In 1994, after injuring her back and knee while training for the Boston marathon, Sara Lazar came across an advertisement for a yoga class while leaving her physical therapist’s office. Lazar, a Harvard-trained microbiologist, signed herself up, hoping to receive some physical benefit. To her surprise, she got more than that. Within a few weeks she felt calmer and less stressed out. More surprising to her, Dr. Lazar discovered that she was becoming more empathic with others and could more easily see things from their perspective.
In the current vogue for yoga, many enthusiasts might have a similar story, but Lazar had a scientist’s curiosity, suspecting that these changes that she felt subjectively must have a basis in the brain. She decided to change her research area from microbiology to neuroscience in order to examine the impact yoga and meditation might have on brain function. What resulted was a striking finding.
Taking brain scans (MRIs) of subjects who underwent an eight-week program in mindfulness meditation, Lazar came to some conclusions that astounded her colleagues. Compared to a control group, there was an increase in the size of the hippocampus among the meditators–the hippocampus is important in learning, memory, and the regulation of emotions. It’s also one of the first regions to start degenerating in Alzheimer’s disease. A smaller hippocampus is also seen in people with severe clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The implications are potentially explosive for areas as wide-ranging as stress, dementia, memory loss, and emotional well-being. The team at Massachusetts General Hospital that Lazar headed published their findings in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging in 2011. They gave the first scientific validation to something long reported by serious students of yoga and meditation. “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation,” Lazar told an interviewer, “practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.”
At the intersection between biology and psychology, a new field was emerging called social neuroscience. It’s the study of how our nervous system affects the way we interact with one another and how we express emotions like empathy and compassion. At the center of several studies in this field are yoga and meditation, ancient practices that are gaining new life.
The United Nations declared June 21 this year as the first International Day of Yoga. On this day, people around the world will come together to highlight how yoga has become an integral part of their lives. In the United States alone, more than one hundred cities will host “yogathons.” Continue reading >>