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What Yoga Does to Your Brain

Research finds the practice may affect brain structure

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Scientists have been telling us for years how beneficial yoga is for our mental and physical health, but what does yoga actually do to the brain to achieve these benefits?

A 2019 review of 11 studies, published in the journal Brain Plasticity, looked at how yoga may physically change brain structures. It offers promising evidence that regularly engaging in this popular mind-body practice may help slow 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,” said study coauthor Neha Gothe when the research was released. Now an associate professor in the department of physical therapy, movement and rehabilitation at Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Gothe has continued to study yoga’s effects on the brain and says the evidence for its benefits continues to grow. 

Yoga’s popularity in the United States has been on an uptick. The number of U.S. adults doing yoga jumped from 22.4 million in 2012 to 35.2 million in 2017, according to figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2018.

The studies analyzed by Gothe and associate professor Jessica Damoiseaux of Wayne State University’s Institute of Gerontology 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.

Five of the studies looked at brain changes that occurred in people who had never practiced yoga and then began doing one or more yoga sessions per week for 10 to 24 weeks. The other studies measured brain differences between those who regularly did yoga and those who didn’t. Participants in most of the studies did Hatha yoga, which includes traditional yoga poses, 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. For example, increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice were similar to those seen in studies of aerobic exercise. 

The hippocampus is crucial to 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.

Gothe and Damoiseaux also saw in the studies that the amygdala, a brain structure that helps us control our emotions, tended to be larger in people who regularly did yoga compared with those who didn’t. 

A separate 2021 review covered six randomized controlled trials of yoga’s effects on cognitive function in healthy adults age 60 and older. The authors noted that four of the trials reported “significant positive effects” on cognition.

And among 82 inactive adults ages 65 to 85, those who added three sessions of yoga or aerobic exercise to their week showed improvements in verbal fluency test scores, while the group that remained inactive did not, according to a 2023 report in Clinical Interventions in Aging.

Could combining aerobic exercise with yoga be even more beneficial to brain health in older adults than doing only one of these activities? It’s an intriguing area for further study, Gothe said. 

“Both [kinds of exercise] can independently impact the brain, and their combined effects need to be investigated in the future,” Gothe said.

Gothe suspects that yoga’s ability to calm and relax people may be key to its positive effects on the brain. She more recently coauthored a review to understand the relationship between yoga and cognition in healthy older adults that was published in 2023 in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. Long-term yoga practice appears to improve markers of chronic stress and inflammation, all helpful for cognition.

To learn more, Gothe and colleagues have launched the SAY Exercise study, comparing the effects of six months of regular stretching and toning, aerobic exercise or yoga on the cognitive and physical health of 168 adults 55 to 79. It is expected to wrap up in 2025.

What you can do:

  • 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 an in-person yoga class or online classes at home. If taking yoga classes at a studio or community center is a challenge, check out the yoga videos available 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.

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