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Research: Yoga can improve your mental health.

Byline: Sarah Terry-Cobo

OKLAHOMA CITY Doing a downward dog pose might do more than just clear one's mind.

Regular yoga and meditation practice can actually rewire the brain and can reduce the effects of aging, said psychiatry researcher Sara Lazar. Some Oklahoma health centers take a holisticapproach to treat depression, anxiety, post-traumaticstress disorder and cancer, incorporating yoga and other Eastern practices with Western medicine.

Lazar,who conducts research at MassachusettsGeneral Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, discussed her two decades' worth of research and studies about yoga and meditation and the effects those practices have for the human brain. She spoke Saturday at the fifth annual YogaFest OKC at the Civic Center.

She said she was initially skeptical about yoga's purported benefits. She was training for the Boston Marathon 25 years ago and sustained knee and spinal injuries. Her physical therapist recommended that she stay in shape for the race by stretching instead of running. So she turned to the ancient practice.

"Back then I had a low opinion of yoga," Lazar said. "I thought it was all magic, power pyramids and tinfoil hats."

But after a couple of weeks of regular practice, she discovered the effects were much more profound than how she felt physically. So she switched her postdoctoral research to neuroscience.

She learned about an eight-week program called mindfulness-basedstress reduction, developed by Jon Kabut-Zinn in the 1970s for chronic pain management. Mindful meditation generally includes sitting in a quiet space and focusing on one's breath and present physical sensations, avoiding racing thoughts.

Research shows psychiatric conditions worsen other illnesses. And patients who haveheart disease, cancer or liver disease are also likely to have depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia. Patients who participated in Kabut-Zinn's clinics and practiced 40 minutes of mindfulness daily reported they had less stress. Doctors also found decreased cortisol levels, the stress hormone, and diminished levels of other biomarkers in patients' bloodstreams.

She followed that research to see how the brain's architecture responded to similar meditation and yoga practices. Lazar found for a 50-year-old meditator, the prefrontal cortex, the problem-solving part of the brain that shrinks with age, was as well-preserved as a typical 25-year-old's prefrontal cortex.

"We also recruited long-term yoga practitioners, where there was some decline with age, the difference between them and the control group was significant," Lazar said. "(Yoga) preserves IQ with age."

A follow-up study found that practicing yogaregularly for just eight weeks showed improvements in brain structure, including the reduction of the mind-wandering part of the brain, the posterior cingulate.

"This is the part of the brain that gets obliterated with Alzheimer's disease, that is just intense mind-wandering," Lazar said.

The hippocampus, the brain region that regulates memory and emotions, got smaller in people with depression, PTSD and Alzheimer's, suggesting an improvement for people with those diagnoses.

Several Oklahoma health centers offer holistic approaches. Integris offers acupuncture for its cancer patientsand has the James L. Hall Jr. Center for Mind and Body dedicated to treating the whole person. Cancer Treatment Centers of America encourages patients undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer to take yoga to reduce pain. The national chain has a location inTulsa.

Oklahoma's VA Hospital offers a once-weekly yoga class for veterans, many of whom were referred by their doctors and have been diagnosed with PTSD.

Lazar said mindfulness-based meditation alone isn't as effective as talk therapy for some patients with depression. But in combination, the effects of yoga and meditation can last for years or months afterward.

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Publication:Journal Record (Oklahoma City, OK)
Geographic Code:1U7OK
Date:Sep 18, 2018
Words:615
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