Yoga and the Brain
By Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D.
Yoga is a mind-and-body practice that originated in ancient India. It involves movement, mediation, and breathing techniques that promote mental and physical well-being. The philosophy of yoga, generally speaking, is to center ourselves and connect body, mind, and spirit. Yoga also helps you focus on the present moment and increases your body’s flexibility. There are many forms of yoga—Hatha, Bikram, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Hot Yoga, etc.—and so everyone should be able to find at least one approach that works well for their needs.
Yoga may help improve brain functions such as executive functions, memory, and attention/concentration. Many research studies suggest that yoga has a potentially beneficial effect on brain health. Goethe and colleagues did a review of 11 studies on yoga's effects on brain health (Goethe, N.P. et al. 2019). Their review indicates that there are changes in hippocampal volume in experienced yoga practitioners. (The hippocampus is a brain structure that is critically involved in learning and memory.) Yoga also has a neuroprotective effect, which means that it may potentially slow cognitive aging of the brain. A 2012 study by Froeliger and colleagues (B.E. Froeliger et al. 2012) suggests that subjects who practiced yoga were able to reduce emotional interference while performing advanced cognitive tasks (executive function tasks). The researchers also concluded that yoga meditation practice may provide therapeutic benefits for subjects with cognitive control deficits. The 2013 study (Gothe, N. et al. 2013) indicated that cognitive performance after yoga was significantly better in terms of shorter reactions time and increased accuracy. Yoga may also help improve attention/concentration (Peck, H.L. et al 2005).
Yoga may have positive effects on mental health and well-being. Research indicates that practicing yoga has several important mental health benefits, such as reducing anxiety, depression, and stress, and improving general well-being. Cramer and colleagues (Cramer, H. et al. 2018) indicated that yoga may help reduce anxiety and depression compared to no treatment. Yoga may also be considered as an ancillary treatment option for depressive disorders (Cramer, H. et al. 2013). Studies also indicate that practicing yoga may be important for people who have been exposed to any kind of trauma. Regular talk therapy may not be enough to treat trauma because those experiences live in structures of the brain that don’t respond to words. Therefore, body-based practices like yoga can have a positive effect on the health and well-being of trauma survivors (Jindani, F. et al. 2015; Cramer, H. et al. 2018). Yoga helps you focus on the present moment and shift your mental state from a negative focus to a positive focus. Other studies suggest that yoga may have medical benefits such as improving respiration, maintaining a balanced metabolism, and increasing the body’s flexibility and ability to tolerate pain and discomfort.
I recommend practicing yoga to most of my patients, if there are no medical contraindications. I do it myself. I’m not a master, just a strong believer in its therapeutic ability. I believe that it helps you center the body, mind, and spirit and helps you manage stress (Woodyard, C. 2011; Krishnakumar, D. et al. 2015).