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Yoga has been around for more than 5,000 years and boasts some pretty impressive health and fitness benefits, but a new review of 11 scientific studies suggests that it may be even better for the brain than previously thought.
Scientists analyzed five studies done on people with no yoga experience who were put on a regimen of one or more sessions per week for 10-24 weeks, while the other six studies looked at the brain differences between consistent yogis and non-yogis. All of the studies involved Hatha yoga and used methods like MRI, functional MRI, or SPECT scans to measure the differences in participants’ brains.
“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,” lead study author Neha Gothe, a kinesiology and community health professor at the University of Illinois, said in a release. “For example, we see increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice.”
According to Gothe, hippocampus growth is something that’s also been seen in studies of aerobic exercise. Since the hippocampus is the part of the brain that involves learning and memory, that’s good news. A smaller hippocampus has been linked to depression, stress, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Study author and Wayne State University psychology professor Jessica Damoiseaux said that though many of the studies in the review are exploratory, not conclusive, their research also suggests that other brain changes are associated with practicing yoga regularly. One such change seems to be a larger amygdala—a part of the brain that’s key in processing emotion and reactions like fear or pleasure—and a healthier prefrontal cortex and default mode network.
“The prefrontal cortex, a brain region just behind the forehead, is essential to planning, decision-making, multitasking, thinking about your options and picking the right option,” Damoiseaux said. “The default mode network is a set of brain regions involved in thinking about the self, planning and memory.” Overall, the brain changes that researchers saw in people who practiced yoga are linked to doing well on cognitive tests and regulating emotions.
The study authors admit that more rigorous research is necessary to see exactly how yoga affects the brain, but Gothe finds it interesting that yoga might have similar effects to aerobic exercise.
“Yoga is not aerobic in nature, so there must be other mechanisms leading to these brain changes,” Gothe said. “So far, we don’t have the evidence to identify what those mechanisms are.” She thinks it may have to do with emotional regulation, since stress has been linked to a smaller hippocampus and doing poorly on memory tests.
Overall, the researchers think larger studies that have participants do yoga for months, comparing the yoga groups with control groups who exercise, and using cognitive testing to compare yoga with other forms of exercise would help lead to more conclusive answers.
“The science is pointing to yoga being beneficial for healthy brain function,” Damoiseaux said,” but we need more rigorous and well-controlled intervention studies to confirm these initial findings.”