Yoga is an ancient philosophy that originated in India and is focused on connecting the mind, body, and spirit; its practice includes physical postures, regulated breathing, and meditation. In Western cultures, yoga has gained popularity for its stress-relieving and other health benefits . While scientific research on yoga lags far behind the vast evidence on physical exercise, a recent review of studies examining yoga effects on brain health reported that practicing yoga is associated with enhancements in brain structures and functions .
Previous studies have shown that practicing yoga can have positive effects on cognitive functions, including attention, processing speed, and executive functions such as planning and impulse control . A recent review of 11 studies examined the relationship between yoga practice and brain structure and function using brain imaging techniques (e.g., MRI, fMRI, PET, and others) . Most studies compared the brain structures of experienced yoga practitioners with non-practitioners and found that yoga practitioners had larger volumes of the frontal cortex and hippocampus, brain regions important for cognitive functions such as learning and memory. There was also some evidence that the longer you practiced yoga, the greater the volumes were of certain brain regions. In a different study, people with mild cognitive impairment who were assigned to practice yoga for 12 weeks showed improvement in verbal memory, and the improvement was associated with increased connections in a brain network called the default mode network, which is activated when people think, daydream, or plan . This is a brain network that involves many different brain regions that are interconnected, and its activity declines with age-related pathologies such as Alzheimer’s disease .
Although overall the findings relating to the effects of yoga on brain functions have been positive, it is worth noting a few caveats to the existing evidence. Many studies included very few people, and most were observational studies that were not designed to prove cause and effect. Also, because yoga practitioners are more likely to have high physical activity levels, maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet, and be well-educated, we cannot exclude the possibility that one or more of these factors may be driving the positive associations on brain functions, and not the practice of yoga itself. However, a few of the studies compared yoga practitioners and non-practitioners with similar levels of physical activity and the differences in brain volumes between the two groups persisted.
While the studies thus far show promising early evidence, many questions still remain. Is one style of yoga better for brain health than others? What element(s) of yoga (physical postures, breathing, or meditation) are associated with good brain functions? What is the optimal duration and frequency of yoga practice? Are web- or app-delivered yoga interventions as effective as in-person yoga classes? How do yoga interventions compare to exercise or meditation interventions? These questions need to be addressed with larger, well-designed, randomized controlled trials, but in the meantime, taking up yoga may be a good way to maintain your brain health by increasing physical activity and possibly also alleviating stress, two of the Seven Steps we recommend for cognitive vitality. It may be an especially good option for people who have disabilities or physical conditions that prevent them from getting traditional forms of exercise.
Yuko Hara, PhD, is Director of Aging and Alzheimer's Prevention at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation. Dr. Hara was previously an Assistant Professor in Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where she remains an adjunct faculty member. Her research focused on brain aging, specifically how estrogens and reproductive aging influence the aging brain's synapses and mitochondria. She earned a doctorate in neurology and neuroscience at Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences of Cornell University and a bachelor's degree in biology from Cornell University, with additional study at Keio University in Japan. Dr. Hara has authored numerous peer-reviewed publications, including articles in PNAS and Journal of Neuroscience.
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