People who practice yoga know it can help keep their bodies in better shape, but did you know it can also boost brain health as well? New research suggests that yoga improves parts of the brain that control memory, attention and mood.

The good news is that everyone – including beginners – can add yoga to their daily exercise regimen to tap into these remarkable benefits.

Image of adult women practicing yoga

The researchers observed older female adults over a 12-week period and showed that those who did yoga regularly had a larger positive change on standard memory tests than those who hadn’t done yoga during the same period.

The brain scans brought even more good news than the memory tests. Cognitive impairment from aging is usually associated with a reduction or thinning or volume in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This area plays a key role in attention and memory.

The study participants developed a thicker prefrontal cortex over the course of 12 weeks, even when compared to other women of the same age who were healthy and active.  

While the study was fairly small – it was based on the brain scans of less than 50 women – it adds to the body of evidence that yoga provides many benefits.

"This contributes to the evidence that yoga practice has neuroplastic effects on the brain that may translate into other health benefits - like better mood and cognition," said Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a professor-in-residence of psychiatry at the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine.

According to Dr. Lavretsky, it's possible that yoga benefits the brain over time by easing day-to-day stress. Or, she said, yoga practices might have a more direct effect on "brain fitness."

Yoga benefits extend beyond older adults’ brain function. It’s proven to also have a positive effect on overall health such as:

  • Improves flexibility
  • Builds muscle strength
  • Prevents cartilage and joint breakdown
  • Protects the spine
  • Increases blood flow, raises the heart rate and reduces blood pressure
  • Improves mood and increases energy
  • Boosts immune system functionality

Boosting Memory

Another study included adults aged 55 and above with mild cognitive impairment and assigned them to two groups for 24 weeks: some participated in memory training and others took kundalini yoga classes. The kundalini style of yoga is known for deep meditation and transformation.

Both groups saw improvement with their memory, but the yoga group saw a boost in ability to complete daily activities, reduced symptoms of depression and better emotional resilience.

Two of the pillars of yoga are mindfulness and meditation. Studies have shown that the brain structure changes after meditation, resulting in improved awareness, attention and self-related thinking. The volume of the areas of the brain that govern these functions has been shown to increase, and along with all these benefits, memory is also shown to improve.

Brain scans of yoga participants routinely detect more gray matter than in those of people who don’t practice yoga, and the good news is that the more you do, the greater the benefit. All of the areas of the brain that are engaged by practicing yoga – the somatosensory, prefrontal,  superior parietal and the visual cortex as well as the hippocampus –   show volume increases.

Getting started

Taking the first step might seem daunting to someone who has never practiced yoga before. Yoga allows individuals to pursue it at their own pace, and a fundamental guiding principle is that yoga poses should simply be comfortable and steady. Your yoga practice is YOUR yoga practice.

Do what feels right and be patient – not everyone can do a handstand – and that is just fine. The important thing to do is to simply start your practice and then make it a regular part of your daily routine to reap the many benefits that yoga provides.

Dr. Lavretsky’s findings were published online recently in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

Do you practice yoga? Let us know your experience in the comments below.

By Mel Bearns