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Yoga has been around for more than 5,000 years and has some impressive health and fitness benefits, but a recent review of 11 scientific studies suggests that it could be even better for the brain than previously thought.
The researchers analyzed five studies in people without yoga experience who had one or more sessions per week for 10 to 24 weeks, while the other six studies looked at the brain differences between steadfast yogis and non-yogis. All studies included hatha yoga and used methods such as MRI, functional MRI or SPECT scans to measure the differences in the participants' brains.
"From these eleven studies, we identified some brain regions that appear consistently and, surprisingly, they don't differ much from what we see in exercise research," said lead study author Neha Gothe, professor of kinesiology and public health at the University of Illinois , said in a publication. "For example, we see that the volume of the hippocampus increases with yoga practice."
According to Gothe, the growth of the hippocampus can also be observed in studies on aerobic exercises. Since the hippocampus is the part of the brain where learning and memory play a role, that's good news. A smaller hippocampus has been linked to depression, stress, and Alzheimer's.
The study's author and Wayne State University psychology professor Jessica Damoiseaux said that many of the studies in the review are explorative and inconclusive. However, her research also suggests that other brain changes are associated with regular yoga practice. Such a change appears to be a larger amygdala – a part of the brain that is crucial for processing emotions and reactions such as fear or pleasure – and a healthier prefrontal cortex and standard mode network.
"The prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain just behind the forehead, is critical to planning, decision making, multitasking, thinking about your options, and choosing the right option," said Damoiseaux. "The standard mode network consists of a number of brain regions that are involved in thinking about the self, planning, and memory." Overall, the brain changes researchers saw in people who practice yoga are associated with doing well in cognitive tests and regulating emotions.
The study's authors admit that more rigorous research is needed to see exactly how yoga affects the brain, but Gothe finds it interesting that yoga could have similar effects to aerobic exercise.
"Yoga is not aerobic. So there must be other mechanisms that lead to these brain changes," said Gothe. "So far, we have no evidence to identify what these mechanisms are." She believes this may have something to do with emotional regulation, since stress has been linked to a smaller hippocampus and memory tests performed poorly.
Overall, the researchers believe that larger studies in which participants practice yoga for months, comparing yoga groups to control groups who exercise, and using cognitive tests to compare yoga with other sports would lead to more conclusive answers.
"Science suggests that yoga is beneficial for healthy brain function," said Damoiseaux, "but we need more rigorous and controlled intervention studies to confirm these initial results."[RELATED1]