How yoga changes brain structures
In 2019, the journal Brain Plasticity published a review of 11 scientific papers that compared the state of the brain of people who regularly practiced yoga from six months to eight years, and those who were not familiar with Eastern practice.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists scanned the brains of participants and found that, compared to normal people of the same age, yogis have more gray matter in several areas of the prefrontal, temporal and occipital cortex , cerebellum and structures of the limbic system – amygdala and hippocampus.
Gray matter is the bodies of nerve cells, glia and capillaries that make up the cerebral cortex and cerebellum, as well as some other structures deep in the brain. With age, as well as with certain diseases and excessive stress, the density of neurons can decrease , which negatively affects various aspects of thinking.
In the long term, the increased volume of these areas may improve memory, attention, and cognitive control (the ability to adjust behavior to current needs, as well as make choices based on the context of the situation).
Moreover, prolonged yoga practice increases the number of connections between the prefrontal cortex and the right angular gyrus. And just 12 weeks of classes improve the interaction of the structures of the network of the passive mode of the brain in the elderly. Such changes may protect against the cognitive decline that often occurs with age .
How yoga changes the ability to cope with tasks
Yoga classes affect not only the volume of brain structures, but also their work.
For example, in one experiment , participants performed a Sternberg working memory test, where you need to look at several objects, and after a while remember them and give an accurate answer as quickly as possible.
The task was simple, so that both experienced practitioners and people unfamiliar with yoga answered equally quickly and correctly. But at the same time, the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was much less activated in yogis. This part of the brain is sensitive to cognitive load: the more expensive the task, the more activity it has. The scientists concluded that the test was much easier for adherents of Eastern practices than for people from the control group.
In another research paper, yoga was found to help people complete tasks despite negative emotions. The participants were given to complete the test, and in the process they were distracted by different pictures – neutral or with a negative emotional coloring.
In both groups, the amygdala activated in response to the unpleasant images. But the mood from this deteriorated only for those who were in the control.
When something repulsive was shown to yogis, activity increased not only in the amygdala, but also in another area – the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. As a result, they completed the task and at the same time felt normal, did not experience negativity from unpleasant pictures.
Scientists have concluded that under the influence of yoga, the brain learns to suppress unnecessary emotional stimuli and, due to this, better cope with tasks.
Why yoga changes the brain
Researchers suggest that all components of Eastern practice, including postures, meditation , and breathing exercises, have a positive effect.
For example, in one experiment it was calculated that the combination of asanas with meditation provided 42% of the changes in the volume of gray matter in the hippocampus, and meditation and breathing exercises were responsible for 44% of the variations in the volume of the visual cortex and the upper parietal lobe of the brain.
The authors of the meta-analysis suggested that yoga helps to change the brain by reducing stress levels , since it directly affects the volume of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, worsens performance in tests of memory and attention.
Both exercise, breathing and meditation have a relaxing effect, reduce anxiety and stress, which is good for health, the ability to make the right decisions , effectively switch between several tasks and concentrate.
How much to exercise to improve brain health
In one experiment , they noticed that the volume of gray matter in the hippocampus and some areas of the cortex increases in proportion to years of practice. Moreover, the state of the brain also depends on the hours spent on classes per week.
In other words, the more regularly and longer you practice, the better your brain will cope with stressors and negative emotions, which will ultimately have a good effect on its functionality in general.
Moreover, some positive changes can be obtained after 12 weeks of regular yoga classes.
Thus, even three months of practice can be beneficial. And if yoga becomes part of the lifestyle, it will help to avoid age-related changes in the brain and maintain a clear mind and a sharp mind until old age.
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