Have you ever been driving the speed limit on a highway and noticed other cars flying by as if you were standing still? Hanging out in the “slow lane” can make you feel like you’re one of those “older” drivers we all used to laugh at.
But we’re mature now, not old, right? We know that there is no need to rush so much because life is already too short. In a fast-paced world, there is value to slowing down and enjoying the scenery. The same is true of our yoga practice.
In my last post, “Chillax” I described how slower forms of yoga help us develop interoception, a key skill for resiliency. Today let’s look at how slow-lane yoga also promotes neuroplasticity and reduces inflammation.
Neuroplastic Changes to the Brain
In the world of neuroscience, scientists fondly say that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, when we employ multiple areas of our brain to complete a task, the connection between these areas becomes stronger each time we do that activity. Research from the National Institute of Health suggest that slow yoga practices also strengthen connections within the brain in several ways.
First, a group of structures in the mid-brain, namely the insula and the cortex, increase in strength through regular yoga practice. Why is this valuable? Well together these structures help us formulate a sense of identity or self. When we have a sense of identity, we understand our values and are able to make good decisions. People who have strong values also feel that life is meaningful. Strong values, good decision-making skills and a sense of purpose are all skills common in highly resilient individuals.
Self-Regulation, Attention and Outlook
The second key brain region altered by slow, mindful yoga is the left forebrain, or left hemisphere of the cerebrum. Research shows that yoga practitioners have more gray matter in this area. Why is this significant? More gray matter signifies greater activation of this area which corresponds with three essential characteristic of resilient people: self-regulation, pro-social behavior and a positive outlook.
As if this weren’t enough, scientists have observed changes to other areas of the brain involved in improved focus, attention and memory as well as increased empathy. All of these contribute to resiliency. And what kind of yoga is most effective in bringing about these changes? You got it—slow, mindful yoga.
Inflammation and Stress
You may have heard that sitting is the new smoking. Well, inflammation is another often blamed “bad guy” when it comes to chronic diseases.
Inflammation is associated with a variety of disease processes including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer’s. In addition, inflammation impacts brain structures involved in mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
A major cause of inflammation is stress. When under stress, our bodies release cortisol to fuel our fight-or-flight response. Think of it like a fire—we need fuel to run away or fight the perceived danger. As a result, our bodies are designed to give us a surge in energy when facing a threat. They’re also designed to return to homeostasis, a relaxed state, when the threat passes. Unfortunately, if we exist in a chronic state of stress (which most of us do), high cortisol levels result in inflammation, illness or disease.
To “turn off” the cortisol-stress response, we need to relax and feel safe. And—you guessed it—slow mindful yoga does just this. By slowing our breath and heart rate, our bodies are better able to regulate cortisol levels, lowering stress levels and reducing inflammation.
So, the next time someone asks you about the kind of yoga you practice, you can smile and tell them that slower paced yoga isn’t just for “old people.” Instead it’s a valuable practice for everyone who wants to be healthy and resilient in the face of life’s challenges. Be well!
originally posted 5/22/20; updated 2/16/22