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How yoga, meditation benefit the mind and body

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Yoga and meditation have both become increasingly popular in the Western world, and practitioners praise their psychological and physical benefits. Current research also suggests that meditating and doing yoga can boost overall well-being and resilience to stress factors. A new study suggests that yoga and meditation are beneficial for physical and mental well-being and that they improve resilience to stress.

Increasingly, yoga practice and meditation have been the focus of research aiming to test their benefits. Recently, Medical News Today has reported on a wealth of studies pointing to many different advantages of yoga and meditation, including countering cognitive decline, acting on genetic factors that predispose individuals to stress, improving lower back pain, and easing depression. A new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience now shows that yoga and meditation appear to have a positive effect on the central nervous system as well as the immune system and that it may improve the individuals' overall sense of well-being.

How yoga, meditation benefit the mind and body

The study - led by Dr B Rael Cahn, from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles - was part of a larger body of research addressing different approaches to promoting resilience.

Yoga and meditation may improve resilience

Dr Cahn and team worked with some of the participants at a 3-month yoga and meditation retreat. At this retreat, the participants engaged in daily meditation and yoga practice, and they followed a vegetarian diet.

Of the 200 participants (both male and female), 98 volunteered to participate in tests measuring particular biomarkers. However, due to a lack of funding, only 38 volunteers (19 male and 19 female) underwent these assessments.

Additionally, due to circumstances that rendered some of the data unusable, biological samples collected from 26 of these volunteers were analyzed.

Many participants had previous experience of practising yoga and meditation on a frequent basis, including Shoonya and Samyama meditation, Hatha yoga, and pranayama.

The participants were assessed both before and after participating in the yoga retreat. They had to undergo:

  1. psychometric tests that collected data about their psychological well-being, mindfulness, and psychological involvement

  2. measurements of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is a protein that promotes the survival and growth of various nerve cells and is involved in immune response, metabolic regulation, and resilience to stress

  3. assessment of the "cortisol awakening response" (CAR), which measured the secretion of cortisol, a hormone involved in the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal gland (also known as the "HPA axis")

  4. measurements of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokine levels, which are involved in the functioning of the immune system

After analyzing the data, the team found that engagement in the yoga and meditation practices at the retreat was associated with decreased anxiety and depression levels - as reported by the participants - as well as with an increase in their level of mindfulness.

From a biological point of view, the scientists noted an increase in BDNF plasma levels, as well as a strengthened CAR, suggesting improved resilience to stress factors.

The data also showed an increase of an anti-inflammatory cytokine (interleukin-10) and a corresponding decrease in a pro-inflammatory cytokine (interleukin-12), which led to a reduction of inflammatory processes.

"It is likely that at least some of the significant improvements in both HPA axis functioning as exemplified by the CAR as well as neuroimmunologic functioning as exemplified by increases in BDNF levels and alterations in cytokines were due to the intensive meditation practice involved in this retreat," suggests Dr Cahn.

Potential benefits to the nervous system

The researchers believe that the various biological improvements gathered from the collected data indicate an enhanced overall sense of physical and psychological well-being.

They highlight that their results may point to an enhanced functioning of certain elements of the central nervous system, a healthier immune system, and a strengthened sense of focus and awareness.

posted Aug 20 by Mahendra.h.s

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