Question: What are the effects of yoga and meditation on the brain?
Answer: Yoga and meditation have effects on physiology, brain chemistry, and cognitive processes; these vary depending on the exact type of practise being performed and how long a person has practised it for. Studies of brain activity confirm that meditation can achieve a state of calm, thoughtless awareness, by suppressing brain regions involved in external attention and irrelevant information, and activating brain regions involved in internalised attention and positive emotions. Meditation is thought to activate the parasympathetic-limbic pathways, reducing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and slowing breathing. Meditation practises can fundamentally change the shape, structure and function of the brain – reinforcing neural networks, developing particular brain regions and influencing the production of key neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain related to attention, self-awareness and emotional control. Yoga has far-reaching effects on the body, reducing inflammation, boosting mood and making long-term practitioners feel more awake. It may even speed up learning in childhood and slow the natural cognitive declines that come with ageing. However, our understanding of the effects of meditative practises on the brain and body is still in its infancy – much more work remains (especially large-scale, carefully controlled trials).