Balancing on one leg,
as in ‘tree pose,’
activates the cerebellum,
your brain’s motor
coordination center.
A healthy cerebellum
helps you think clearly
and quickly, with
well-focused attention.

GABA, a brain chemical
that enhances mood
and decreases anxiety,
is elevated with yoga
and meditation.

Brain Building with
Yoga & Meditation

by Ann Marina

HOW MANY AMERICANS practice yoga today? The number has nearly doubled in the last decade to 21 million, according to the National Institutes of Health. We routinely step onto our mats to renew flexibility, muscle tone, and peace of mind.

Meditation is a close relative of yoga. The terms have Sanskrit and Latin roots meaning ‘union’ (yug) and ‘middle ground’ (medi, tare). Both are beneficial for mind-body wellness, as modern science confirms.

Your Brain On Yoga

The combination of breathing techniques and stretching makes yoga a parasympathetic activator, writes John Arden, Ph.D., in The Brain Bible. The sympathetic nervous system triggers your ‘fight or flight response’ when you sense danger or feel startled. The parasympathetic system returns your body to a relaxed state, with normal breathing and heart rate.

Parasympathetic activity prevents chronic stress, which diminishes brain cells and circuits involved in memory and learning.

Researchers found salivary stress hormone levels decreased in a group of students after one 90-minute yoga class.

GABA, a brain chemical that enhances mood and decreases anxiety, is elevated with yoga and meditation.

The practices turn on the brain’s “happy side” – the left prefrontal cortex. With greater activity in this region, you are generally more joyful and enthusiastic.

Balancing on one leg, as in ‘tree pose,’ activates the cerebellum, your brain’s motor coordination center. A healthy cerebellum helps you think clearly and quickly, with well-focused attention.

Mindfulness Over Mindlessness

Meditating is directly experiencing the now. By taming the ‘monkey mind’ by slowing down its constant chatter, we notice thoughts and feelings without getting stressed by them. It’s said that “Like an airplane propeller, when it slows or stops you can actually see each blade.”

Meditation is “an active, brain-stimulating exercise,” as Naples physician David Perlmutter sees it. He explains that consistent practice increases the growth protein BDNF, which creates and nourishes brain cells. Mindful meditation develops a brain that functions well and resists deterioration.

• Students at an 8-week meditation course had increased gray matter in the hippocampus, the brain’s ‘seat of memory,’ and areas regulating self-awareness and emotions.

• A recent study found increased efficiency of white matter in a group of meditators, and no brain changes in those who simply relaxed. Researchers stated the improvement in brain regions involved in self-regulation could provide new ways to treat or prevent mental disorders.

• Another study found meditation increases alpha and theta brain waves, which occur during wakeful, relaxed attention focused on inner experiences. Paying calm attention to what’s happening inside, meditators gain awareness of thought patterns and how emotions arise. They may then increase their capacity for enjoying life as it is, here and now.

Mindful Breathing Exercises

Breath awareness helps to keep the mind fully present, here and now. Bhante Gunaratana, author of Mindfulness in Plain English, explains that without this focal point, “You get lost, overcome by the ceaseless waves of change flowing round and round within the mind.”

Sitting comfortably (or lying down), feel the breath flowing in and out of your nostrils. Feel your ribcage expand on each inhale, and your whole body releasing with the exhale. Notice the pause – a moment of calm stillness – after each exhale, just before the next inhale. Relax and enjoy mindful breathing for five minutes, or as long as you like. You can keep a slight smile going to help you relax. Smiling releases endorphins, brain chemicals that ward off stress. Or you can try ‘Third-Eye Gazing.’ With eyes closed, focus them at your brow-point (known as the ‘third eye’), on your forehead, midway between the eyebrows and slightly above. This may help focus your attention.


This enhances energy, metabolism and a positive mood. Tucking chin toward chest stimulates your thyroid gland. More blood reaches the brain, as you work all the spinal muscles, increasing circulation and reducing tension.

Start on hands and knees.

Round your spine upward for Cat, tucking your chin toward your chest.

Hold for two breaths, then slowly sink your spine downward for Cow.

Carefully lifting your chin and sit bones will allow more curve in the spine.

Hold this for two breaths.

Now go back and forth at your own pace, inhaling in cow, and exhaling in cat pose.

May be done while seated, curving your spine forward for ‘cow’ and back for ‘cat.’


If balancing is a challenge, hold a solid support (countertop, table, or back of a sturdy chair) with one hand. Your vestibular system is activated, and both sides of the brain work in unison as you balance on one leg. Tree promotes a calm mind and better sense of balance.

Imagine your right foot has roots sinking into the ground.

Raise your left leg, bending the knee and placing the sole of the foot on the right leg: by the ankle, calf, or thigh.

Try pressing palms together at chest level, or raising arms above your head.
Hold for four breaths, and then repeat on the other side.


This brain-balancing, calming technique is based in yoga. Everyone has a ‘nasal cycle’ of air flowing predominantly through one nostril for one to three hours, then switching to the other side. This technique lowers the heart rate; reduces stress, and synchronizes the two brain hemispheres, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Use the right thumb and ring finger to gently close off one nostril at a time.

Curl your right index and middle finger down into your palm, so just the ring and pinky fingers are up.

Press your ring finger over your left nostril and inhale for four counts through your right nostril.

Close your right nostril with your thumb, so both are now closed, and hold the breath in for four counts.

Release the ring finger and exhale through your left nostril, for four counts.

Now inhale through the left nostril four counts, hold your breath with both closed fourcounts, and exhale through the right nostril four counts.

Repeat this sequence for at least one minute.

Use your right hand and start with ring finger over left nostril.


This posture calms the brain and relieves stress, mild depression, headache and insomnia, according to Yoga Journal.

To begin, stand up tall and then bend forward at the hips (from the crease at the top of your legs. This keeps your spine much straighter than curling forward from the waist.)

Let your arms dangle, or cross them and hold your elbows.

If it feels OK, gently turn your head side to side or in a circle, to relieve neck tension.

Hold the position for 20-30 seconds, then bring your hands onto your hips and slowly return to standing.
Can be done while seated. •

Ann Marina is author of
Preserve Your Brain. For more information, visit www.preserveyourbrain.com

March-April 2015