Time and again, research has shown that if we nourish our body, our brain health can vastly improve. The same goes for feeding our body with movement. And in my 12 years of practice, I can definitely see a correlation between yoga and brain health.
And at 50ish, we may jokingly laugh off misplacing our keys or glasses, we secretly wonder if our absentmindedness may be precursors to something more serious later in life, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Sadly, Alzheimer’s affects more than 5 million Americans, and while there is no cure, research points strongly to a correlation between yoga and a reduction in symptoms that can lead to better quality of life for patients.
I know that before yoga, my thinking was very scattered. This manifested with things like forgetting appointments and spacing on school assignments or work projects. My mind was like a spinning wheel, never stopping too long on any one category, always jumping around without focus.
Since I’ve been devoted to my yoga practice, I have a heightened clarity of thought. I am able to stick with a thought longer, and I am much more organized both in my mind and outwardly in my life. I don’t typically forget appointments and I am much more prompt with completing assignments. It has really helped with my stress levels and how I react to outward stresses.
Exercise & Memory Enhancement
Memory enhancement exercises have long been considered the ‘gold standard’ to prevent or minimize symptoms of Alzheimer’s. But a study conducted by a team of UCLA neuroscientists found a three-month course including the practice of yoga helped minimize cognitive and emotional issues that can precede Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia more effectively.
The senior author of the study, published in the May 10, 2016 Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, attributed this broader benefit to the fact that yoga also helped with mood, anxiety and coping skills, whereas the memory enhancement exercises did not.
The UCLA study took place over 12 weeks and involved 25 participants over the age of 55. Eleven participants performed memory exercises for 20 minutes per day and received one hour per week of memory enhancement training. The other 14 participants took a one-hour yoga class each week and practiced meditation for 20 minutes per day.
At the end of the study, MRI scans were conducted that showed subjects in both groups displayed changes in brain connectivity. The yoga group showed statistically significant changes while the memory group did not. The yoga group also experienced a much greater reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety. They also showed increased coping skills and stress resilience, which is an important factor in dealing with memory loss.
Clarity of Thought & Stress Management
I know I am much more patient and more likely to observe the feeling or thought that a stressful situation or event brings up in me. Previously, I would have jumped into the passenger seat and taken off with the feeling or thought. I’m able to work full time, attend online classes, practice and teach yoga, and participate in social groups regularly. My husband often remarks he doesn’t know how I do it all.
And of course teaching classes has improved my memory. I design a flow of specific poses and memorize that sequence for a 75-minute class. The trick is keeping the poses in order as well as the cues for guiding students in and out of each pose. I truly feel that I would not have this level of mental acuity if not for having practiced yoga for years prior to teacher training.
Yoga is safe, accessible, and economical ways to improve memory and brain health. It may also be helpful in reducing stress for caregivers of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. These practices have long been associated inner peace and body flexibility. But the most valuable benefit may be improving brain fitness.