stretching can enhance brain function

How Stretching can Enhance Brain Function

Scientists studying yoga practices have highlighted several benefits from taking part in regular dynamic stretching exercises.

Scientists studying yoga practices have highlighted several benefits from taking part in regular dynamic stretching exercises, linking the observed improvements to the increased creation of new cells in the hippocampus, a brain area involved in memory and mood. This increase in neuron development is being researched by Sandrine Thuret in her lab at King’s College London, where she studies adult neurogenesis, the process by which brains create new nerve cells. Neruogenesis is now thought of as the contributing factor for the improvement we see in learning and memory when participating in certain forms of excercise, learning and nutrition.

Yantra Yoga

As well as the usual benefits perceived from stretching such as increases in flexibility, stamina, muscle strength, motion range of limbs, joint lubrication, blood circulation and healing response, the dynamic stretching that physical trainers advise to athletes, helps to activate, or excite the central nervous system and attempts to improve more than sublety and balance. Yoga teachers also massage the inner organs through contortion and deep breating techniques, bringing stimulation to usually static systems of the body. By gaining a deeper understanding of physiology, we can help improve the control of our own bodies and promote the participation of stretching practices, and thus, improve our general mental and physical health. In addition to improving flexibility, stretching releases tension from our bodies, where muscles have contracted during periods of stress built up over time.  Stretching can reduce this tension, at the same time as calming the mind and attaining some of the recent medical improvements attributed to meditation and mindfulness.

Feeling Good

During a gentle routine of stretching exercises, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the brain, which has been proven in many studies to have a positive effect on your mood. Many people who suffer with depression and other psychological disorders are advised to stretch or exercise in order to encourage this chemical reaction and as little as 10-15 minutes a day of stretching can show improvements in mood and well-being. In addition to the release of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, exercise stimulates the brain plasticity, which creates the growth of new connections between cells in the brain, called neurons [1]. This in turn increases cognitive function, improving memory and decision making.

Through our subjective experiences in daily life, the concept of well-being is constantly evaluated in everything we do, consciously or not. Attributing numerous variables on life satisfaction, marital, economic and financial status, as we allow our emotions to play a part in our thought process. Combining physical movements with meditation, through ancient practices like yoga, unites the body and mind to a calm, stronger and ultimately peaceful platform from which we can self-actualise.

“We need a repeated discipline, a genuine training, in order to let go of our old habits of mind and to find and sustain a new way of seeing.” – Jack Kornfield

Although stretching has had mixed reports for its benefits pre-exercise, flexibility focuses on the ability to move our joints and muscles, improve blood-flow and allow oxygen to reach our cells [2]. Dynamic stretching, generally characterised by swinging, jumping or exaggerated movements, combined with static stretching, holding a stretch for a particular muscle for a period of time, is regularly followed by athletes as routine training and as part of an optimal warm-up [3].

stretching can enhance brain function
Tai Chi – improve balance and strength

As we begin to age our bodies dehydrate and our muscles begin to stiffen. We also condition our flexibility due to limited routine movement and find an increase in muscle pain as we near to middle age.

Staying active and subtle throughout our lives is a way to combat this conditioning, both physically and mentally. A recent study found that middle aged women who participated in Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art that concentrates on slow continuous movements, including light stretches, improved balance and strength, thereby reducing the risk of falls and lowering blood pressure [4]. Accumulating evidence from animal and human research, also shows exercise benefits learning and memory, which may reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, and could delay age-related cognitive decline.

Traditional Yantra Yoga practices breathing techniques have been and continue to be studied for improvement to cognitive and physical health. Breathing is an automatic, unconscious and essential element of our lives. As well as physiological, it is psychological and a conditioned, habitual behaviour. On a cellular level, breathing is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that builds up in the blood as we increase activity, requiring more oxygen, our heart rate increases as does our breathing rate. Emotionally, we are predisposed to particular innate responses, as a result of our genetic, environmental and life experiences. Our rate of breathing also responds according to our emotional state; if we are upset or angry our heart rate may increase and our breathing further increases. If breathing is unconsciously affected by our state of mind and health, then by becoming aware of our breathing and how it is affected by various conditions, situations, moods, and so on, we can reverse this relationship. If we can control our breathing, in a calm and meditative manner, we can keep ourselves in a positive, healthy and beneficial state of mind.

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh

In Tibetan Buddhist teachings, the element of air and breath are tied together through the word lung. Lung has several meanings; it not only describes breath, but the movement of air, known to us as wind, and has an additional meaning of ‘wind-energy’ [5]. According to Tibetan medicine, breath is part of an intricate system of wind-energy that regulates and supports the body’s heath. When all the elements of wind-energy are in balance, all the body’s basic systems work efficiently and we feel healthy. This is the optimal state of health that Yantra Yoga seeks to attain through practice.

stretching can enhance brain function
Tibetan medicine – wind-energy

‘Heart-wind’ is a phenomenon in Tibetan medicine that occurs when a build-up of wind-energy becomes excessive in the upper part of the lungs, usually through thoracic (chest) breathing, and the region around the heart and lungs becomes agitated and out of balance [6]. This can manifest in us emotionally and mentally in a number of ways; these feelings of agitation can make us feel impulsive, short-tempered, anxious or restless. It depends on the temperament of the individual as to how we experience heart-wind in our bodies. Nonetheless, maintaining our breathing through the abdomen, calmly and controlled keeps our wind-energy in balance, achieving a content and healthy state of mind.

Combining practices used in Western science for health such as stretching and exercise, with traditional Eastern yoga and breathing methods can help us attain a healthy, balanced state of mind for us spiritually, physically and mentally. For the benefit of ourselves and those around us, choosing to take part in gentle exercise, stretching and meditation daily and in short doses allows better efficiency of our time. Increased brain function begins the process of improvement that dissipates to the rest of the body; complementing our enhanced mind, body and spiritual health. I can’t think of a more encouraging symbiotic relationship with oneself.

“All parts of the body which have a function, if used in moderation and exercised in labors in which each is accustomed, become thereby healthy, well developed and age more slowly, but if unused they become liable to disease, defective in growth and age quickly.”
― Hippocrates


Molteni et al Voluntary exercise increases axonal regeneration from sensory neurons
Kokkonen et al Chronic Static Stretching Improves Exercise Performance
Nelson & Kokkonen Stretching Anatomy
Thornton, Sykes & Tang Health benefits of Tai Chi exercise: improved balance and blood pressure in middle-aged women
Rinpoche, Zangomo The Tibetan Yoga of Breath: Breathing Practices for Healing the Body and Cultivating Wisdom

Neurogenesis in the Striatum of the Adult Human Brain

All about running: synaptic plasticity, growth factors and adult hippocampal neurogenesis.
2013;15:189-210. doi: 10.1007/7854_2012_220.

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