partial body image of a person in a seated yoga pose

Yoga and the Brain: How Does Yoga Practice Boost Your Brain Health?

Brain health and wellness is a top-of-mind topic for many people. Complementary health approaches, such as yoga, may provide a boost to your brain health.  Research findings have suggested potential health benefits from the physical practice of yoga, including a positive effect on both structure and function within areas of the brain. 

Furthermore, reducing stress may enhance the overall benefit to the body and brain.  The breath regulation component of yoga can serve as a primary stress-reduction technique.

Yoga may be the key brain wellness activity that you need now!

Researchers who have studied the health benefits of yoga have used the following identifying criteria:

  • yoga postures (physical poses and movement)
  • yoga-based breathing exercises
  • yoga-based meditative exercises

Yoga practice is a form of physical activity.  It is a physical health practice to nurture musculoskeletal and other internal regulatory systems.  The strength of the effects may vary, but yoga and brain wellness seem to have compelling links.  

People who practice yoga may also be more physically active in general. 

According to surveys conducted by Yoga Journal, people who consistently practice yoga may also be more likely to be physically active and have greater overall strength and flexibility in the body.  

Meanwhile, age is considered the biggest risk factor in degenerative brain conditions.  Yet, current research suggests that age-related cognitive decline could be mediated through lifestyle health interventions.  Physical activity is one of the primary factors in these lifestyle health recommendations.

Physical activity has notable benefits for brain health, including memory and mental clarity.  Furthermore, active physical routines, such as dance, could increase neuroplasticity in the brain.  Research has also suggested that exercise may lower the risk of dementia (or potentially lessen the adverse effects).

Other primary benefits from physical activity include 1) an influence on regulating inflammation levels in the body and 2) improved cardiovascular health.  Each of these factors plays a clinical role in brain health.  

Although studies on the exact relationships are still underway, chronically elevated levels of inflammation may contribute to cognitive decline.  Scientists are still trying to understand just how much inflammation is too much for brain impairments.  

While poor cardiovascular health, a key indicator of metabolic syndrome, can contribute to excessive levels of chronic inflammation.  Researchers have also observed links between metabolic syndrome and inflammation with depressive states.

Chronic stress may also impact the brain. 

Excess levels of chronic stress have been described as an adaptation to disease, including health conditions that impair the brain.  Chronic persistent stress may indirectly rewire the brain by shifting how the nervous system responds to various events or activities in life.

Yet, the adverse effects of stress on the brain may be reversible.  When it comes to stress, it’s highly relevant to 1) first identify your sources of stress and, then, 2) what triggers stress for you.  (A fundamental health coach tip!)  

Practices like mindfulness-based stress reduction and yoga could help calm an overactive nervous system response.

Research has also suggested that yoga paired with mindfulness training may result in a greater likelihood of favorable heart rate variability (HRV) regulation.  It could also contribute to better coping mechanisms.

Stress and mental health are also distinctly intertwined.  To various degrees, yoga has been associated with improvements in states of anxiety and depression.  Yoga practices have also been studied as a potential modality to treat mental health conditions, such as depression.  

There may be more scientific support for the connections between yoga and depression versus anxiety, but each area has been studied.  From the lens of both brain health and behavioral studies, yoga as a modality to support mental health conditions shows promise.  (Using yoga as a treatment may be called yoga therapy). 

Other potential psychological benefits of yoga include improved self-regulation and boosted mood or feelings of positive well-being.

Yoga practices paired with mindfulness-based meditation could enhance the overall benefit to the brain. 

Mindfulness practices, including mindfulness-based meditation, could support a range of mental health conditions. Breathing techniques and meditation are age-old practices but have captured greater interest from neuroscientists in more recent years.  

According to Dr. Tom O’Bryan, a well-recognized integrative health practitioner, meditative practices may increase BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).  Increasing BDNF could lead to a boost in memory and learning new skills as we age.  Other researchers have attributed meditation to lessen the effects of an aging brain.

Meditative practices have also been associated with improvements in attention, concentration, presence, and clearer thought patterns (i.e. mental clarity).  Meditation may also contribute to better sleep patterns.  Sleep quality is yet another primary component to consider in overall brain health and wellness.

Ultimately, yoga and meditation may help your brain work better due to the potential benefits to cognitive function and mood.

Are there other things to know about your health and yoga?

There are other influential components of yoga that may link to factors associated with a healthy brain.

Yoga may also contribute to a “state of change.”  Why does this matter?  Or, what the heck does this mean?

In behavioral health sciences, there is a concept of a set point, which can assess overall emotional well-being, including your level of happiness.  A set point encompasses a combination of genetics and life experiences.  Gaining further awareness for your set point can help you set realistic goals in health behavior change.  It can also help you assess any gaps or barriers that you may face.

Some health professionals believe that the relaxation, body awareness, and mental concentration that yoga provides can help catalyze overall health behavior change.  Furthermore, this may contribute to a calmer focus in the mind and a greater sense of self-awareness.

Behavior change methodologies can be leveraged to set up healthy habitsOnce a behavior is habitual, it takes less brain power and can free up your mental space to focus on more pressing tasks or decisions.  

Potential support for behavior change and healthy habit formation represents some of the less tangible benefits of yoga practice.  Yet, these areas could be well worth considering for an overall happy, healthy brain!

Finally, practicing yoga doesn’t need to be expensive.  It’s pretty much everywhere these days and available through multiple delivery methods.  It’s also modifiable based on your skill level and schedule.

Attending some live sessions where a trained instructor can provide recommendations for form, posture, and rhythm will be relevant.  However, once a core understanding of yoga practice has been obtained, it’s relatively easy to practice at home, in a hotel room, or even outside.

If you are new to yoga practice, these 10 tips from Yoga Journal for beginners to yoga may help.  Meanwhile, our friends at Healthline do not disappoint with this more comprehensive guide to yoga.

Photo by JD Mason on Unsplash


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