It’s February, the month officially dedicated to LOVE. I am no expert on romantic love, just ask my husband. So I’ll stay in my lane and share messages about Self Love. And there is no better place to start than with your own mental health. I want to pass on some great information with you about Love…for your Brain.
You know I am going to plug yoga here. With its emphasis on breathing practices and medita-tion—both of which help calm and center the mind— it’s no surprise that yoga also brings great mental benefits, such as reduced anxiety and depression. But did you know that yoga actually makes your brain work better?
Yoga strengthens parts of the brain that play a key role in memory, attention, awareness, thought, and language. How does this work? There are sound scientific explanations. But I want to reduce it down to this. Yoga asks us to pay attention. It invites us to stop multi-tasking, and focus on the one thing that is right here, right now. The yoga term for this is Dharana or one-pointed focus. It could be observing the way a breath feels entering the nostrils, or tuning your ears intently to a sound, or fixing your gaze on an object. By choosing one thing, you are strengthening the parts of your brain that pay attention. It’s essentially weight lifting for the brain!
A review of 15 studies, published in the Journal of Aging and Mental Health, looked at the effect of a variety of relaxation techniques on depression and anxiety in older adults. In addition to yoga, interventions included massage therapy, progressive muscle relaxation, stress management, and listening to music. While all the techniques provided some benefit, yoga and music were the most effective for both depression and anxiety. And yoga appeared to provide the longest-lasting effect.
In my work in the prison, yoga and mindfulness practices are helping the inmates immensely. I am hearing from the counselors, therapists, and officers that as an add-on treatment yoga is helpful with PTSD and Trauma. The practices of meditation, breathwork and postures are helping to reduce intrusive memories and emotional arousal. Our friends who are incarcerated are so grateful to have these tools of nervous system regulation as part of their self-care toolkit.
Another, more tangible benefit yoga offers for the brain, is better oxygenation, and circulation. I like to tell my students that they have come to a breathing class with a side of movement. That’s the great secret of yoga. We come to our mats to learn to be better breathers. We move our bodies into positions that allow breath to flow more freely into parts where it doesn’t normally go. Think of your hip flexors when you have been sitting. Your chest and shoulders when you have been hunched over your computer for hours. Taking deep breaths while you stretch out those body parts is like sending a special delivery of fresh O2 to the closed off, tight places.
Many of the postures place the head below the heart, inviting better blood flow and oxygen to the brain. The Yogis have always taught that inversions are the ‘fountain of youth’. If you’re skeptical, try this quick little exercise. Fold up a blanket next to a wall. Sit sideways to the wall and swing your legs up. This pose is literally called legs-up-the-wall. Stay there for 2-3 minutes with your eyes closed, taking deep belly breaths. Then, slowly lower your legs and sit up. Pause to notice what you are feeling. For me, it’s always a more clear head and a quieter mind.
If you’re not up for down dog just yet, how about starting with a few minutes of meditation each day. Call it mindfulness if you want. Come with the intention of caring for your mental health. Find a quiet place to sit or lie down. Close your eyes, of just lower your gaze. Slow your breathing, and notice. Breath coming in, breath going out. Breath coming in, breath going out. I like to visualize my mind being like a lake. When I start to pay attention to my thoughts, the surface of the lake is choppy. But with a few minutes of getting still, and observing my breathing, the lake becomes calm.
One final thought on brains and love. Yogis have always taught that a meditating brain is a kinder brain. That through meditation we learn compassion for ourselves, and thus for each other. At the Greater Good Science Center’s recent conference, “Practicing Mindfulness and Compassion,” explored this connection between meditation and compassion in depth. Many of the speakers, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, argued that mindfulness and compassion are inextricably linked, such that mindfulness meditation should give rise to compassion; this study offers strong support for that claim.
So what do you say? Are you ready. To. Give your brain some love? A great place to start is my free 30-Days of Self Love playlist on YouTube. Each day you will do a short meditation and some journaling to help you start your day in a more mindful way.
Dig around my channel and you never know. You might just end up with your butt in the air, your legs up the wall, and then sitting with a quiet and very smart brain.