There’s lots of evidence to suggest exercise is good for your brain. But what about yoga?
Well now we know. According to scientists writing in the journal Brain Plasticity, yoga has a similar effect on many of the same brain structures and functions as aerobic exercise. In a review of 11 studies that looked at the link between yoga and brain health, the researchers found brain scans of people who practise yoga show changes associated with better performance in cognitive tests as well as emotional regulation.
“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,” says professor Neha Gothe of the University of Illinois.
“For example, we see increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice,” adds Gothe, who explains that similar increases in hippocampus size over time have been shown in many other studies investigating the brain effects of aerobic exercise. The hippocampus is known to shrink as you get older, and according to Gothe it’s the structure that’s first affected in someone who has dementia.
Who wants a bigger amygdala?
The report’s co-author, professor Jessica Damoiseaux of Wayne State University, says they also found there may be other important brain changes associated with practising yoga regularly. For instance, the amygdala – a brain area involved in emotional regulation – tends to be larger in people who practise yoga than those who don’t. Other brain areas that have been shown to be larger or more efficient in yoganistas include the prefrontal cortex, the cingulate cortext and brain networks such as the default mode network.
If you’re not sure what that all means, Damoiseaux explains: “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. The default mode network is a set of brain regions involved in thinking about the self, planning and memory.” Meanwhile, the cingulate cortex – like the amygdala – is part of the limbic system, which is involved in emotional regulation, learning and memory.
How does it all work?
Well that’s a good question, and the truth is researchers don’t really know.
“Yoga is not aerobic in nature, so there must be other mechanisms leading to these brain changes,” says Gothe. “So far, we don’t have the evidence to identify what those mechanisms are.”
Perhaps it has something to do with the way yoga helps people manage stress. “The practice of yoga helps improve emotional regulation to reduce stress, anxiety and depression,” she adds. “And that seems to improve brain functioning.”