The word “Yoga” means “union”. Yoga refers to the union not as an idea, a philosophy or as a concept that you imbibe. It is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines originated in ancient India. One of the amazing facts about it is that yoga strengthens the brain. But, before we get there, let’s learn about yoga first.
Today, yoga is one of the most popular forms of exercise around the world. Whether you prefer Ashtanga, Bikram, Kundalini, or any other style, new research reveals another reason to make yoga a part of your routine for life and that is, yoga has the power to protect the brain against the cognitive decline of old age.
Yoga had been practiced in the East for centuries before making its way to the West in the mid-1800s. Some evidence suggests Henry David Thoreau was likely the first American to practice yoga. By the end of the century, yoga masters such as Swami Vivekananda began traveling to raise funds for their communities and share their culture and religion with the world.
It took a little while to catch on, but by the mid-twentieth century, yoga became popular among the westerners for many benefits.
Yoga has been associated with physical benefits like improved flexibility, metabolism, and muscle strength as well as mental health benefits like stress reduction and better focus. Beyond individual practice, yoga is also seen as a boon to public health, as it can be adapted for any age or ability level and can build a sense of community.
Yoga Strengthens the Brain
Many people do not have the physical capacity or taste for running or other similarly vigorous activities. So for the new study, the researchers decided to test whether yoga, a relatively mild, meditative activity, could alter people’s brains and fortify their ability to think.
The researchers recruited 29 middle-aged and older adults, who were anxious about the state of their memories. During evaluations, the women were found to have mild cognitive impairment, a mental condition that can be a precursor to eventual dementia.
The volunteers also underwent a sophisticated type of brain scan that tracks how different parts of the brain communicate with one another.
The participants were divided into two groups. One group enrolled in a brain-training program consisting of mental exercises for one hour per week. They were also asked to practice at home for 15 minutes a day.
The second group participated in a Kundalini yoga class for one hour per week. They were also taught Kirtan Kriya meditation, which involves the use of mantras and fluid hand movements. They were asked to practice this meditation at home for 15 minutes each day.
After 12 weeks, all subjects again underwent cognitive tests and brain scans. Overall, all participants had improved to some degree, but the yoga group not only fared slightly better on memory tests, they also reported improvements in their mood.
Among the latest discoveries, a team of scientists in Brazil recently studied 21 elderly female yoga enthusiasts, who averaged 14.9 years of experience. They found the women to have a greater cortical thickness in the parts of the brains associated with cognitive functions such as attention and memory than a group of 21 of their non-yoga practicing peers. The research was published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, suggests that practicing yoga could help ward off the decline of cognitive abilities as we get older.
As we age, the structure and functionality of our brains change and this often leads to cognitive decline, including impaired attention or memory. One such change in the brain involves the cerebral cortex becoming thinner, which scientists have shown is correlated with cognitive decline.
Why Yoga is Beneficial to Brain
Twenty minutes of Hatha Yoga improves your brain function (speed and accuracy of mental processing) to a greater degree than 20 minutes of aerobic exercise (jogging).
Yoga helps improve mental health, including psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety, attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia. Some of the studies suggest it can have a similar effect to antidepressants and psychotherapy. It helps improve teenagers’ emotional resilience and ability to manage anger. But most importantly, yoga strengthens the brain in the old age.
By improving stress-related imbalances in your nervous system, yoga can help relieve a range of symptoms found in common mental health disorders. Researchers also believe it can be helpful for conditions like epilepsy, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and PTSD by increasing brain chemicals like gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA).
All exercises are arguably good for health, but according to the researchers, yoga’s unique combination of physical and mental practices, including meditation appears to have greater benefits than other types of activity. While further research needs to be done to know the full story of how yoga impacts the brain, the study provides new merit to incorporating a yoga practice into any stage of life.
Yoga strengthens the brain in the old age as a mindless practice. Try it out yourself and get the best results.