Your Brain On Yoga

Yoga, yoga, everywhere.

It’s in your magazines, on your YouTube playlist, in your favorite sitcom and definitely in a class near you. Your friends do it and so do all the celebrities. From yoga pants to yoga bumper stickers – it’s hard to avoid the yoga craze.

Will your New Year’s Resolutions include the addition of yoga? If so, read on – because yoga isn’t just for your body! Incorporating yoga practices will also benefit your brain.

What is yoga?

The word yoga is from the Sanskrit language and translates roughly to ‘union’. There are many different forms of yoga, but in essence the practice is a series of mental and physical practices whose earliest references can be found in such ancient texts as the Vegas (1500 BCE) and the Upanishads (500 BCE), collections of songs and poetry from the ancient Hindu tradition.

The word yoga is from the Sanskrit language and translates roughly to ‘union’.

Many yoga practitioners and followers tout the spiritual aspect of yoga, claiming that yoga is a means to unify mind and body with a sense of the divine. However, many others simply see yoga as just another means of physical exercise.

Yoga Body

Yoga’s physical health benefits are well-studied. Different forms of yoga can be practiced depending on the practitioner’s goals; ashtanga yoga will raise your heart rate for a good cardio workout, hatha yoga will provide a deep stretch for all the body’s muscular systems and kundalini yoga can help support your mindfulness practices.

And for those who are looking for remedial or preventative health benefits, yoga has been studied in a myriad of medical conditions.

  •  A 2014 study made a positive link between meditative yoga practices and reduced symptoms of insomnia in older adults.
  •  A 2016 study that followed participants for ten years showed that yoga practices safely raised bone mineral density of the femur and spine.
  •  A 2011 study found that yoga strengthened the immune response in individuals exposed to stress, potentially leading to less illness as a result of a stressed immune system.
  •  A 2011 study suggested that yoga had promising benefits in the area of generalized pain relief.

In addition, many other studies have suggested yoga’s benefits on everything from cardiovascular and respiratory function to balance and muscle tone. And while many of those studies require further research to be considered conclusive – that’s quite a lot of benefit from just a few stretches!

Yoga Brain

In addition to all those great physical benefits there is also a growing body of research to suggest that a regular yoga practice can provide support to your brain as well.

  •  Stress reduction –  Stress has a deleterious effect on the function of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system. In particular, evidence suggests that when the brain is exposed to higher cortisol concentrations that cognitive deficits can occur – increasing as we age. A 2010 article reviewed yoga’s benefits in regards to stress reduction concluding that the negative effects of stress could be ameliorated through relaxation techniques such as yoga.
  • Executive function – A 2016 study of sedentary community-dwelling participants with a mean age of 62 years asked participants to undergo an 8-week yoga intervention to test the effects of yoga on executive function by means of managing stress. At both baseline and after the eight week program, participants provided saliva samples to measure cortisol, underwent tests of executive function (i.e. memory, problem solving, planning, cognitive flexibility) and self-reported on levels of stress and anxiety.
  • At the end of the study participants not only reported lower stress levels, but also showed improved executive functioning. The study’s authors suggested that regular yoga practice could be helpful in restoring HPA balance in older adults potentially leading to decreased cognitive decline with age. Folks who are concerned about Alzheimer’s or other memory loss conditions – take note!
  • Numerous studies have documented the benefits of regular weekly yoga practice in treating individuals with depression.
  • A 2009 study showed significant decrease in anxiety symptoms for women with anxiety disorder who completed a two month yoga program.
  • A 2010 study showed that people who coupled yoga with their regular walking program reported more positive mood benefits than participants who only incorporated walking into their exercise regimen.
  • Increased gray matter – A 2012 review of literature suggested that a long-term yoga practice – physical postures combined with breathing and meditative practices – had the potential to increase the size of the brain.
  • A 2016 study suggested that regular yoga practice was just as effective at improving memory related to neural connectivity as memory enhancement training – in fact, the yoga group also demonstrated significantly significant improvements in visuospatial memory performance (recalling information about the environment and one’s location within it).

And yoga’s brain benefits continue to be studied widely. Currently researchers are studying the effects of yogic postures, breathing and mindfulness techniques on many other areas of brain health, such as mood disorders, cognition and positive behavioral modifications. Get ready to break those bad habits!

What to know before you Yo(ga)

Whatever your goal when you undertake a new yoga program – be sure to speak with your doctor or other medical professional about your specific goals and contraindications to a physical practice. And be sure to find a class with a well-trained teacher. Ask for their credentials if you are new to the class and never force any pose that doesn’t feel right. There are many ways to modify common poses to accommodate all flexibility levels and body types, and a well-trained teacher will be able to help you adjust for your body’s particular needs.

It’s also important to do a bit of research on the different styles before you attend a class. Nothing pulls the mat out from under you faster than finding yourself in a class that is much too fast paced or advanced for you.

It’s also important to do a bit of research on the different styles before you attend a class. Nothing pulls the mat out from under you faster than finding yourself in a class that is much too fast paced or advanced for you. Ask plenty of questions of the instructor before you attend and be sure to inquire about available props. Yoga blocks, straps and bolsters are all great tools that can help you achieve new physical positions without stress or strain.

A few last tips: Don’t skip the mindfulness portion included at the end of many yoga classes! This is a time to soak up the positive physical benefits of the class and reward your body and mind for all the hard work.

And don’t forget to stay well-hydrated! Yoga is exercise, after all, even when it is gentle and meditative.

Whether or not you undertake the practice of yoga to address specific medial conditions, you can feel secure in the knowledge that the muscular benefits will make themselves known early on. Increasing physical activity is always a good idea, especially when it is done on a whole-body basis.

As we head into the New Year, yoga as a means to increase your flexibility – and your willingness to stretch yourself into new territory – can be a great tool to help bring about welcome and wonderful change.


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Holly Tellander

Holly Tellander

Author Holly Tellander is a guest contributor to