choose your friends circle wisely-You become who you most spend time with, so make it count. The importance of social interaction is huge, especially for older adults.
6. Exercise Daily- Exercise and neuroplasticity go hand in hand. A good combination of asanas and meditation can do wonders for your brain.
7. Spend time in Nature- When you’re out in nature it can improve your short-term memory by 20% according to studies.
8. Eat Sattvik Food- Eating food full of nutrients, vitamins and minerals is not only good for your body but also for your brain.
9. Learn New Things Daily- The reason why your brain tends to not change as you become older is not because your brain is resistant – it’s because your mindset is resistant.
Opening yourself up to a mindset of learning new things — both big and large — is how to increase neuroplasticity.
10. Repeat- If you did all the above points once, your new neuron pathways are still fragile and narrow. In order to strengthen those pathways and to establish them permanently you need repetition.
Always remember that your behavior is in your control. By practicing the awakening and long-term use of your brain, you will ultimately create more neural pathways and maintain improved cognitive function as you get older.