A review of the scientific evidence finds that yoga benefits many of the same brain structures and functions as aerobic exercise.
Although we’ve long known that cardiovascular exercise improves brain health and stimulates the growth of new neurons, we’ve known less about how yoga affects the brain. Now, a review of the research suggests that yoga may enhance many of the same brain structures and functions that are boosted by aerobic activity.
The review, published in the journal Brain Plasticity, examined 11 studies that tested the relationship between Hatha yoga practice, (which combines movement, meditation and breathing exercises) and brain health using brain-imaging techniques like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Five of the studies included people with no yoga experience who were asked to practice yoga at least once per week for 10-24 weeks. Researchers then compared participants’ brain function before and after the intervention. The remaining six studies looked at differences between the brains of people who regularly practiced yoga, and the brains of those who didn’t.
Results of the review showed that the brain regions impacted by yoga are similar to those affected by physical exercise. Of significant importance is the link between yoga practice and an increase in the volume of the hippocampus - a key player in memory processing known to shrink with age and chronic stress. Loss of hippocampal mass and function is strongly related to the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia.
Research also showed that the amygdala, an important structure in the processing and regulation of emotion, was larger in yoga practitioners. In addition, key regions such as the prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks such as the default mode network appeared to be bigger and/or more efficient in people who practiced yoga regularly.
The prefrontal cortex is known for its pivotal role in reasoning, planning, decision-making, flexible thinking, and self-regulation. The cingulate cortex, part of the limbic system, is a network of structures that help with emotional regulation, learning and memory. Lastly, the default mode network includes several brain regions related to planning, memory, and thinking about the self.
Changes in these brain regions also appeared to be related to functional benefits. Specifically, the studies found that those who regularly practiced yoga also performed better on tests of emotion regulation and cognitive functioning.
It is important to note that research into the effects of yoga on brain health is still relatively new, so we’re not entirely sure why its effects parallel those of aerobic exercise. One potential explanation is that yoga may reduce stress, and chronic stress is consistently linked to shrinking of the hippocampus and deficits in brain function. Yoga practice can also improve how we regulate our emotions, which can also boost mental health and build stress resilience.
The researchers agree that there is a lot more to be known regarding how and why yoga may be beneficial for brain health, and more well-designed studies will be needed to better understand why this occurs.