Neuroplasticity: Rewiring Your Brain Through Yoga and Meditation
A short story
Have you ever wondered why Buddhist or Hindu monks choose to stick to a rigorous discipline? Why do they follow the same habits day in, day out? More importantly, how does their thorough discipline help them master the practice of meditation and yoga?
For centuries, our brain’s ability to “forge” new neural pathways, has allowed us to adapt to our environment by developing and mastering various skills. Although Buddhist and Hindu monks were clearly no experts in neuroscience, they did understand the importance of achieving mastery through constant practice. In other words, they benefited greatly from neuroplasticity, without even knowing what it was. In fact, not even the world’s top experts in brain anatomy knew about this amazing ability.
Until recently, researchers and mental health professional thought neurons were the only cells that didn’t regenerate. The general opinion was that each person is born with a limited number of neurons that slowly drops as we grow older. This opinion was based on observations made by experts on patients who’ve gone through severe conditions such as trauma, cerebral stroke, or neurological diseases. Their “obsession” with pathological aspects of the brain made them blind to a brain feature (plasticity) that is crucial not only to our survival but also our mental health and well-being.
So, what triggered the paradigm shift?
About fifty years ago, researchers discovered that an area of the hippocampus produces new cells (stem cells) which migrate throughout the brain (depending on where they are needed) and take over the specific functions of the area where they get sent. Although the first observations were conducted on lab mice, researchers were already beginning to discuss the idea of brain plasticity.
Today, researchers and mental health professional no longer see the brain as a “static” organ, but as a highly sophisticated neural network capable of changing its structure to integrate ‘fresh’ information and adapt to the environment. 
The Buddhist and Hindu monks who’ve been practicing meditation for centuries have only observed the result or effects of neuroplasticity. Even though they didn’t know that practice improved their brain’s plasticity, they did experience the positive outcomes that derived from daily meditation, and that was enough to keep them going.
It is because of neuroplasticity that seasoned meditators have managed to master the basics of various meditation techniques and achieve relaxation almost instantly. All these benefits are the result of neural pathways – associated with meditation – that have been ‘exercised’ regularly.
Although we know for a fact that brain plasticity is the reason why we develop new habits – like meditation – through practice and repetition, there’s still one question that remains unanswered.
If neuroplasticity helps us become better meditators, does meditation have an impact on neuroplasticity?
What is neuroplasticity?
The brain’s ability to form new neural connections based on learning is called neuroplasticity. It is because of this ability that we learn new skills and adapt to our environment. But besides helping us learn and adapt to new situations, to evolve culturally and spiritually, neuroplasticity is also the reason why we recover from neurological diseases that can affect us on a sensory, motor, or cognitive level.
Neuroplasticity allows neurons to temporarily or permanently (depending on the needs of your brain) compensate for the loss of neural pathways by facilitating new connections.
The experiences we go through create new neural connections. Every lesson we learn and every habit we practice has the potential to change the structure of our brain. For example, a famous study in which researchers compared the brains of taxi drivers and bus drivers revealed that cab drivers have a larger hippocampus. Why? Because unlike bus drivers who follow specific routes, cab drivers navigate the entire city. That means the brain areas responsible for memory – the hippocampus – changes in size and volume to integrate new information and allow the person to navigate more efficiently. 
The changes that occur in our brain’s structure because of neuroplasticity will generate psychological and behavioral changes as well. That means that processes such as learning, memorizing, personal and professional growth, and even addiction have a solid neurological foundation.
But are there any factors that can impact neuroplasticity?
Here Are Some of the Factors That Affect Neuroplasticity
Although brain plasticity seems to be the foundation of our every skill and habit, this crucial ability can sometimes be altered or improved by various factors. Some of the elements that can have a positive or negative impact on brain plasticity include:
1. The 5-HTT gene
Since many of you have probably never heard of it, allow me to explain what this gene does. The 5-HTT gene is a serotonin transporter protein. In layman’s terms, this gene is responsible for the flow of serotonin in your brain. Any changes in the 5-HTT gene will result in serious changes in our serotonin levels.
A study that aimed to explore the effects of this gene concluded that 5-HTT deficiency could affect neuroplasticity and make us more sensitive to stress.  So not only that 5-HTT deficiency affects our serotonin levels – which causes sensitivity to stress – but also makes it difficult for our brain to build neural pathways.
According to recent studies, serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in stress can influence brain plasticity as well. As one study clearly states, serotonin has a prominent impact on neuroplasticity in humans, which is in favor
Fortunately, studies also indicate that meditation can help you keep your serotonin at optimum levels.  Nobody knows precisely why, but it appears that practicing meditation on a constant basis can directly and positively impact your serotonin levels.
Just like serotonin, cortisol can sometimes have a negative impact on neuroplasticity. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience concluded that fluctuating levels of cortisol could negatively influence neuroplasticity. 
Cortisol tends to go up during stressful periods which is why it’s also known as “the stress hormone.” As soon as it drops, the unpleasant effects of stress begin to disappear.
Once again, the key to maintaining your brain’s plasticity is keeping your cortisol at optimum levels. And a great way to achieve this is through… meditation. A group of researchers who’ve studied the effects of mindfulness meditation on medical students concluded that mindfulness meditation lowers the cortisol levels in the blood suggesting that it can lower stress and may decrease the risk of diseases that arise from stress such as psychiatric disorder, peptic ulcer, and migraine. 
By balancing our cortisol levels, meditation not only helps us maintain our brain’s plasticity but also prevent serious medical and psychological problems.
It’s often said that exercising is particularly beneficial for health, beauty and also the proper functioning of our brain. From helping us cope with stress, anxiety, and depression to keeping our bodies in tip-top shape, exercising is among the healthiest habits you can implement in your daily routine.
But did you know that exercising can also have beneficial effects on neuroplasticity?
A 2013 study conducted by two researchers from the University of Hamburg concluded that exercising has two significant benefits: 1) it improves our memory and executive functions (the mental skills that help you get things done); 2) it triggers processes that facilitate neuroplasticity. 
What many of these factors have in common is that they can be manipulated through meditation. In other words, we can use various meditation practices to exert a positive impact on the factors that are directly related to neuroplasticity. For example, serotonin and cortisol are two neurotransmitters that, according to experts, can be balanced through
How Meditation Can Change Your Brain
Many of you have probably heard a lot about yoga meditation. Aside from keeping your body fit and healthy, this practice can also help you relax and even overcome specific physical and psychological problems.
But is meditation the “miracle cure” that many people talk about?
Instead of focusing on what meditation can ‘fix,’ let’s look at what it can improve. More specifically, let’s highlight the positive changes that occur in our brain as a result of constant yoga meditation practice
A group of researchers who’ve looked at the brains of meditation practitioners concluded that people who use this practice on a constant basis exhibit greater grey matter volume.  In case you didn’t know, the grey matter is the part of your brain that’s packed with neurons which exert various functions. The higher the volume of grey matter, the “sharper” your brain and consequently the mind.
Another huge benefit of meditation is that it boosts stress resilience which in turn leads to a long and healthy life. That is what a group of researchers concluded after conducting an extensive review of the scientific literature. Furthermore, it seems that the breathing part of yoga meditation can also help us cope with painful emotions. As the authors state, breath work enables us to rapidly and compassionately relieve many forms of suffering. 
Although yoga meditation cannot cure everything, it’s clear that this practice has a lot of implications for mental health and well-being.
Here’s How Meditation Impacts Neuroplasticity
The relationship between Meditation and neuroplasticity has been a hot topic ever since researchers and practitioners have begun to realize the huge potential of Oriental practices. Sometimes, even researchers are clueless as to why certain meditation practices have a positive impact on the human brain.
As we mentioned before, neuroplasticity allows our brain to integrate ‘fresh’ information by creating new neural pathways. But to incorporate information and adapt to changes, you need to practice, practice and practice some more. A neural path doesn’t appear overnight.
It takes weeks of discipline to witness the benefits of neuroplasticity. That’s why Meditation should be a daily habit. The more you practice, the stronger the neural pathways associated with this habit will become.
But how does a daily dose of Meditation affect the brain?
According to a recent study, after weeks of yoga practice, the grey matter volume of different brain areas will begin to increase.  A higher volume of grey matter means a healthier and more “efficient” brain that will be able to successfully “forge” new neural pathways.
In a sense, we could argue that meditation and brain plasticity can form a positive vicious circle. In other words, neuroplasticity allows the brain to create a neural pathway for yoga practice which, in turn, has beneficial effects on the brain.
It’s a win-win situation!
Bonus: Guided imagery and positive affirmations
There are many meditative practices that you can implement in your daily habits, thanks to brain plasticity.
Two of the most beneficial techniques that you can start using today are guided imagery and positive affirmations.
Guided imagery is a great way to relieve the unpleasant effects of stress and enjoy the benefits of a happy and healthy mind. Visualization and mental imagery have been successfully used by people who struggle with various emotional issues.
By taking an imaginary journey to a quiet place (an old forest, a mysterious cave, or a ‘peaceful’ lake), you can detach yourself from whatever is bothering you at that time and enjoy a moment a peaceful silence. As in the case of Yoga Nidra Meditation, the more you practice guided imagery, the faster your mind will enter that state of calm. It’s all about patience and consistency. You need to give your brain time to build a neural network for your visualization practice.
Another tool that could have beneficial effects on our brain (and mind) is positive affirmations.
Positive affirmations are a powerful tool to trigger the changes you want in your life, helping you make peace with your past, enjoy the present and build a wonderful future. These short but insightful messages can help us reconfigure our minds, purify our thoughts, and restructure the dynamics of our brains.
By repeating these messages on a constant basis – and with the help of our brain’s ability to integrate new information – we can reframe the negative thoughts that prevent us from living a happy and fulfilling life.
In fact, here are a few positive affirmations to get you started:
My mind is my most powerful tool.
My mind is capable of cultivating positivity.
My mind can reshape my perspective on life.
You can repeat these affirmations anytime, anywhere. Just take a quick break from what you’re doing, close your eyes, and focus on the core message of your affirmations. You can even go ahead and create some personalized positive affirmations.
Through repetition, you will eventually gain a new perspective on life.
|||B. Kolb, R. Gibb and T. E. Robinson, “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippocampus,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 12, no. 1, 2003.|
|||E. Maguire, K. Wollett and H. Spiers, “London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis.,” Hippocampus, vol. 16, no. 12, pp. 1091-1101, 2006.|
|||M. M. Karabeg, S. Grauthoff, S. Y. Kollert, M. Weidner, R. S. Heiming, F. Jansen, S. Popp, S. Kaiser, K.-P. Lesch, N. Sachser, A. G. Schmitt and L. Lewejohann, “5-HTT Deficiency Affects Neuroplasticity and Increases Stress Sensitivity Resulting in Altered Spatial Learning Performance in the Morris Water Maze but Not in the Barnes Maze,” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 10, 2013.|
|||M. A. Nitsche, M.-F. Kuo, R. Karrasch, B. Wachter, D. Liebetanz and W. Paulus, “Serotonin Affects Transcranial Direct Current–Induced Neuroplasticity in Humans,” Biological Psychiatry, vol. 66, no. 5, p. 503–508, 2009.|
|||E. E. Solberg, A. Holen, Ø. Ekeberg, B. Østerud, R. Halvorsen and L. Sandvik, “The effects of long meditation on plasma melatonin and blood serotonin,” Medical Science Monitor, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 96-101, 2004.|
|||M. V. Sale, M. C. Ridding and M. A. Nordstrom, “Cortisol Inhibits Neuroplasticity Induction in Human Motor Cortex,” The Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 28, no. 33, pp. 8285-8293, 2008.|
|||W. Turakitwanakan, C. Mekseepralard and P. Busarakumtragul, “Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students.,” Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, 2013.|
|||K. Hötting and B. Röder, “Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition,” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, vol. 37, no. 9, pp. 2243-2257, 2013.|
|||B. Froliger, E. L. Gatland and J. F. McClernon, “Yoga Meditation Practitioners Exhibit Greater Gray Matter Volume and Fewer Reported Cognitive Failures: Results of a Preliminary Voxel-Based Morphometric Analysis,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012.|
|||R. P. Brown and P. L. Gerbarg, “Yoga Breathing, Meditation, and Longevity,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1172, p. 54–62, 2009.|
|||C. Villemure, M. Čeko, V. A. Cotton and C. M. Bushnell, “Neuroprotective effects of yoga practice: age-, experience-, and frequency-dependent plasticity,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 9, 2015.|