Yoga ­– Neurobics for the Brain?

You exercise and eat right to keep your body looking and feeling young. But did you know that your brain needs just as much attention in order to stay supple, too, and that yoga asanas and meditation might be some of the best ways to keep the brain young?

As we get older, our brains don’t get as much oxygen or glucose, which means certain brain cells can actually starve to death. That’s the cause of short-term memory loss and decreased mental acuity that many older people experience.

Yet new discoveries in the field of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to reorganize itself and form new neural connections all through life, show your brain is malleable, and it can change. The brain is like a muscle—it needs regular workouts to keep in shape. People who are concerned with developing or strengthening parts of their brain often do puzzles or other brain-bending activities, and, indeed, studies show that people who continue to learn throughout their lives age better overall. 

But that’s not the only way to improve your brain. New neurons are created each time you exercise, including yoga stretches, and exercise stimulates your sensory and motor cortices. Yoga breathing, or pranayama, draws more oxygen into your body, enriching your brain cells, leading to greater memory and concentration.

Exciting research also demonstrates that yoga and meditation actually change the structure of your brain, stimulating mental activity and increasing memory and concentration.

A 2005 study by Harvard, MIT, and Massachusetts General Hospital compared brain MRIs of regularly practicing meditators and non-meditators. In the meditating group, the right insula was consistently thicker than in the non-meditating group, and the thickness of the Brodmann 9 and 10 areas of the brain, located in the frontal cortex, did not decrease with age in meditators.

What does this mean? First of all, the right insula is involved in brain functions like body awareness, as well as laughter, tears, empathy, compassion, language, heart rate, speech and social emotions. And the Brodman 9 and 10 areas regulate emotion and cognition. These findings suggest that meditation may both strengthen your brain and keep it from degenerating.

Similar research and brain scans on the Dalai Llama and other monks in a study conducted in 2005 at the University of Wisconsin show greater activation of powerful gamma waves in meditators—both while meditating, and while not. Gamma waves, some of the highest-frequency and most important electrical brain impulses, are linked to higher mental activity and heightened awareness.

Evidence that yoga and meditation help patients with memory loss was also documented in a 2007 study at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Subjects were a group of adults ages 52-70 who either had a history of memory complaints or a mild cognitive impairment. None practiced meditation before. Brain scans measured blood flow before their meditation instruction and then after an eight-week trial period.

Follow-up tests not only showed statistically significant memory improvement, but more importantly, the brain scans showed dramatic increases of blood flow to the region of the brain responsible for memory and learning. This region, the posterior cingulated byrus, is the first section of the brain to deteriorate in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

“For the first time we are seeing scientific evidence that meditation enables the brain to actually strengthen itself and battle the processes working to weaken it,” says Andrew Newberg, M.D., the study’s principal investigator in a SeniorJournal.com article.

This promising research shows that yoga and meditation are significant tools to prevent memory loss and degenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. You’ll keep your brain sharp with daily exercise, a brain twister or two, and regular practice of yoga and meditation.

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