Your Brain on Yoga

When you think about yoga, you probably imagine an ascetic devotee in a loincloth, sitting motionless under a blistering summer sun, focusing his attention inward in a search for truth and oneness. But take a look into any one of over 26,000 yoga studios in the U.S. and you’re likely to see something a little more comfortable.

For many Americans, yoga is no longer just an escape from the material world. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Yoga has become a powerful part of fitness, social, and spiritual culture. And perhaps more tellingly, it is now one of the fastest growing industries in American business. As the yoga industry continues to thrive, it faces a new dilemma: How will yoga as an industry align financial practices with its deeper principles of well-being, and in so doing, sup- port the success and fulfillment of its instructors? After all, it is becoming increasingly clear that the practice of yoga brings benefits to our brains.

Now, neuroscientists are discovering what practitioners have claimed for centuries: Yoga can literally change your brain. Images of brain activity show that meditation strengthens communication between the prefrontal cortex, the most evolved part of the brain that is responsible for concentration and rational thinking, and other vital regions of the brain. Recent studies show an association between regular practice and increased GABA levels a neurotransmitter whose low levels are related to depression and anxiety. Other studies reflect how subjects who meditate regularly have a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, the region of the brain where fear and anxiety are triggered, and an increase of gray matter in the hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory formation.

So let’s take a closer look at the industry. By all accounts, the business of yoga is booming. Participation is up as over 20 million Americans reported taking yoga in 2012, the number of studios is up 23 percent since 2008, and spending is up $27 billion in the U.S. every year. Compared to other industries, yoga has been virtually recession-proof. Why has it become so popular? Well, there are a few factors that made the boom what it is today.

Celebrities like Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, who are openly proud yogis, have embraced its benefits, as has much of sports culture. Studios have expanded inland to new markets from the coasts. The baby boomer generations, as well as men in general, have been participating in yoga more than ever before.

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