Yoga’s Background: A Philosophy Lesson
Many of us know about yoga. We see it advertised everywhere; a cure for many ills. For many of us, yoga means only the mindful practice of movement sequences, a technique for flexibility and relaxation. However, yoga has a beautifully deep and rich history, and is much more than series of movements and posture holds.
The practice of yoga dates back many thousands of years to India. It is unknown when yoga originally emerged and where exactly it was developed however the first mention of yoga was in the Rigveda, one of the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. Veda is Sanskrit for “Knowledge” and the Vedas were collections of poems and hymns which, for hundreds of years, were transferred orally. Due to this, they are considered shruti: “what is heard”.
The Vedas are composed of different layers according to their chronological timeline. Yoga was further detailed in the Upanishads and in the Bhagavad Gita. The Upanishads (otherwise written as the Upanisads) were later Vedic texts and were the concluding portions of the Vedas. The Upanishads provided the philosophical and ontological beliefs that are still rooted within Hinduism today. They detail the importance of seeking unity with Brahman (the supreme self and ultimate reality) and achieving this through sixfold yoga: ‘restraint of breath, withdrawal of the senses, meditation, concentration, contemplation and absorption’.
The Bhagavad Gita, “The Song of the Lord”, is one of the most well-known Hindu texts and is considered smriti: “what is remembered”. The Bhagavad Gita details precisely how one should practice yoga:
“There taking his place on the seat, making his mind one pointed and controlling his thought and sense, let him practice yoga for the purification of the self.”
The principles of yoga were not designed for relaxation alone but to help free oneself from ego and to transcend what may deceive us including perception and the senses by unifying oneself with their own soul (Atman) and the universal soul (Brahman).
“But where the pure spiritual consciousness begins, free from self and stain, the ancient law of retaliation ceases; the penalty of sorrow lapses and is no more imposed. The soul now passes, no longer from sorrow to sorrow, but from glory to glory. Its growth and splendour have no limit. It passes from better, best.”The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, Book 4, section 6.3
It is widely held that practices of yoga not only lead to insight but can lead to almost superhuman powers. The Yoga Sutras describe that with true and proper attention, one may achieve knowledge of other universes and the arrangement of the stars as well as gaining the ‘strength of an elephant’ and celestial hearing (“divine hearing”).
So, having provided you with a brief history of yoga and its true powers, I now turn from philosophy to science to ask:
Does yoga really give us superpowers?
What the Science Says
Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of Current Literature
While yoga may not actually give us superhuman abilities according to the scientific literature, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that yoga has a lot of powerful and important benefits to our brain health.
A 2019 systematic review looked into the effects of yoga on the brain. It included studies examining yoga postures, breathing exercises and meditative exercises and the effects on brain structure and function. The review found strong evidence that yoga practices can change the anatomy of the brain. It has been previously established in the literature that physical activity, cardiovascular fitness and mindfulness all have neuroprotective effects, that is, they have protective effects against neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia. Yoga, as noted by the review, is a practice combining these three elements and therefore it was reasonable to find that yoga also had neuroprotective benefits.
Regarding brain structure, the hippocampus is an area of the brain crucial for learning and memory processes. This area was shown to be greater in volume in those who practiced yoga. Higher grey matter volume was also observed in many other areas of the brain including in the frontal, limbic, temporal, occipital and cerebellar regions. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (relevant for executive functions including selective attention and working memory) and the amygdala (relevant for fight-or-flight and attaching meaning to emotion) were of particular note to this review. They suggest from the evidence that those who practice yoga regularly have a better ability to resolve emotional interference when undergoing difficult or demanding situations. The authors write “these findings may indicate that yoga practitioners selectively recruit neurocognitive resources to disengage from negative emotional information processing…demonstrating overall neurocognitive resource efficiency”.
Another area, the anterior cingulate cortex, important due to its connectivity to other brain areas in order to process sensory, motor, emotional and cognitive information was also of particular interest to the review. Of the studies included in the review, one found that following a 12-week yoga intervention, verbal memory performance was correlated with increased connectivity between many areas of the brain and the anterior cingulate cortex.
Taken all together, the results from the review suggest a neuroprotective effect of yoga as well as an increased efficiency of the brain. One problem with the research however is that the studies of yoga differ considerably from one another. There are many schools of yoga and many different ways to practice it. Many of the studies done are on trained yoga practitioners who had a minimum of 9.3 years practicing. Similarly, the review doesn’t delineate whether any one of the three elements of yoga (physical exercise, breathing exercises or meditation) are any more important for the higher grey matter content or increased functional connectivity.
What can be said however is that while, from our current understanding, yoga may not give us ‘superhuman abilities’, it does allow us better brain health overall both for the present and for the future. Yoga can seemingly make our brains more efficient, and less responsive to negative emotional events. It can also help protect us from age-related diseases that affect the brain. The literature dedicated to the neuroscience of yoga is ever growing and is an exciting area to keep an eye on, and who knows, one day, we may find that yoga does give us superpowers after all.
 Neha P. Gothe and others, ‘Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature’, Brain Plasticity (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 5.1 (2019), 105–22 <https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-190084>.