Because of the results reported by practitioners, medical researchers are training their sights and technology on yoga and why it works the way it does. Harvard neurologist Dr. Sara Lazar is one of those researchers.
Dr. Lazar injured herself while training for the Boston Marathon. Her orthopedist recommended stretching in lieu of running.
She started practicing yoga and loved it. She did skeptically roll her eyes though when her yoga teacher claimed that yoga would increase her capacity for empathy and compassion. With continued practice she began noticing the presence of these very traits becoming more pronounced in her life. As a scientist, she wanted to know why.
Since she had her own lab and Magnetic Resonance Imaging equipment, she began using the MRI to record images of the brains of yoga practitioners and a control group of those who did not practice yoga and meditation. She was astounded at her findings!
The brains of the yoga and meditation practitioners showed significant differences in the eight weeks of the study. The hippocampus, where learning, memory and emotional regulation take place became denser and larger with practice. Likewise, the parietal lobe, where empathy is initiated, also grew and got denser. The amygdala, home of fear, fight and flight, actually shrank. The control subjects showed no appreciable change in brain anatomy or physiology. The ability of the brain to rewire itself in response to stimuli like yoga and meditation is called neuroplasticity.
Because of the criticism of her methods, Dr. Lazar repeated her study beginning with subjects who had never practiced yoga. The results were the same. In the eight week span of the study, the brains of yoga and meditation participants displayed the same dramatic changes previously demonstrated by established practitioners, while the control subjects showed no measurable change.
I can add my personal testimony to this research as well. At times in the past ten years, challenging life changes have led to my own very real experience with depression. While medication proved to be a temporary bridge to wellness, I wanted to restore myself to health without the undesirable side effects with which such remedies often inflict upon us.
Even though I’d been a hatha yoga practitioner for many years, I had not cultivated mental resilience through meditation. This is where I had to put up or shut up about my confidence in yoga’s ability to deliver me to wholeness. I realized that I simply lacked diligence and consistency in my meditation practice. I also realized that new levels of challenge demand new levels of commitment.
It began with me making a commitment to myself, a commitment to total health through the conscious examination of my life and the diligent application of that knowledge in my practice. Though this path is not always strewn with roses, my daily practice of mental and physical hygiene rewards me without ceasing. Like so many people in the past and present, I am learning that the conscious breath is the beginning of a path to liberation from the demons of tension, stress, and depression. It is a gateway to plumbing the depths of what it means to be human and to tapping into the infinite well of boundless joy and creativity that is the birthright of each one of us.