Health and wellness experts have long espoused the virtues of yoga, and for good reason.

The most obvious benefits include better flexibility and mobility, as well as stress reduction.

Plus, a review of studies published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that practicing yoga could help reduce the risk of heart disease just as much as conventional exercise.1

Now, new research shows yoga also has some surprising brain health benefits. Read on for the details…

Scientists have known for many years that aerobic exercise strengthens the brain. Studies show that aerobic exercise fosters the growth of new neurons, which helps reduce the risk of dementia and even slows down aging.2

To my long-time readers this is not news as such. You’ll often find exercise-oriented articles here. However, until recently, few studies have examined how yoga affects the brain. And those that did failed to come up with any solid conclusions.

That’s why a recent review published in the journal Brain Plasticity really got my attention, because it provides specific evidence that yoga can have memory-saving effects on the brain.3

How Yoga Changes the Brain

Scientists reviewed eleven recent studies about the positive benefits yoga may have on the brain. Five of the studies focused on individuals with no background in yoga.

These individuals participated in one or more yoga sessions per week over a period of ten to 24 weeks, then scientists compared their brain health at the end of the intervention to their brain health at the beginning of the intervention.

There are several different styles of yoga. The one employed in this study was Hatha, which includes the practice of physical asanas (or body movements), meditation and breathing exercises. Hatha is typically not as vigorous as aerobic exercise, so while participants likely built up a sweat, there was no huffing and puffing as with jogging or cycling.

University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Neha Gothe, who led the research with Wayne State University psychology professor Jessica Damoiseaux, discussed the findings in a press release.4

Dr. Gothe says the team identified changes in certain brain regions that are very similar to what had been observed in aerobic exercise research.

“For example, we see increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice,” Gothe says. “Many studies looking at the brain effects of aerobic exercise have shown a similar increase in hippocampus size over time.”

The hippocampus is a key player in memory processing and is known to shrink with age. This region is also the first affected in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Gothe adds.

Your Brain on Yoga

Co-researcher Dr. Damoiseaux says the research points to other important brain changes associated with regular yoga practice.

For instance, researchers found a larger amygdala in people who practice yoga. This brain structure is in charge of emotional regulation.

But that’s not all: the prefrontal cortex tends to be larger or more efficient in dedicated yogis.

“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,” Dr. Damoiseaux says. “The default mode network is a set of brain regions involved in thinking about the self, planning and memory.”

What’s more, researchers say these brain changes found in yogis are associated with better performance on cognitive tests and measures of emotional regulation.

The studies utilized brain-imaging scans such as MRI to document brain activity and the changes just described.

Surprising Findings

The researchers are intrigued by how yoga and aerobic exercise have similar effects on the brain, but admit more research is warranted.

In future studies, Dr. Gothe hopes to understand why non-aerobic yoga and aerobic exercise offer many of the same brain benefits.

“There must be other mechanisms leading to these brain changes,” she says. “So far we don’t have the evidence to identify what those changes are.”

One theory is that yoga reduces stress, which in turn has a positive effect on brain health.

In the press release, Dr. Gothe notes that in other studies yoga was found to change the cortisol stress response.

“We found that those who had done yoga for eight weeks had an attenuated cortisol response to stress that was associated with better performance on tests of decision-making, task-switching and attention.”

Is This the End to Huffing and Puffing Exercise?

Before you hang up your tennis shoes and skip your daily walk, remember that aerobic exercise has plenty of other benefits besides brain health. It’s great for combatting obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis, and the list goes on.

With that said, I believe that incorporating yoga into your fitness routine is a wise choice all around. Besides brain benefits, people can gain more flexibility, mobility and balance, while also de-stressing.

Yoga classes are widely available at gyms, studios and community centers. If you are a newbie, look for classes geared to beginners.

Not a group exercise fan? There is a myriad of free online yoga classes available.

Yoga does/does not involve a sort of religion, depending on whom you ask and who your instructor is. If you’re like me and it’s important for you not to participate in something that conflicts with your faith, discuss it with the instructor before you sign up.