People are generally aware of the positive effects of yoga on the body but very few know about its effect on the brain. A review of the science finds evidence that yoga enhances many of the same brain structures and functions that benefit from aerobic exercise.
The review has been published in the journal Brain Plasticity. Focusing on 11 studies of the relationship between yoga practice and brain health.
Five of the studies engaged individuals with no background in yoga practice in one or more yoga sessions per week over a period of 10-24 weeks, comparing brain health at the beginning and end of the intervention. The other studies measured brain differences between individuals who regularly practice yoga and those who don’t.
Each of the studies used brain-imaging techniques such as MRI, functional MRI or single-photon emission computerized tomography. All involved Hatha yoga, which includes body movements, meditation and breathing exercises.
“From these 11 studies, we identified some brain regions that consistently come up, and they are surprisingly not very different from what we see with exercise research,” said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Neha Gothe, who led the research with Wayne State University psychology professor Jessica Damoiseaux.
Though many of the studies are exploratory and not conclusive, the research points to other important brain changes associated with regular yoga practice, Damoiseaux said.
The amygdala, a brain structure that contributes to emotional regulation, tends to be larger in yoga practitioners than in their peers who do not practice yoga. The prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks such as the default mode network also tend to be larger or more efficient in those who regularly practice yoga.
Like the amygdala, the cingulate cortex is part of the limbic system, a circuit of structures that plays a key role in emotional regulation, learning and memory, she said.
The studies also find that the brain changes seen in individuals practicing yoga are associated with better performance on cognitive tests or measures of emotional regulation.
The discovery that yoga may have similar effects on the brain to aerobic exercise is intriguing and warrants more study, Gothe said.
“Yoga is not aerobic in nature, so there must be other mechanisms leading to these brain changes,” she said. “So far, we don’t have the evidence to identify what those mechanisms are.”
Yoga helps people with or without anxiety disorders manage their stress, Gothe said.
“The practice of yoga helps improve emotional regulation to reduce stress, anxiety and depression,” she said. “And that seems to improve brain functioning.”