Yoga: exercise your mind

By Katy Nielsen

Yogis have been doing it for centuries. Now, western culture is catching on, and it seems like practicing Eastern traditions has more than a positive effect on the physique.

According to a study published on Jan. 30 by the Journal of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, titled “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density,” people who meditate at least 27 minutes a day for eight-week periods experience changes in regions of the brain associated with memory, empathy and stress. It was conducted by scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Massachusetts General Hospital and Bender Institute of Neuroimaging in Germany.

Based on these findings, the practice of mindfulness activities—or deep-breathing and concentration exercises—can reduce stress, increase positive thoughts and improve other significant brain functions.

“I think there is a great deal of potential between meditation and treating mental health problems,” said Richard E. Zinbarg, clinical psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “I have clients [who] practice yoga and find it beneficial.”

Danielle Black, psychotherapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, has also seen the positive effects of meditation in her practice.

When her clients appear especially distraught,  Black encourages them to practice mindfulness activities. She said a five-minute exercise can have noticeable effects.

“Mindfulness is focusing on the breath,” Black said. “But it could be focusing on anything, an object or a painting. You have focused attention on one thing in the present moment without judgment.”

Being nonjudgmental helps people calm their minds, Black said. Practicing mindfulness, which is considered a form of yoga, can teach people to regulate their emotional responses, according to Black.

Zinbarg, for example, said he uses diaphragmatic breathing at his practice. This includes inhaling and exhaling deeply while engaging the diaphragm, and he said he sees positive effects on his patients.

Mike Lewis, co-director and yoga instructor at Bikram Yoga Chicago, 47 W. Polk St., said before he started practicing breathing exercises and yoga, he could rarely sit still.

“The more you practice yoga, and the more you concentrate on your breathing, the calmer you’ll be throughout the class,” Lewis said. “It should help you stay calm when someone cuts you off in traffic.”

According to Black, yoga and deep breathing exercises are workouts for the brain.

“When you haven’t exercised in a while it’s really hard, your muscles are out of shape, every minute is really difficult; [mindfulness] is kind of like that,” she said. “As your brain gets more used to it, it snaps into it more quickly.”

Yoga is just a form of mindfulness, a focused attention, Black said. “However, a person can practice yoga and be distracted during the activity.”

It requires focus and concentration to hold difficult yoga positions without toppling over, Lewis said.

“It’s is training for how you can deal with day-to-day life,” said Gloria Millare, clinical physician and yoga instructor in Schaumburg, Ill. “During the process, you feel peace that carries over.”

Millare, who teaches Dahn yoga, a form of Korean yoga that trains the brain through a combination of meditation and movement, said there are endless benefits to yoga.

While the process is peaceful, researchers believe mindfulness, meditation and yoga are different from relaxation because these activities stimulate different regions of the brain, according to Millare. Ultimately, practicing these engaging mental activities is a way to prepare for life outside of the office, classroom and studio, she said.

“The yoga we do involves holding a posture as long as you can to test your limits,” Millare said. “In this world, you will be tested, so you have to develop that strength and power to overcome any obstacle.”