yoga instructorBy Faye Martins

When considering methodology in most Yoga certification courses, mental and emotional health takes a back seat to the physical body. In many ways, it is a shame that the value of sanity means nothing, unless it is lost.

Modern science is just beginning to prove what Yogis knew thousands of years ago: Yoga changes the brain. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, ongoing studies are researching the effects of meditation, deep breathing and Kriya Yoga on veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Phase I of the study was completed in 2010, and the second phase is now underway.

Symptoms of PTSD include hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, anger, depression and emotional numbness. Only half of the veterans who receive traditional treatments are cured, and many are unaware of the havoc of PTSD on their lives and relationships. Researchers estimate that at least 20 percent of the two million veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from PTSD, and suicide rate among these veterans have reached epidemic proportions.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the interventions are working, but scientific data is also being gathered from brain scans, allowing scientists to see how various areas of the brain react to negative memories and anxiety. The research is not limited to the United States, either. The Russian army has also researched the use of Yoga training.

The ability to monitor the effects of different thoughts and behaviors on the brain has only been available in the last decade. In the late 1990s, researchers in Pennsylvania reported that brain scans of experienced meditation practitioners showed increased action in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for attention. Meanwhile, the superior parietal lobe, the area involving orientation to time and space, went dark.

Criticized by mainstream scientists, the findings were controversial, but the tide seems to be turning as more evidence and more sophisticated equipment become available. In a show of support, the National Institutes of Health helped to set up science research centers at Emory University, Stanford University, and the University of Wisconsin, also home to the world’s first door-to-door meditation room and brain imaging lab.

Until the end of the 20th century, scientists thought neural pathways were determined early in life. Now we know the brain has the capacity to rewire itself throughout life, compensating for trauma or negative thought patterns. Researchers now say that neurons that “fire together wire together.”

Through the use of Yogic breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation and asanas, we can retrain the brain’s circuits. As new research emerges in the field of neuroscience, Yoga instructors need to stay current as more evidence is likely to document the medicinal relationship between Yoga and the brain.

© Copyright 2012 – Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

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