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  • Writer's pictureGayle Fleming

Want to Improve Brain Health, Memory, Mood? Do Yoga

Research is still being compiled and analyzed. But the evidence shows, and researchers now agree that yoga improves human brain health in many ways. If you are concerned about some of the ways that aging after fifty begins to affect your mental state, do yoga. If the difficult times we are living in are causing you to experience more stress and anxiety, do yoga. If you want to keep your memory and cognitive abilities sharp, do yoga.

And I am talking about real yoga—Hatha Yoga—the yoga of the ancient seers, philosophers, and spiritual teachers codified and systematized thousands of years ago. I am decidedly not talking about the 21st-century watered-down, fast food yoga that seems to have become the dominant experience so many people have when they take what they think is a yoga class. Not everything called yoga has the benefits associated with traditional Hatha Yoga.

This is borne out by the 11 studies of yoga that were used by researchers for the article published In the journal, Brain Plasticity. The study author, Neha Gothe, head of the exercise psychology lab at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says that yoga appears to have a positive effect on the areas of the brain “responsible for memory and information processing, as well as emotional regulation”. She goes on to say, “We believe that one of the key mechanisms could be that regular yoga practice impacts emotional regulation”

But the researchers found that not all of the ways that people are taught yoga have these benefits. They found that Hatha Yoga has the most benefits because it combines physical asanas, extensive breathing or pranayama exercises, and the meditation aspects of the practice.

If you have started to worry about your memory and cognitive abilities because you are getting older, first it’s important to know that everyone, regardless of age is having more memory and cognitive challenges because of the sheer volume of information we are all subjected to every day. That said, however, like other functions of being human, age-related declines are real. But according to the article on the Harvard University health website called, “Yoga for Better Mental Health, Yoga definitely improves “cognitive skills such as memory and learning.”

The article goes on to say that in people who regularly practice yoga, the cerebral cortex (the area of the brain responsible for information processing) and the hippocampus (the area associated with memory and learning) are thicker. “These areas of the brain typically shrink as you age, but the older yoga practitioners showed less shrinkage than those who did no yoga. This suggests that yoga may counteract age-related declines in memory and other cognitive skills.”

We are living in tumultuous times. I don’t know many people who would say that they haven’t struggled with anxiety and some level of depression over the last couple of years. We all struggle to regulate or control our emotions from time to time. We may restrain ourselves from lashing out in anger at someone—or maybe we don’t. Science-based studies now show that yoga can be an exceptional mood regulator for almost everyone, including people who suffer from pretty severe mental and emotional disorders. In his groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score—Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, began to use yoga in the treatment of PTSD, depression, and trauma as far back as 1998. This was long before there were any real scientific studies to show the benefits of yoga for the treatment of his patients. He and his team at Harvard Medical School and the trauma center that he founded began some of the early research and study to verify the benefits of yoga for the treatment of mental health issues.

The subsequent scientific data all points towards the massive benefits of practicing yoga regularly for mental health and acuity. Most studies find that practicing two to three times a week is sufficient to reap great benefits. Imagine what more yoga can do. That yoga can help us to simply be better, happier, healthier humans is something the ancient yogis knew thousands of years ago. Now research and science have proven them right.

Note: Because the subject of this blog is based on the outcomes of scientific research, I did a fair amount of slogging through studies on PubMed, NIH and other scientific sites to be sure the information here is verifiable.

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