The case for yoga as a physical exercise is well made, but lately, neuroscientists are growing increasingly interested in the effects of yoga on brain health, or, yoga for your brain. See the NIH’s (National Institute of Health) systematic review of the current literature here. This is a summary from the NIH website:
“Collectively, the studies demonstrate a positive effect of yoga practice on the structure and/or function of the hippocampus, amygdala, prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks including the default mode network (DMN). The studies offer promising early evidence that behavioral interventions like yoga may hold promise to mitigate age-related and neurodegenerative declines as many of the regions identified are known to demonstrate significant age-related atrophy.”
It should be noted, however, that the type of yoga being researched is a more mindfulness-based approach than what may be available at your local gym.
WHAT DOES YOGA FOR YOUR BRAIN LOOK LIKE?
It’s not fast flow with music and mirrors. Those classes were really designed as cardio workouts. They resulted when Eastern Yoga collided with the Calfornia fitness scene in the 80’s and 90’s. That said, cardio is FANTASTIC for your brain, and you should definitely not skimp on cardio, but you don’t want to speed up and complicate yoga to the point where it’s no longer a mindfulness practice. That said, you don’t have to choose between yoga for your booty and yoga for your brain. You may have to find an alternative cardio though– or just practice more than one style!
Did you know an advanced yoga practitioner may only be breathing around SIX breaths/minute? There is an intense level of focus on that breath: how it sounds, how and where it moves through the body; hence, the breath is your playlist and music only detracts. Slow deep breathing keeps the body in a parasympathetic state (“rest and digest”) and steers clear of a sympathetic state “fight or flight”) –even in the difficult poses. It’s in the sympathetic state that healing can happen.
What we’re talking about is more “meditation in motion” –think Tai Chi, but with yoga poses. Sometimes known as “relaxed exertion” it puts the breaks on chronic stress that can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression/anxiety, and yes, brain degeneration. Your brain on yoga is a kind of “deglazing” of stress build-up in your body and brain (cortisol, adrenaline, etc) to relieve longheld tension and negativity for better mood, cognition, and immune response.
NOT TYPICAL LEFT-BRAIN
While choreographed vinyasa flow sequences engage the left brain, meditation-in-motion activates the increasingly marginalized right brain (thanks technology) and gives the left brain a rest. That way, when you do need to plan, judge, sequence, and analyze, the “computer part” of your mind is fresh. Productivity and creativity often spike after mindfulness-based practices. That’s why yoga classes are full of authors, artists, and creators of all stripes.
Allowing the right brain to come to the forefront enables you to hit the “pause” button and be free from the tyranny of linear time, to-do lists, other people’s problems, and typical left-brain chatter. When activated, you feel little urgency and life’s problems mysteriously vanish into the background.
FEEL GREAT FROM YOUR FIRST CLASS
You shouldn’t have to wait until after class to feel great; you should feel great in class, from the first time you attend. It’s shocking to me how stressful our culture makes working out: clipboards, BMI calculations, objectives, and outfits –uff dah!
We practice relaxed exertion to reduce built-up stress–and to avoid creating more! While your muscles will be challenged at first, yoga for your brain gives you time in between poses to center, breath, and just experience being in your body. This “integration” period is where you make all those neuroplasticity gains.
Why not consider downshifting your exercise a bit to an “innercise” model and you’ll be set for better overall wellness and less chance of injury? You’ll also capture the benefits of your brain on yoga–something you can’t do struggling to keep up in a room full of music and mirrors.
Health is wealth