If you practice yoga, you probably know that it increases your flexibility, strengthens your muscles and improves your circulation. Yoga also benefits your brain in a variety of ways that even other kinds of exercise do not. Here are seven brain-boosting benefits of yoga documented by neuroscientists.
When researchers asked exercisers to perform simple cognitive tests before and after working out, they discovered that people who did yoga performed better than participants who did not exercise and people who did other types of exercise, such as aerobics classes and walking.
Tip: Upcoming test, big presentation, or important meeting with the boss? Give yourself an extra half hour in the morning to fit in a shortened yoga routine to sharpen your wits. To get the full cognitive benefits, try to incorporate all the key aspects of yoga into your practice, even if it’s a bit of a mini session: breathing, flexibility, strength, relaxation, and mind-body unity.
People who do yoga perform better on simple cognitive tests than participants who do not exercise and people who do other types of exercise.
Practicing yoga encourages growth in the brain structure involved in learning and memory, called the hippocampus, researchers say. The hippocampus is also the part of the brain which is first affected by dementia in aging, as well. The findings indicate that practicing yoga can help you stay sharp and focused while you’re younger, but can also help ward off dementia and other age-related cognitive impairments.
Tip: You’re never too old–or young–to get the benefits of yoga. Start incorporating yoga into your workout routine now, whatever your stage in life. When starting out, talk to your instructor about your goals and how to build a practice that will help you achieve them.
Neuroscientists have long understood that the brain has a unique and powerful ability to rewire itself constantly. This adaptability is what allows you to learn new things and store new information, as well as keep old information sharp in your mind, an attribute scientists refer to as “neuroplasticity.” The techniques involved in yoga practice focus on retraining your body and mind. Some of this includes direct mental practices, like calming techniques, while other components of yoga such as learning different breathing patterns, directly tap into the central nervous system’s ability to change.
Tip: The very essence of yoga requires you to accept your body while gently pushing its limits. This notion has powerful implications off of a yoga mat, as well. Work toward synthesizing this attitude of yoga into your everyday mentality, which will encourage the continual brain remodeling required for life-long learning.
When you practice yoga, your brain releases a neurochemical called GABA, which sends a message to your brain cells to slow down. The brain’s GABA system is also targeted by alcohol and medications such as Xanax. So you can think of yoga as a healthy alternative to drinking or medicating to relieve stress.
Tip: To harness the full relaxation power of yoga, focus on breathing exercises and poses like Savasana, which guide your attention to areas of tension and helps you to consciously release them.
Yoga helps manage your body’s stress response system by moderating your blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration, as well as through GABA release. A variety of studies have so thoroughly documented yoga’s impact on anxiety and stress that it is now considered an effective treatment option for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Tip: If you’re chronically anxious, plan your practice around proper yoga breathing and deep stretching moves such as Pigeon and Bow Poses, which will cause you to focus and slow down rather than work up a sweat.
In studies of moods and stress levels, participants with self-reported mild depression felt less depressed after incorporating yoga into their workout routines.
Tip: To boost mood, combine the yoga practice of deep breathing with physically exerting routines, such as Sun Salutations, which encourage blood flow and the release of mood-boosting brain chemicals. To really ward off the blues, take your practice outside, where the sun’s vitamin D helps to further deploy the neurochemicals that keep you in a positive frame of mind.
Moderate exercise of any kind helps us sleep by releasing nervous energy and tension through the rigors of working out, leaving you physically tired enough to need rest. The mental and physical training involved with yoga, like forcing you to pay attention to breathing and ending with the relaxation of all bodily muscles, reduces levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is often linked to insomnia.
Tip: Avoid exercising right before bed, as exercise can cause endorphin release and leave you more awake. Complete your yoga practice at least 2 hours before you plan to hit the sack. If you need to relax right before bedtime, practice yoga meditation, breathing, and relaxation techniques and poses (like Corpse Pose) while avoiding more physically demanding moves that may increase your heart rate.
What benefits of yoga are most important to you? How do you use yoga practice to help you live better? Share your thoughts in Comments so we can all learn from each other.