Yoga Benefits Your Brain?
Yes, it is true – yoga has been found to be beneficial to the brain. But firstly, to put this research into context, let’s have a quick look at our brains.
Our nervous system is divided into two parts – the Central Nervous System and the Peripheral Nervous System. Most of the functions of our mind and body are controlled by the Central Nervous System (CNS), which acts like a processing centre. The CNS consists of two parts – the brain and the spinal cord. The Peripheral Nervous System is also made up of two main parts – the autonomic nervous system and the somatic nervous system.
The brain is divided into two parts – grey matter and white matter. Grey matter makes up about 40% of the human brain, and consumes more than 90% of the oxygen in our bodies. White matter makes up the remaining 60% of the brain. Grey matter is made up of nerve cell bodies. Grey matter has no myelin covering, whereas white matter does.
Grey matter performs processing functions, while white matter allows for the communication to occur to and from the grey matter, and also between the grey matter and other areas of the body.
Grey matter relates to muscle control, decision making, and sensory perception (vision, hearing, memory, emotions, and speech). So you can see how important grey matter is to continue functioning independently.
The Bad News
As we age the brain shrinks and this shrinkage can affect cognition. Scientists believe that the volume of the brain declines at a rate of 5% per decade after the age of 40. This shrinkage of the grey matter is thought to stem from neuronal cell death, and it is suggested that it is the decline in the neuronal cell volume, rather than the number of lost neuronal cells, that contributes to the changes that occur in our brains as we age.
The Good News
Studies show that diet, exercise, education and learning new skills may keep our brains healthier for longer. And if you are a yoga-lover like me, then you have even more to cheer about.
A research article published in the Frontier in Human Neuroscience journal in 2015 found that yoga has neuroprotective effects on brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt and change). The researchers used MRI scans to compare age-related grey matter decline in a control group, and a yoga group. The control group showed the expected age-related grey matter decline, while the yoga group did not. This suggests that a regular yoga practice contributes towards the protection of age-related brain decline. Yoga appears to tune the brain towards a parasympathetically driven mode, and the number of hours of weekly yoga practice correlated with positive grey matter volume in certain regions of the brain. (The parasympathetic nervous system, part of the autonomic nervous system, controls homeostasis/internal balance, and the body’s rest and digest function).
The long-term effects of a regular yoga practice were explored when it was discovered that experienced yogis have greater grey matter volume than matched control group participants. Studies have explored this further and discovered that people who meditate have a larger hippocampal volume than non-meditators. The hippocampus is a major component of the brain, responsible for memory, emotion and spatial navigation.
While the positive effects on grey matter volume are more apparent in long-term yogis who practice postures, meditation and breath work regularly, it is never too late to begin this beautiful practice and incorporate it into your life. The study does point to the fact that while a regular yoga practice does build grey matter volume, it is important to keep up the regular practice as regression can occur once the practice is terminated.
You will find some information about seniors yoga on our Resources page.