If you want to get smarter and mentally sharp, you might want to get serious about Yoga practice. The scientific community agrees that Yoga is fantastic for health. But, a yogi’s tranquility can even change their brain anatomy.
We tend to view Yoga as another form of exercise. But, there’s more to Yoga than exercise. This ancient practice not only strengthens the body, it also transforms the brain. Like weight-bearing exercise boosts muscle tone, Yoga tones certain parts of the brain.
The brain has neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means that parts of the brain can change permanently with new habits, even in late adulthood. This is great news if you’re worried about keeping your faculties as you age.
So how do scientists know this? And, how does this work?
Measuring Brain Structure
Brain structure has a big influence on how a person thinks and behaves. To examine a person’s brain, neuroscientists use neuroimaging equipment to take snapshots. These scans make two types of measurement:
· Measurement of grey matter volume
· Measurement of cortical thickness
Studies show that regular Yoga practice increases grey matter volume and cortical thickness.
But, what does this mean?
What Is Grey Matter and Cortical Thickness?
The outer segment of the brain is called the cerebral cortex and consists of grey matter. Neuroscientists call the measurement of the cortex ‘cortical thickness’. This brain tissue has a higher density of neurons than any other part of the brain. Grey matter governs muscle control, emotions, memory skills, learning, decision-making, and planning.
The wrinkled tissue you see on the outer appearance of a brain is ‘gyrification,’ which enables more neurons to squash into the same space.
Scientists agree that the folds in the brain increase the surface area of the brain’s tissue. So, the more wrinkled the cortex, the higher density in neurons, and higher intelligence.
A decrease in grey matter may be a sign of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Things that can cause grey matter to recede include:
· Heavy alcohol consumption
· Chronic pain
The brain is also made up of white matter. This tissue plays more of a connecting role between brain cells, but is just as vital.
Research using brain imaging has revealed that that Yoga can change your brain anatomy if you practice it regularly.
Yoga and Neuroplasticity
When we repeat a behaviour, it becomes ingrained in our neural pathways and forms a new habit. Amazingly, when a habit forms, it increases the grey matter in that brain region. For example, musicians increase grey matter in parts of the brain that control motor, auditory, and visuospatial skills.
In 2019, researchers reviewed 11 studies on the effect of Yoga on the brain. The studies used two types of research. Most of the studies compared the brains of Yoga practitioners with non-practitioners. Other studies measured the brains of people at various stages of a Yoga course.
The review has reaffirmed the link between regular Yoga practice and increased brain function. Improved grey matter occurs in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus plays a major role in memory and learning. The prefrontal cortex directs decision-making, planning, and self-control.
This comparison is well-documented in studies. Most recently, a 2020 study compared the brains of 23 Sahaja Yoga meditators with 23 non-meditators. Like in the other studies, the subjects who meditated had 7% more grey matter than the non-meditators.
And again, a study by Brett Froeliger and his team of researchers found a strong correlation between Yoga practice and increased grey matter volume.
Most of these studies focus on how Yoga increases grey matter. In contrast, a 2010 study showed that eight weeks of Yoga and meditation shrink the grey matter volume in the amygdala, which processes fear and stress.
So Yoga is scientifically proven to enlarge brain regions associated with higher intelligence and contract the region linked to fear and stress. Yoga practitioners have a better working memory, emotional self-regulation, decision-making, planning, and organisation skills.
How Does Yoga Change The Brain?
It’s not understood why Yoga changes the brain structure. One study shows that aerobic exercise stimulates neuron growth in the brain. But, as Yoga is not aerobic the study speculates there is something else going on. But what?
Researchers speculate that improved emotional regulation must be key to enhanced cognitive effectiveness. The meditation aspect of Yoga targets the parasympathetic system allowing the mind to slip into a deep state of relaxation.
When you practice Yoga, the benefits are felt immediately. Stress, anxiety, and depression transform into inner calm and serenity.
Increased stress can lead to a receding hippocampus, memory, and learning region. This brain area is one of the first areas that Alzheimer’s affects.
Once a daily blissful state from Yoga is ingrained in your neural processes, your brain becomes sharper yet calmer. This protects against brain atrophy associated with dementia.
Daily Yoga protects the brain from receding and keeps the brain functioning. It’s never too late to start Yoga, and it improves quality of life. If there are no Yoga classes locally you can always turn to online Yoga classes. The beauty of online Yoga classes is that they are completely flexible. You can do online Yoga classes at any time to suit your schedule.
Many people find Yoga so life-enhancing they sign up for a Yoga Teacher Training course to deepen their practice. Yoga teacher training is intense and all-consuming but incredibly rewarding.
It’s interesting to wonder what life would be like if everyone did Yoga and meditation. It would improve happiness and reduce suffering and illness. Choosing the path of Yoga teacher training means you can encourage others to improve their health and happiness through Yoga.
You can start Yoga and meditation immediately by following our online Yoga and meditation classes at YogafurieOnline.com. And, if you’re in the Bristol area why not come along and try our energising Hot Yoga classes.