Benefits of Yoga | Nervous System

How Yoga Effects The Nervous System

For my first post in this series of blogs (click HERE for the start of the series), I am looking into the impression Yoga practices have on our nervous system. I want to see how much evidence there is to back up Yoga as a staple practice for health and wellbeing. I am impressed with the amount of studies I could find on Yoga and the nervous system and there are a few different suggested benefits I found. The ones I am mentioning here are; increased prevention of cardiac diseases, reduction in anxiety and improved mood, improved brain function due to structural changes. 

I think the thing I find most interesting about this research is that the effects of these practices can’t only be measured physically, such as through reduced heart rate, but also visually! Through Neuroimaging (pictures of the brain), we can actually see the brain of a Yoga practitioner and how it has changed through consistent use of a combination of Yoga techniques… I think that’s CRAZY.

So let’s dive in deeper and see just how Yoga can effect us like this!

Prevention of Cardiac Diseases

The health benefit I find pops up the most is Yoga’s ability to maintain good autonomic nervous system (ANS) balance. Now I may have lost you already! But its not too complicated really…
Our nervous system is formed by two branches, the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS is just the brain and spinal cord, whereas the PNS is all of the nerves connecting to everything in our bodies. These are the nerves that allow our body to talk to our brain. Within the PNS we have a branch that is somatic and a branch that is autonomic, somatic relates to conscious movement of our muscles and autonomic relates to unconscious movement. So, the ANS is responsible for automatic, unconscious functions like heart rate and breathing! This means a balanced ANS leads to good resting heart rate and breathing rate.Nervous system

The most significant benefit of a balanced ANS is the prevention of cardiac diseases such as hypertension, abnormal heartbeat and heart failure. With what I found, Yoga is suggested to be a great addition to your lifestyle that could prevent cardiac diseases by improving ANS balance over time!

The Studies


The first study we are looking at is from the Indian Journal of Clinical Anatomy and Psychology, they looked at Yoga practitioners of 35+ years and compared them to non-Yoga practitioners of the same age. They found Yoga practitioners had lower heart rate and respiratory rate than non-Yoga practitioners. They also saw a decrease in the sympathetic nervous system’s reaction. I find this SUPER interesting, as the sympathetic path is the side of our ANS that rules our ‘fight or flight’, whereas the parasympathetic rules our ‘rest and digest’ state. Now, of course, the sympathetic side is important in terms of survival, we need that response to protect us from danger, but when it’s over used it causes unnecessary stress responses. We really want to be leaning into the parasympathetic side more so that we don’t cause too much strain on our bodies. So, if our sympathetic reactions are lowered, we are leaning more into our parasympathetic and preventing stress! This implies that, not only does Yoga reduce our risk of cardiac diseases, but also the amount of stress our bodies are under when the sympathetic path is kick started…soooo…preventing us from becoming really stressed when our ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in.

And this isn’t the only scientific journal that has seen improved ANS balance through practicing Yoga either! In the IOSR Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences, International Journal of Contemporary Medical Research, International Journal of Health and Clinical Research and International Journal of Research in Medical Sciences  there are studies complementing these ideas and showing that the sympathetic drive is lowered and general ANS activity is more balanced.

Interestingly, one of the studies I found looked into how the length of a Yoga practice can affect the ANS and discovered that a 90-120 minute practice is better for balancing ANS function in women. They also agreed that a consistent practice is great for an improved ANS. So, who is ready to roll their mat out more often…and for longer sessions?!

Effects on our Brain

The brain is a majorly important part of our nervous system as it is the centre of interpretation and response. Basically, whatever our senses come into contact with and how we react to that is decided by the brain. There is a super interesting review on the frontiers site that assessed lots of scientific studies on the effect of Yoga on the brain, and they uncovered some really cool stuff. These studies all looked at neuroimaging (pictures of the brain) as a way to actually SEE the changes in the brain caused by years of a consistent Yoga practice. And guess what, they actually saw changes in the structure and function of a Yogi’s brain!


Meditation causes the changes


The main changes they saw were in the insular cortex, this is the part of the brain that is sensitive to the physiological changes in the body such as increased heart rate or sweating. It’s also related to our empathy and has also been seen to increase effective stress coping. The thing that was most interesting in this review was that these changes were seen in meditation based Yoga and NOT ASANA! This is why we are always banging on about how Yoga is not just asana guys!

The size of the hippocampus was also seen to increase – this is the place where our brain makes new connections and strengthens old ones, directly linking it to our memory and information retention. 

Just these two changes in brain formation among Yoga practitioners show the insane positive effects Yoga has on our nervous system. And not just Yoga… meditation! So who is prepared to get past this idea that we just need to be active to improve our health, who wants to slow down and work on the strength of their mind with us?


Just looking at these small elements of the impacts of Yoga on the nervous system shows us how much this practice really effects us on a physical level, and even a mental level. It’s crazy to know that not only can the changes be measured in our ANS, but also seen through pictures of our brain! Here we can see that Yoga helps us mediate our stress response through better management of the nervous system, reduces our risk of cardiac diseases with better basic ANS function, and improved memory formation seen through changes of the brain.


If this doesn’t convince you that Yoga as a complete practice – the poses, breath-work and meditation – is essential to make a difference in your life, I don’t know what will! Keep up to date with this series of blogs to read more about how science is proving Yoga to be an essential wellbeing practice. 


Thank’s for reading!

Alison x