While we've been aware of the immense health benefits of yoga, brain health is a new factor we're excited to learn more about. A recent research article published in Brain Plasticity examined the positive ways in which yoga can affect the brain.
This article synthesized 11 recent studies about yoga's effect on the brain, both structure and function. Each study used some form of brain-imaging technique such as MRIs to study brain differences in people who regularly practiced yoga and people who didn't.
As originally expected, researchers noticed many similarities between yoga's impact on the brain and studies examining aerobic exercise's impact on the brain. One area where this was found was with an increase in the hippocampus, which is involved with memory processing and has been known to shrink with age. Results also showed increases in the volume of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, both involved in overall brain function, emotion, and learning.
Not only did the yoga-practicing group show differences in the brain imaging, but they also performed better on cognitive tests and measures of emotional regulation.
When it came to regulating emotions, one of the big areas where yoga proved beneficial was stress relief. "The practice of yoga helps improve emotional regulation to reduce stress, anxiety and depression," says researcher Neha Gothe, Ph.D. "And that seems to improve brain functioning."
This research also opens up the possibility to study certain diseases affected by the parts of the brain identified as larger in yogis, like the hippocampus. Age-related and neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer's could potentially benefit from these types of studies.
Researchers say that more studies need to be done to confirm these results and recommend more large-scale experiments that would be able to engage participants in yoga for months, measuring changes in the brain and performance on similar cognitive tests.
Gothe hopes that these types of studies will offer more answers for what is behind the brain changes found in this research. "Yoga is not aerobic in nature, so there must be other mechanisms leading to these brain changes," she says. "So far, we don't have the evidence to identify what those mechanisms are."
For all you yogis out there, this research gives us another reason to keep practicing! Check out this at-home sequence you can do while home for the holidays this season.