What is Neuroplasticity and what does it have to do with Yoga?
In a nutshell, neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change in response to experience. Our brain is just one part (a very important part) of our nervous system. Our nervous system as a whole is a complex system that includes both the brain and the spinal cord and is constantly sending and receiving information to and from our exterior environment. Numerous studies* have shown that the experience of a consistent yoga or meditation practice, which promotes strengthening the body as well as the mind, can help us interpret that information in a way that benefits the brain and helps form positive new neural pathways.
Scientists once believed that the brain was unchangeable and that it degraded with age, leaving little potential for growth. However, as we gain new knowledge and experience, we now know that the brain and nervous system are constantly rebuilding and forming new connections. Yoga, for example, is particularly effective at facilitating change because it combines movement with attention to what’s happening in the present moment, aka: Mindfulness.
Neural pathways are strengthened by our repetitive thoughts and actions. The stronger these pathways become, the more we engage a particular pattern of thought or behavior. This is why changing habits that you’ve acquired over a long period of time can be tough. This also means that the first step in making any change is to be aware of what you're doing as much as possible (mindfulness), and to recognize patterns and habits as soon as they appear or as soon as you begin to notice. Once you become conscious of your habits, you can begin to establish new neural pathways that better align with an outcome you’re wishing to achieve. Let’s take physical and mental resilience for example and put it in the context of practicing yoga. Imagine you’re in a yoga class and everytime you’re called to hold a challenging pose, you find yourself fidgeting, coming into and out of the pose or doing another pose all together. Does this sound familiar? Many times it’s not physical fatigue or an inability to do the pose that prevents you from staying in it, it’s habit, but don’t get discouraged. The very noticing of this habit can help you begin to change it (if that’s something that you wish to do). And the continued repetition will help you create a new habit that better aligns with your desired outcome. Eventually this new habit won’t be something you have to focus on at all, it will become something you effortlessly do without all the limbic friction or negative reflexive behavior.
Since the brain can change in response to experience, slowing down, noticing, being aware, and (ideally) being non-reactive are all things that you can learn and improve upon through the practice of yoga and meditation. We are able to reinforce these positive behaviors by practicing them over and over, making them our new 'default' pathway. One of the best ways to help ourselves get into these new habits is to plan in advance. Try sitting down on a Sunday afternoon or evening and start carving out the most optimal times for you to practice over the next week. Book a class, add a time to meditate to your calendar, set a reminder. These are all little things you can do to help begin to make what might otherwise seem like tasks or challenges become routine, enjoyable and effortless over time. :)
Click on the links below to read the research cited: