Experts examine the evidence that yoga is good for the brain

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After examining several studies on the positive impact of yoga on brain health, the researchers say that not only are changes observed in people who practice it regularly in areas of the brain essential for memory processing, but these changes are associated with better cognitive and emotional performance.

Yoga is a discipline of the body and mind considered an art of life that is based on the deep practice of asanas (yoga postures) and pranayama (yogic breathing). This comes in many forms: some classes focus on strengthening the body's energy while others are more energetic.

In all cases, posture, breathing, and relaxation work remains essential, with key benefits such as improved sleep, reduced anxiety, or relief from chronic pain. Researchers from the University of Illinois also evoke beneficial effects on brain function in a recent study.

They claim that it is known that aerobic (endurance) physical exercise can "strengthen" the brain in the sense that it helps the growth of new neurons, but few studies have examined the effects of yoga on the brain. Their study, published in the journal Brain Plasticity, reveals that yoga improves many of the same brain functions that benefit from aerobic exercise. The researchers reviewed eleven studies on the relationship between yoga practice and brain health. Five of these studies included people new to the practice who had to complete several classes per week over a period of 10 to 24 weeks.

Positive effects on the hippocampus, an area of the brain essential for memory

The other six studies consisted of measuring brain differences between people who practiced yoga and those who did not. For each of these studies, the researchers used brain imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging or single photon emission tomography. All classes were Hatha yoga classes, which included body movements, meditation, and breathing exercises. "With these studies, we found that certain regions of the brain are constantly evoked and are not very different from the investigations on physical exercise", explains Professor Neha Gothe, responsible for the study.

"For example, we see an increase in the volume of the hippocampus with the practice of yoga. Studies on the brain effects of aerobic-type exercise have shown a similar increase in the size of the hippocampus over time. The hippocampus participates in the processing of memory and it is known to shrink with age. It is the first structure affected by dementia, "he adds. Although the other results are less conclusive, they highlight other important brain changes associated with regular yoga practice. The amygdala, a brain structure that helps with emotional regulation, tends to be larger in practitioners.

Yoga helps fight stress, which is bad for the brain

On the other hand, other regions such as the prefrontal cortex and the cingulate cortex tend to be larger or more effective in those who practice yoga regularly. "The prefrontal cortex is involved in planning, decision-making, multitasking, evaluating, and choosing options. The cingulate cortex, along with the amygdala, is part of the limbic system and plays a central role in managing emotions. , learning and memory, "add the researchers. Finally, the studies also revealed that the brain changes observed in yoga practitioners are associated with better cognitive performance and better emotional regulation.

However, scientists cannot explain exactly how this practice can affect the brain. "Yoga is not aerobic in nature, so there must be other mechanisms that lead to these brain changes," emphasizes Professor Neha Gothe. Among the most likely hypotheses, improving emotional regulation is the key to yoga's positive effects on the brain. According to her, "Studies link stress in humans, shrinkage of the hippocampus, and poorer performance on memory tests. In a previous study, we found that those who did yoga for 8 weeks had a reduced stress response."

Therefore, yoga would be a very effective practice to help people with and without anxiety disorders manage stress. "Yoga helps improve emotional management, reduces stress, worry and depression. And that seems to improve the functioning of the brain," concludes Neha Gothe.

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