Anyone who practices yoga regularly will tell you that yoga strengthens muscles, improves flexibility and balance, and reduces stress. Now a number of scientific studies have shown that a regular yoga practice also has a direct and measurable effect on the brain’s ability to remain sharp and focused at any age.
An experiment conducted by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that yoga “improves memory and focus better than moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise.” In an eight-week study of volunteers between the ages of 55 and 79, about half attended hatha yoga classes while the others participated in generic fitness classes. At the end of that time, the volunteers from the yoga group were better able to perform tasks involving information recall and mental flexibility while the control group showed no significant change in levels of cognitive performance.
How Does Yoga Affect Your Brain?
Yoga has long been lauded for its positive impact on emotional health–reducing feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress–but how does this ancient practice contribute to improved cognitive function?
There is a wide-spread misconception that yoga is just another fitness and weight-loss method.
In fact, the ancient techniques were created to help quiet and focus the mind, and modern science can explain why it keeps us mentally sharp.
It seems that yoga’s unique combination of physical poses and breathing techniques combined with mindfulness exercises creates a synergistic effect that activates neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change itself. Until recently it was believed that the brain could not create new neural cells, and that aging-related decline was inevitable and irreversible. As Norman Doidge explains in his book The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, scientists now know that certain areas of the brain can, in fact, generate fresh cells and create new neural pathways.
According to Dr. Loren Fishman, medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in New York City, yoga “thickens the layers of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain associated with higher learning, and increases neuroplasticity, which helps us learn new things.
What Should You Know Before Your First Yoga Class?
In order to gain the most benefits from a yoga practice, you’ll want to choose consistency over duration. It is better to engage in a regular (3-5 times a week) practice lasting from 15-60 minutes rather than a longer session that is practiced sporadically.
Experts also recommend that those who are new to yoga begin by taking classes with a qualified instructor before attempting to practice alone. It is important to learn and implement proper alignment and breathing techniqueS, since both are key components in safety and health.
These studies make it clear that we have far more control over our physical and mental health than was previously recognized. By incorporating a regular yoga practice into our lives, we can keep both the body and the mind fit and flexible at every stage of life.
Deborah-Zenha Adams (E-CYT) is a certified Silver Age Yoga instructor and a certified Silver Sneakers FLEX instructor. You can learn more about her at www.Deborah-Adams.com