Dr. John Ratey’s book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain is a great way to motivate you to exercise! Each chapter takes a different challenge – from anxiety to depression to attention disorders – and examines the role that physical activity can play in treatment. The book provides a balanced approach – not suggesting that you get off of medication or anything, but showing ways that exercise can be used in conjunction with other treatments to live healthier. It’s particularly interesting when considering physical activity in the role of learning.
Lessons for Yogis:
1) Exercise can help raise the fight or flight threshold. This is an objective of many yoga practices – especially the kriyas of Kundalini yoga. You are challenging yourself under controlled circumstances. You’re inducing the stress response, in a small dose, without a giant release of cortisol. This is going to help you next time you face stress off the mat.
2) Ratey mentions the asanas of yoga as a practice that “engages nerve cells throughout the brain.” Basically, by learning to do something new with your body, you’re creating more wiring in your brain! “The more complex the movements, the more complex the synaptic connections,” says Ratey. These new connections can be used by the brain for other activities, such as learning or thinking.
3) While asana would be considered the kind of complex activity that strengthens and connects neural networks, there’s one other component that is important for a balanced exercise routine. You need to add aerobic activity, too. “Aerobic exercise elevates neurotransmitters, creates new blood vessels that pipe in growth factors, and spawns new cells,” explains Ratey, saying that “aerobic exercise and complex activity have different beneficial effects on the brain. The good news is they’re complementary.” So add some brisk walking or an aerobic warm-up to your home practice or studio visit, and you’ll be making your brain grow new things which yoga will wire together.
For more on why yoga isn’t enough as aerobic exercise — no matter how tough it is and no matter how fast you feel your heart — there’s several other sources you can review. Or check out our recommendation for William J. Broad’s The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards.
If you’d like to, you can be tree-friendly and get a used copy, e-book, or audiobook… or check out your local library. I listened the audiobook, which I really enjoyed, and revisited some portions on googlebooks to get the statistics right for our “yoga makes a better brain” infographic!