Yoga Literally Rewires Brain To Improve Memory & Better Process Emotions—Here's How

January 3, 2020

A new year is upon us and there’s no better time to get our bodies moving. One needn’t wait until she cries into her fourth plate of holiday leftovers from the couch, wearing yesterday’s socks and struggling to remember the last time she put on any makeup (just me?) to make a change, of course, though there is something mighty powerful about that 01/01 reset to shake things up. It’s always a tad cringe-y feeling like one of the blobby, sheep-like masses, flooding into the gym or a new class, but I’m here to tell you why yoga truly is the answer to all of the things missing in your life. Or, to persuade you to up your game if you’re already familiar. Let’s talk science.

The benefits of aerobic exercise on mental health have been extensively reported, but most of the benefits of yoga tend to be anecdotal. It’s all mind-body-spirit; those intangible things that we feel are true, but are difficult to put facts and figures to. Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m a scientist with a spiritual practice and my happy place straddles the realms of the seen and unseen (how very Scorpio of me!), but I understand that sometimes it takes a few technical specifications to convince some people why they should do some kinds of things. This is for you.

A fresh review of the literature elucidates exactly how beneficial yoga can be for numerous aspects of our well-being and cognitive function. You might be familiar with the feel-good, full-body-relaxation-yet-muscle-exhaustion that follows a decent hour’s flow, but let’s take a look at what’s actually happening inside the body.

Dating back thousands of years to India, yoga is a practice that connects the mind, body and spirit. Through a variety of poses, or asanas, yoga is a meditative movement of body and breath that brings one into the present moment to reap a multitude of relaxation and strength benefits. It’s suitable for all people of all ages anywhere in the world. While social media may convince you that you need to look a certain way and spend a lot of money on fancy accoutrements to be able to participate, I’m here to reassure you that that simply couldn’t be further from the truth. I have practiced everywhere from fancy studios in swanky leggings, to my college dorm room in my underwear, to a field at a festival between beer cans, wearing the previous night’s fancy dress costume. What matters is showing up and trying your best.

That’s the other thing—practicing yoga isn’t about either committing to an hour-long class or not bothering at all; it’s about doing what you can, when you can. Five minutes of simple stretches in the morning on a busy day is more than enough to bring yourself back to the present moment amidst a calendar of chaos and you never won’t feel good afterwards. Guaranteed.

Yoga has been found to improve quality of life, depression, anxiety and insomnia in type 2 diabetes patients. It has also been demonstrated to decrease insulin resistance, improve glucose tolerance and improve cardiac function. While diet inevitably plays a role in the development of type 2 diabetes, lifestyle factors are also key; predominantly, a lack of movement. If gentle yoga can offer such immense benefits, it would be silly for doctors not to suggest it as part of a comprehensive treatment program and I hope that’s something we’ll see being offered in mainstream Western medicine soon.

Next up, there’s the benefit of yoga on memory. The hippocampus in the brain plays an important role in memory, consolidating new information learned each day, transferring it to long-term storage via hippocampal-cortical coupling each night while we sleep. A study released in 2018 found that the hippocampus was, on average, larger in yoga practitioners with 3 years of experience than the control group. Multiple other regions of the brain have also been shown to increase in size with regular yoga practice, suggesting improved cognitive function and fewer cognitive failures.

Those with 8 years of yoga experience have been found to have greater resting state brain connectivity than matched controls. This is vital for a healthy brain as we age. Furthermore, a recent study found that elderly women who practice yoga twice a week age more healthily than non-practicing controls. While diet, lifestyle and sleep all play important roles in the aging process, it appears that yoga and other holistic physical practices including tai chi and qi gong are certainly worth indulging in.

Perhaps some of the most preached about benefits of yoga are in the realm of mental illness. From laughter yoga and the benefits on anxiety-induced IBS to kundalini yoga as a supplemental treatment for those suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), yoga brings practitioners into the present moment, synchronizes body and breath and reduces the inflammation produced by circulating stress hormones. One of the most interesting studies used fMRI to observe the differences in amygdala activity in the brain in yoga practitioners vs controls in response to emotionally-distressing images. The amygdala is associated with the fear and anxiety responses and it was found that this was less likely to become activated by the images in those who regularly practiced yoga. This suggests that regular practice can maintain a greater sense of level-headedness, make us less prone to emotional extremes and the negative emotions that follow downstream from amygdala activation.

Whatever your relationship to yoga, from novice to next-level expert, I hope what can be gleaned from this is the seemingly endless bounty of benefits that can come from cultivating a better practice in your life. Whether it’s trying a new studio with your bestie on Sunday morning before brunch, to keeping your cleaning sweatpants on and getting bendy at home with Adriene, it’d be silly not to give it a shot, huh? There’s nothing to lose and only a more glowing, smarter you to gain.

Are you a yoga junkie? Or keen to try it out in 2020? Tell us!

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Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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