For decades, scientists have known that aerobic exercise improves your brain function. Unfortunately, studies also show that to achieve those brain-boosting benefits, you must exercise vigorously, which, for many, is impossible.
However, new research hints that yoga may have similar benefits. This is hopeful for those who are not capable of performing vigorous exercises.
A research review published in the journal Brain Plasticity in December 2019, focused on 11 studies that examined the relationship between yoga practice and brain health – specifically improvements in memory loss and cognition. The studies showed that those who practiced yoga retained or even increased the size of their hippocampus. This is the structure in the brain responsible for memory and cognition. Typically this region of the brain decreases in size with age. It’s also a region that’s first affected by cognitive aging disorders such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Age-Related Memory Loss
The review was co-authored by Neha Gothe, an assistant professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“This yoga research is promising because yoga provides the same benefits that aerobic exercise does without the physical strain,” Gothe says. “It is more accessible for those who are unable to workout strenuously – like the elderly or injured.”
Each of the studies used brain-imaging techniques, such as MRI, to look at brain volume and function. All of the studies looked specifically at Hatha yoga, which combines body movements, meditation and breathing exercises.
“You will physically see the hippocampus is smaller as we age,” Gothe says. According to Gothe, these studies show that yoga helps battle age-related brain loss and even increases our ability to retain memory.
Five of the studies engaged individuals with no background in yoga practice in one or more yoga sessions per week over a period of 10 to 24 weeks, comparing brain health at the beginning and end of the intervention. The other studies measured brain differences between individuals who regularly practice yoga and those who don’t.
Use It or Lose It
Gothe explained that the more you exercise specific functions and regions of your brain, the better they operate. When you practice yoga, it demands you use the same neural pathways in your brain responsible for memory. Therefore, yoga conditions the memory center in your brain to operate sharply so you don’t lose that ability over time. This is an emerging field of study called cognitive training, which uses the same principle that if you want to improve your memory skills, you do memory tests or play memory games.
The hope is that if you use your memory, you don’t lose it.
Researchers are exploring whether mind-body therapies that engage both your brain and body such as yoga will have a similar effect. Yoga enables you to engage your brain by focusing on your breath, your body and awareness.
More research needs to be done before we know exactly what aspect of yoga practice – the body work, the breathe work or the meditation – helps with brain health.
“My sense is that it’s holistic – it is everything,” Carol Krucoff says. Krucoff is a yoga therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, co-director of the Integrative Yoga for Seniors teacher training and author of “Relax Into Yoga For Seniors.”
“You’re doing cognition, you will move your right leg and then your left leg, Krucoff says. “Sometimes we’ll move our right hand along with our left foot or our right foot and our left hand. You’re challenging your motor cortex and your cerebral cortex. You’re challenging yourself on so many levels. It’s a holistic discipline. There is focus, so you’re training your mind.”
Meditative Quality of Yoga
Jeff Browndyke, professor of psychiatry and surgery at Duke University, trains yoga therapists like Krucoff how to interact with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease and how to administer yoga to individuals with physical or cognitive impairment.
“If there is any plasticity offered to the brain as we age, it tends to be concentrated in the prefrontal lobes,” Browndyke says. “They are the areas that can be modifiable in terms of their functioning. We can, as we age, improve our attention, concentration or mental flexibility through training.”
According to Browndyke, people who practice yoga are typically more physically active, well-educated, often vegetarian and generally healthy. That makes it challenging to pinpoint what variable is causing brain benefits.
The meditative quality in yoga is similar to what is achieved in aerobic exercise. That mechanism is what Browndyke believes is causing these brain-health benefits.
“If I had to put my money on one of them, it would probably be the stress reduction component of it,” Browndyke says. “Aerobic exercise is the cheapest antidepressant you’ll ever find. What is good for your heart, is good for your mind. Because exercise increases perfusion to the brain, then you also get the endogenous opioids that go through the brain that give you that ‘runners high.'”
The research on brain function and yoga is very new, and better studies need to be done to understand it.
Lifestyle choices like yoga are preventative measures that can be most impactful for your brain health as you age. “The things we know we can change, in terms of reducing the risk for late-life decline or Alzheimer’s disease are in our power,” Browndyke says.
“So diet, exercise, social engagement, maintaining a good quality of life – these are all things that are not pharmacological. The drug company is not going to be able to sell it to you. These are the things we can move the needle on. If we can reduce the incidents or delay onset of Alzheimer’s by five years within the population, we can cut the incidents of that disease in half.”