New research does suggest that practicing yoga affects some of the same structures in the brain that are enhanced by aerobic exercise. An investigation from the University of Illinois published in December 2019 reviewed earlier research on the links between yoga and brain health and found increases in the volume of the hippocampus, a brain area involved in memory processing. In addition, the amygdala, which contributes to emotional regulation, was larger in people who practice yoga compared to those who don’t. Other areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex also tend to be larger or more efficient in yoga practitioners. The studies reviewed used brain-imaging techniques such as MRIs, and they all focused on hatha yoga, which includes body postures, breathing exercises, and meditation.
Researcher Jessica Damoiseaux, of Wayne State University, noted in a press release describing the study that the prefrontal cortex “is essential to planning, decision-making, multitasking, thinking about your options and picking the right option.”
Five of the studies the researchers reviewed looked at volunteers with no yoga background who engaged in one or more sessions per week over 10 to 24 weeks. The investigators compared brain health among these individuals at the beginning and end. The other studies measured brain differences between people who already practice yoga regularly and those who don’t.
In addition to the beneficial brain changes seen, they found that people who practiced yoga performed better on cognitive tests and measures of emotional regulation than those who didn’t.
Study leader Neha Gothe, a professor of kinesiology and community health, commented that since yoga is not aerobic in nature “there must be other mechanisms leading to the brain changes” but “so far, we don’t have the evidence to identify what those mechanisms are.” She said she suspects that “enhancing emotional regulation is a key to yoga’s positive effects on the brain. Studies link stress in humans and animals to shrinkage of the hippocampus and poorer performance on tests of memory.”
The findings of the new study tell us even more about yoga’s positive effects and its potential for expanding the brain and improving its function. We’ve long known that yoga can improve muscle tone, flexibility, and balance as well as feelings of calm and emotional and spiritual balance. It is one of the best forms of nonaerobic exercise.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Neha P. Gothe et al, “Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature,” Brain Plasticity, December 26, 2019, DOI: 10.3233/BPL-190084