Meditation, Yoga have long been heralded as having a wide range of immediate and long term benefits and as science delves deeper into the mechanics of the metaphysical, evidence continues to build in their favor. These practices have been shown to reduce stress, increase happiness, enhance learning, memory, and cognition and even enhance immune system function and reduce risk of heart diseases. However, the understanding of exactly how these changes take place in the mind and body has been somewhat elusive.
Researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center trained 26 adult subjects without prior experience in various relaxation techniques such as meditation, mantra (the repetition of ‘sacred’ sounds) and mindfulness practice. Participants were given blood tests immediately preceeding and immediately following 20 minutes of self directed practice. By looking at 22,000 different gene sequences, researchers were able to identify and measure any changes that occurred during/after practicing various relaxation techniques (meditation, mantra, mindfulness).
The results were nothing short of remarkable. All of the 26 participants showed measurable changes in the genes that researchers have identified as being responsible for or related to relaxation (reduced cell energy production), aging, metabolism and even insulin response. These changes were shown to be indicative of a reduced stress response and initiated activity in telomere maintenance genes, meaning that the meditation, mantra and mindfulness practice may have actually initiated changes in the body that led to repair of DNA.
Importantly, this study demonstrates that during one session of RR [relaxation response] practice rapid changes in gene expression (on the order of minutes) are induced that are linked to a select set of biological pathways among both long-term and short-term practitioners that might explain the health benefits of RR practices. These genes have been linked to pathways responsible for energy metabolism, electron transport chain, biological oxidation and insulin secretion. These pathways play central roles in mitochondrial energy mechanics, oxidative phosphorylation and cell aging. We hypothesized that upregulation of biological oxidation gene sets may enhance efficiency of oxidation-reduction reactions and thereby reduce oxidative stress.
Furthermore, the changes were not only observed in novice practitioners. The study also used a group of advanced meditators as a control group, measuring their blood both before and after practice as well. The results demonstrated the the experienced practitioners experienced even more pronounced and immediate results than the novice group. The researchers also noted that advanced practitioners also had unique genetic patterns of expression compared to the amateur group, suggesting that long term practice has different effects than it does initially, although both groups had plenty of overlap.
Analysis of the transcriptome data revealed that temporal modulation of gene expression occurred in both short- (N2) and long-term (M) practitioners as compared to novices (N1). Long-term RR practitioners exhibited more pronounced and consistent immediate gene expression changes as compared to short-term practitioners. Some genes were modified only in long-term practitioners (Long-term patterns), whereas others were modified in both short- and long-term practitioners with a greater intensity in the latter (Progressive patterns).
This research is groundbreaking because it shows that yoga can have a dramatic effect on the human body. It can change you right down to the genetic level. It demonstrates that yoga, and in particular yogic breathing, pranayama, has an instantaneous positive effect on how our genes work and express. This may be one of the reasons we feel so well after a yoga class, and why the regular practice of yoga supports ongoing growth and improvement in health and well being.