How Yoga Changes the Brain and How Much Practice It Takes to Make It Happen

Posted on Sep 22, 2022      13

A way to make flexible not only the body but also the mind.

How yoga classes change brain structures

In 2019, a journal of 11 scientific papers compared the brains of people who regularly practiced yoga for six months to eight years and those unfamiliar with the eastern practice.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists scanned the brains of the participants and found that compared to normal people of the same age, yogis had more gray matter in several areas of the prefrontal, temporal and occipital cortex, the cerebellum and the limbic system structures - the amygdala and hippocampus.

Gray matter is the bodies of nerve cells, glia and capillaries that make up the cortex of the large hemispheres and cerebellum, as well as some other structures deep in the brain. With age, as well as with some diseases and excessive stress, the density of neurons can decrease, which negatively affects different aspects of thinking.

In the long term, increased volume of these areas can improve memory, attention and cognitive control (the ability to adjust behavior to current needs and make choices based on the context of the situation).

Prolonged yoga practice increases the interaction of passive-mode brain network structures in older adults. Such changes can protect against the cognitive decline that often occurs with age.

How yoga changes the ability to cope

Exercising yoga not only affects the volume of brain structures, but also how they work.

For example, in one experiment, participants performed a Sternberg working memory test, where you had to look at several objects and after a while recall them and give the exact answer as quickly as possible.

The task was simple, so that both experienced practitioners and people unfamiliar with yoga answered equally quickly and correctly. However, the yogis had significantly less activation of the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain responds sensitively to cognitive load: the more costly the task, the more activity it has. Researchers concluded the test was much easier for adherents of Oriental practices than for people in the control group.

Another research paper found that yoga helps to cope with the task despite the negative emotions. The participants were given a quiz, and during the process they were distracted with original pictures, either neutral or negative emotionally colored.

In both groups, the almond-shaped body was activated in response to unpleasant images. However, only those in the control group were in a bad mood.

When something repulsive was shown to the yogis, activity increased not only in the amygdala but also in another area, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. As a result, they performed the task and felt normal and were not negatively affected by unpleasant pictures.

The scientists concluded that under the influence of yoga; the brain learns to suppress unnecessary emotional stimuli and thus cope better with the task.

Why Yoga Changes the Brain?

Researchers suggest that all components of the Eastern practice, including performing poses, meditation and breathing exercises, have positive effects.

For example, one experiment thought that combining asana with meditation provided 42% of the changes in gray matter volume in the hippocampus, while meditation and breathing exercises handled 44% of the variations in visual cortex and upper parietal lobe volume.

The authors of the meta-analysis suggested that yoga helps change the brain by reducing stress levels because it directly affects the volume of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, worsening the results in memory and attention tests.

Both exercise, breathing and meditation have a relaxing effect, reducing anxiety and stress, which is good for health, the ability to make moral decisions, to switch between multiple tasks effectively and to concentrate.

How much exercise to improve brain health

One experiment observed that the amount of gray matter in the hippocampus and some cortical areas increases in proportion to years of practice. Brain health also depends on the hours spent practicing per week.

The more regular and longer you practice, the better your brain will cope with stressors and negative emotions, which will eventually be good for its overall functionality.

Some positive changes can be got after as little as 12 weeks of regular yoga practice.

So even three months of practice can be beneficial. And if yoga becomes part of your lifestyle, it can help you avoid age-related brain changes and keep a rational mind and sharp mind until old age.