If someone were to ask you why you do yoga, what would you say? Maybe you’d mention that yoga maintains bone health or helps you manage stress.
But would you talk about the brain? Not your emotions, but your literal brain? Well, guess what? New research suggests that practicing yoga regularly can change the brain in beneficial ways. Here are three ways yoga can help your brain:
1. Yoga protects the brain from the effects of aging
Beginning at the age of 60, the brain goes through cortical thinning, which means that the cortex - or outermost layer of the brain - get thinner. And, this can impact the brain’s ability to function. For example, if someone you love’s cerebral cortex is thinning due to age, that person may experience memory loss.
That’s a little frightening to read about but there is good news. Because you are a yogi, your yoga practice can help you combat the effects of aging on the brain.
Researchers at Duke University conducted a study that compared long-term yoga practitioners (who practiced for at least 45 minutes at a time, three to four times a week, for at least three years) to matched controls who reported no previous or current meditation or yoga practice. They found that long-term yoga practitioners had the following brain health advantages:
- Enhanced cognitive function coupled with enlarged brain structures associated with control.
- Significantly larger prefrontal regions, which are crucial to decision making.
- Greater gray matter in regions associated with attention, memory, and motor function in everyday tasks.
This study states that hypothetically, the intense cognitive and motor skill learning required when practicing yoga stimulates neuroplasticity. This means that the brain can rewire itself through experience and learning.
2. Yoga protects the brain from stress
The hippocampus is a part of the brain that is associated with memory, processing information, and emotion regulation. Scientists believe that stress can impact the hippocampus by shrinking its volume.
Yet, studies show that yoga can prevent the deterioration of the hippocampus caused by stress.
Stress also causes cellular inflammation. And, prolonged physical reactions to stress are harmful to the brain.
While a physical reaction to stress is useful in fight-or-flight situations, most stressful situations occurring today are psychological and last longer than fight-or-flight situations. Luckily, mind-body interventions, like yoga and meditation, can help reverse the effects of this type of stress.
3. Yoga promotes relaxation
According to a study conducted by Boston University, yoga helps your brain produce more GABA. GABA is a neurotransmitter that makes you feel relaxed.
Relaxation is a major benefit when it comes to brain health. People who practice relaxation techniques (such as yoga and meditation) often have stronger concentration, enhanced memory, and better problem-solving skills.
Here are three easy yoga poses specifically for relaxation:
- Extended puppy pose
- Cat cow pose
Caution: If you have neck problems or an injury, keep your neck in the original position - in line with your torso - instead of moving it with your spine.
- Reclining bound angle pose
When you do this pose for the first time, take the time to adjust your body position so that you can completely relax when you are in the pose. If the pose makes you tense or uncomfortable, use props. You may want to use one or more of the following props:
- One or more stiff, folded blankets to support your back
- A rolled blanket, hard pillows, or yoga blocks to support your knees
- A small pillow to support your neck
The brain is a critical part of your body, and its health can deteriorate due to natural aging or stress.
But yoga can buffer this deterioration and support your brain’s health. Remember: People who practice yoga also may have brain health advantages like stronger attention, memory, concentration, motor function, and problem-solving skills.
Plus, yoga helps alleviate stress. As evidenced by research, the relaxation response induced by yoga and meditation not only helps calm you in the present moment, but it can have lasting positive effects on your brain.
About Ocean Noah: Ocean is a content intern at Pretzel Kids yoga. Originally from Los Angeles, Ocean moved to San Francisco to study creative writing at San Francisco State University. She writes fiction, blog posts, and op-eds. Ocean is thrilled to write for Pretzel Kids, as her mother is a yogi too!