Exploring the neuroscience of yoga and meditation

The large conference room in UBC’s Abdul Ladha Student Science Centre was full well before the event began. Organizing members of the UBC Yoga Club squeezed in more chairs and encouraged guests to sit on the unused couches in the overhanging gallery above. Still, more people arrived. Perhaps some were convinced to attend by the promise of free tea and sushi, but most have come to listen to Dr. Marlon Danilewitz — a resident in UBC’s psychiatry department — speak about the effects of yoga on the physiology of the brain.

Yoga has its roots in Hinduism and combines mental, physical and spiritual practices. The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit yuj, which means “to unite.” In its long and complex history, it has taken many different forms, and is a wide and varied concept. The same is true of meditation.

Danilewitz opened the lecture with a brief group meditation session. In combination with the two further meditation interludes, the audience is provided with an introduction to the three categories of meditation — focused attention, open monitoring and meditation of compassion. Danilewitz couples the practical aspect with scientific theory. With a self-described “deep and abiding passion” for yoga, he is interested in understanding how the movement and breathing patterns stimulate the brain, and affect the person practicing. 

Danilewitz is involved as a researcher with the Non-Invasive Neurostimulation Therapies Laboratory (NINET), and is researching the intersection of brain stimulation techniques as well as meditation and yoga.

“I’d been involved with research in each separate area previously, and I think we’ve seen that both brain stimulation techniques and yoga and meditation have both interesting impacts and prominent impacts on the brain and neurophysiology,” he said. “We were interested specifically in how they might synergistically work together to kind of co-prime each other.”

The study uses transcranial direct current stimulation which delivers consistent low currents to specific brain areas through electrodes. As a technique, it is easy to use.

“We’ve already enrolled a number of participants so far. We have some preliminary results,” said Danilewitz . He cannot share any initial findings yet, because the research is still blinded.

Past studies — like this one, this one and this one — have investigated how the mind and the body are each influenced by the other, or how yoga and meditation channel that connection.

According to Danilewitz, meditation increases the connection of the lateral prefrontal cortex to the insula and amygdala, which increases the rational process over emotional reactions like fear or anxiety. As a result, yoga could build an increased ability to tolerate pain for longer periods of time. In addition, it might have important implications for mental health and emotional well-being.

Despite this, there are still many gaps in this particular field of research. Danilewitz acknowledged a chicken-and-egg problem — do people who practice meditation and/or yoga regularly do so because their brains are already wired differently, or does yoga have direct neurophysiological impacts? 

Past studies have been small, sometimes with limited rigour and have not been able to fully take in the scope of yoga and meditation which are diverse. As such, there is still much research to be done. 

Danilewitz feels it is important that students have shown such interest to know more about their passions. Exploring the practice of yoga through neuroscience research offers a perspective to do just that.