New Study Reveals How Yoga Affects the Brain
Scientists have known for decades that aerobic exercise strengthens the brain and contributes to the growth of new neurons, but few studies have examined how yoga affects the brain, yet recent evidence states that yoga enhances many of the same brain structures and functions that benefit from aerobic exercise.
The review focused on 11 studies on the relationship between yoga practice and brain health.
Five of the studies engaged individuals with no background in yoga practice in one or more yoga sessions per week over a period of 10-24 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.
Each of the studies used brain-imaging techniques such as MRI, functional MRI or single-photon emission computerized tomography.
All involved Hatha yoga, which includes body movements, meditation and breathing exercises.
“From these 11 studies, we identified some brain regions that consistently come up, and they are surprisingly not very different from what we see with exercise research,” said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Neha Gothe, who led the research.
“For example, we see increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice,” Gothe added.
Many studies looking at the brain effects of aerobic exercise have shown a similar increase in hippocampus size over time, she said.
The hippocampus is involved in memory processing and is known to shrink with age.
Larger Amygdala & Prefrontal Cortex
Other findings showed that the amygdala, a brain structure that contributes to emotional regulation, tends to be larger in yoga practitioners than in their peers who do not practice yoga.
The prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks such as the default mode network also tend to be larger or more efficient in those who regularly practice yoga.
“The prefrontal cortex, a brain region just behind the forehead, is essential to planning, decision-making, multitasking, thinking about your options and picking the right option,” co-author Jessica Damoiseaux said.
“The default mode network is a set of brain regions involved in thinking about the self, planning and memory,” she added.
The Cingulate Cortex
Like the amygdala, the cingulate cortex is part of the limbic system, a circuit of structures that plays a key role in emotional regulation, learning and memory.
The studies also find that the brain changes seen in individuals practicing yoga are associated with better performance on cognitive tests or measures of emotional regulation.
Gothe suspects that enhancing emotional regulation is key to yoga’s positive effects on the brain, especially as studies link stress in humans and animals to shrinkage of the hippocampus and poorer performance on tests of memory.
She emphasized how yoga helps people with or without anxiety disorders manage their stress.