The Science of Yoga and Meditation

The academic year has started. September is always the busiest month of the year. No one has time for any real relaxation as everyone rushes around trying to fit everything into their schedule. Stress levels rise, and before you know it, you are coming down the mother of all colds. Perhaps it is time to relax?

Yoga and meditation is the perfect antidote to the hectic lifestyle. While their exact origins are unclear, they arose in India more than 2000 years ago. As a series of movements, yoga has been known to increase strength and flexibility, and meditation was ‘designed’ to challenge your identity and see how you spiritually fit into the universe. It seems fairly easy for someone of a scientific nature to dismiss these as (to use the PG term) hokum. But in reality, scientific studies have found real distinct benefits.

There is a vast amount of evidence building that yoga can decrease cardiovascular risk, heart rate and blood pressure. It can boost immunity and even increase lifespan, as William T. Broad finds out in his book aptly named The Science of Yoga. A collection of articles by Elsevier for World Yoga Day (21 June) shows that it can reduce anxiety disorders even in pregnant women and increase spinal mobility.

Yoga re-shapes your brain, specifically the insula, which integrates thoughts and emotions and the amygdala, which regulates fear and anxiety. A study conducted by a research team at the Massachusetts General Hospital found when people under a high level of stress underwent regular yoga and meditation their amygdala had actually shrunk, aiding in further stress regulation. When Chantel Villemure and Catherine Bushnell of the National Center for Contemporary and Alternative Medicine, USA compared MRI scans between those who practised yoga regularly and those that didn’t, they found an increase in brain volume. They detected an increase in brain cells in regions responsible for attention (superior parietal cortex), regulating stress (hippocampus) and self-awareness (somatosensory cortex and the precuneus and posterior cingulate cortex).

To get a little bit more biochemical and molecular, Streeter et. al. 2010 found that yoga reduces the amino acid GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid) which is correlated with reducing mood disorders, anxiety and epilepsy. Compared to walking, while both forms of exercise showed substantial improvements in affecting GABA, yoga had more of an effect. Bhasin et. al. 2013 found that yoga and meditation when combined can actually increase the expression of particular genes, which included energy metabolism and insulin secretion. Conversely other genes that were linked to inflammatory response and stress were actually reduced.

Meditation on its own has similar effects; it re-structures the brain by increasing the thickness of the cerebral cortex enabling increased attention, sensory processing and interoception (that is the physiological sense of the body). It can even slow down the rate of age-related neural degeneration as Lazar et. al. 2005 discovered. Lavretsky et. al. 2013 found that yogic meditation done for 12 minutes for 2 months can increase telomerase activity- this is the enzyme responsible for maintaining the length of telomeres, which shorten as we age. Therefore to some extent meditation could actually slow down aging. Consider that if you regularly buy anti-aging cream!

By affecting the brain overall, meditation alleviates depression, aids in memory and self- awareness, decreases stress, boosts the immune system and even aids in goal setting! The physiological effects have amazingly been studied since the 1970’s; take a look at Wallace’s paper in Science. The science is slowly building.

But (and there is always a ‘but’!) stringent standards must be met if the conclusions are to weigh up. A study by the John Hopkins University researcher Madhav Goyal found that not all studies were well-designed, only a handful could actually verify their claims. So there is some evidence that meditation does work, but more research needs to be done. Whether someone should be doing meditation is also up for discussion. While it does help with mood, some studies have found that it may not always work well for those that have depression, and in some cases, it can even bring out dangerous tendencies. As with all things, it appears even meditation comes with warning signs, and of course never attempt yoga or difficult poses without a qualified instructor. If done correctly both could bring benefits, just do be sure to see your GP first. Additionally, it is important to note that meditation and yoga is no substitute for a healthy lifestyle and appropriate therapy/medication. It can however be used complementarily to it.

The one question I’m sure most people may ask themselves now is: is meditation for the atheist or agnostic? Well, it can be as one author writes for The Humanist. To think that meditation is only about sitting in the lotus position, chanting OM for 20 minutes solely for spiritual enlightenment is inappropriate. There are different types of meditation. Mindfulness is a good place to start for those that get bored easily. To get started, here are some tips by The Guardian and perhaps your October will be considerably less stressful.

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Danae Dodge

I received my PhD in Scientific Archaeology from the University of Sheffield in 2011 which specialised in ancient DNA and anthropology. For my profile, see my websites: I started getting involved in Science Brainwaves as a volunteer in 2010. I have volunteered at presentations, events (such as the British Science Festival in 2011) and even participated in the Science is Vital protest march in October 2010. My first blog for Science Brainwaves was "Ancient Humans: Who were they? And who got it on?" which was the written version of a talk I gave for the Natural History Society at the University of Sheffield on 5 December 2011. I also have a public engagement page dedicated to ancient DNA, which I encourage both the public and specialists to join: