Scientists have been telling us for years how beneficial yoga is for our mental and physical health, but what does yoga actually do to our brain to achieve these benefits?
A new analysis that looked at how yoga may physically change brain structures offers promising evidence that regularly doing this popular mind-body practice may help reduce age-related mental decline.
“It appears that regular yoga practice can impact brain health and maintain or potentially improve cognitive function and prevent age-related mental decline among middle-aged and older adults,” study coauthor Neha Gothe, an assistant professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in an email.
Yoga’s popularity in the United States has been steadily growing among all ages. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of Americans doing yoga jumped by nearly 60 percent, from 22.4 million in 2012 to 35.2 million in 2017. It is now the most commonly used complementary health approach among adults, according to the latest government figures. In a recent national survey, nearly 90 percent said yoga helped them reduce stress.
To explore the latest evidence of yoga’s effects on the brain, Gothe, along with assistant professor Jessica Damoiseaux of Wayne State University’s Institute of Gerontology, analyzed 11 recent studies that used brain scans to examine the relationship between yoga practice and brain health.
Five of the studies looked at brain changes that occurred in people who had never practiced yoga and then began doing it regularly, while the other studies measured brain differences between those who regularly do yoga and those who don’t.
The studies that looked at nonyoga practitioners had participants do one or more yoga sessions per week for 10 to 24 weeks, then compared their brain health at the beginning and end of the time period.
All of the studies used brain-imaging technology, such as MRIs, to track the changes occurring in regions of the brain involved in memory, learning, decision-making, emotional control and other mental skills. Participants in all the studies did Hatha yoga, the form most associated with yoga, which includes basic body movements, meditation and breathing exercises.
The researchers found that the changes in brain structure from doing yoga are similar to those that occur from doing aerobic exercise, such as walking or bicycling, even though yoga is not an aerobic exercise.
“For example, we see increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice,” similar to changes in hippocampus size seen in studies of aerobic exercise, Gothe said in a statement. The hippocampus plays a critical role in learning and memory processing and is known to shrink with age. “It is also the structure that is first affected in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” Gothe said.
Could combining aerobic exercise with yoga be even more beneficial to brain health in older adults than doing only one? It’s an intriguing area of further study, Gothe said.
“The study did not examine the combined effects of aerobic activity and yoga. However, there is now evidence that both aerobic exercise, especially moderate to vigorous intensity, can impact the aging brain and help with remembering information and memory. Both [kinds of exercise] can independently impact the brain and their combined effects need to be investigated in the future,” she added.
The studies the two researchers analyzed also point to other important brain changes seen specifically in regular yoga practitioners. For example, the amygdala, a brain structure that helps with controlling our emotions, tends to be larger in those who regularly do yoga compared with those who don’t.
Gothe suspects that yoga’s ability to calm and relax people may be key to yoga’s positive effects on the brain.
The researchers say more in-depth studies of yoga’s benefits are needed. They recommend larger studies that follow participants doing yoga for months and could compare brain changes and performance on mental skills tests with the effects of other types of exercise.
• First check with your doctor. As with any exercise regimen, be sure to check with your doctor before trying yoga, especially if you suffer from any chronic condition or have been very inactive.
• Try yoga at home. If taking yoga classes at a studio or community center is inconvenient, check out the yoga videos available online. Staying Sharp has several videos illustrating yoga poses including beginner down dog, beginner cobra pose, side plank pose and dancer pose. The YMCA offers eight free yoga videos, including beginner, gentle and chair yoga. The popular Silver Sneakers exercise program for older adults has a “7-Minute Workout for Older Adults” video online.
• Try adaptive yoga. Those with limited mobility can still do yoga through adaptive practices. In chair yoga, all the movements are done seated. Water yoga, done in a swimming pool, can help those needing a low-impact exercise that doesn’t place extra pressure on joints. —Candy Sagon