Science says yoga increases brain function and can improve mental health

Science says yoga increases brain function and can improve mental health

By Marc TOUTAIN, Doctoral Student in Science and Techniques of Physical and Sports Activities – COMETE U1075 INSERM / Unicaen Laboratory, and Anne-Lise MARAIS (University of Caen-Normandie)

Yoga has become a popular activity in our western societies. Beyond fashion, scientists are interested in the physical and mental health benefits that regular exercise brings. Researchers Marc Dudain and Anne-Lise Marais from the University of Caen-Normandie describe the benefits of yoga on the brain and its potential interest in reducing stress and reducing anxiety-depressive symptoms.

In the last decade, the Yoga Became trendy, its proliferation of variations, more or less imaginary, or created International Yoga Day (June 21) in 2015. Many benefits are attributed to this regulation, and scientific works are trying to evaluate its effects on health, as well as its ability to improve the condition of patients suffering from various diseases, such as low back pain, cancer or heart problems. The effects of yoga practice have been studied not only in the general population but also in specific populations: adolescents, people with mental disorders, etc.

The results indicate that practicing yoga has a variety of positive effects on physical health. This exercise significantly improves balance, flexibility and strengthens the muscles and heart. Yoga is beneficial to the immune system and may be of interest in pain management.

read more: Finally, five good reasons to take up yoga

What about mental health? For the latter, we now know that practicing physical activity is beneficial. Yoga is no exception. It even has a direct effect on the brain. Explanations.

Yoga improves brain function

Compared to other forms of physical activity, yoga combines sequences of movements with breathing control and attention regulation exercises. In a recent meta-analysis, in other words, a statistical analysis of data published in the scientific literature (“analysis of analyses”), Chinese researchers extracted the results of 15 scientific publications, showing that the effects of yoga and its practices are similar to those of the same type of “body-mind” physical activity (Thai-Chi-Chuan or Taiji, Gui Gong, Paduanjin, Wuqingzi, etc.). In these various works, researchers specifically used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe the effects of yoga on the brain.

An analysis of all the results of these different studies shows many improvements in the practitioners of these physical-mental activities. An increase in the size of certain areas of the brain as well as their function. These changes are mainly in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, temporal lobe, insula, and cingulate cortex, structures that are crucially involved in emotion regulation, memory, and self-regulation. The researchers also observed better functional connectivity in higher-level brain networks such as cognitive control (regulation of attention, inhibition, working memory, etc.) and default mode (network of thoughts and emotions of self and others).

Another meta-analysis showed that brain changes seen on MRI May be associated with behavioral changes (observed during psychological assessments of yoga practitioners through questionnaires, observations or interviews). How do these brain changes affect their daily lives?

Yoga reduces stress

A meta-analysis of 42 studies looked at the effect of yoga practice on depression. Stress is a physiological response that results in physiological symptoms, negative thoughts, and cognitive decline.

Yoga helps reduce stress by reducing levels of cortisol, the main stress hormone. These results need to be qualified and especially in-depth studies with more participants and longer interventions are needed to determine the long-term effect of yoga on stress.

In addition to this hormonal change, other works indicate that yoga can have an effect On the activity of the frontal cortex and parietal cortex of the brain. The frontal cortex is associated with self and emotional regulation, while the parietal cortex is responsible for processing and integrating emotional information.

This can be explained by the fact that a yoga session is often punctuated by meditative moments where practitioners need to focus on their breathing, a particular part of the body or even what they are feeling in the present moment. These moments of meditation help to better control the activity of these brain regions, while reducing the activity associated with mental overload or stress.

Yoga improves anxiety symptoms

Anxiety is an overflow of emotion regulation skills manifested by symptoms seen in depression. It sounds like widespread anxiety, especially related to difficulty concentrating and sleeping. Depression is a mental disorder characterized by dysregulation of emotions associated with feelings of sadness or persistent hopelessness, as well as loss of interest and withdrawal from oneself. Anxiety and depression are associated with changes in the activity of the amygdala, a brain system specifically involved in negative emotions.

A meta-analysis of 27 studies conducted in children and adolescents examined the effects of yoga on anxiety-depressive symptoms. Participants were either general individuals or those with various pathologies (ovarian pathology, cardiac pathology, digestive disorders, etc.). This study showed that 70% works Improving the mental health of young people Adherence to the practice of yoga, and more specifically anxiety, and these outcomes are directly related Decreased amygdala activity Seen in exercising adults. These are Beneficial effects on anxiety-depressive symptoms Proven in adults and people Suffers from anxiety-depressive disorder.

As studies in this field are still recent, they are still few in number and heterogeneous in their methodology. Therefore caution is necessary in interpreting the results.

Additionally, yoga practice does not replace medical and psychological care in case of depressive disorder. Nevertheless, these results suggest that yoga can be used not only as a physical activity, but also to improve mental health.

Yoga also improves cognitive performance

Yoga practice affects cognitive performance. A meta-analysis published in 2020 and including 13 articles showed that following yoga sessions, adults with and without cognitive impairment were given Improvements in their attentional performanceMemory and inhibition.

These improvements may be related to brain changes Observed with brain imaging, specifically increased gray matter volume in the hippocampus, medial temporal lobe, prefrontal cortex, insula, and cingulate cortex, regions closely linked to cognitive performance. Also, the increased activity of the frontal regions of the brain lasts longer. However, the authors of these works recommend conducting more in-depth studies using larger samples and standardized protocols (randomized controlled trials) to improve the quantity and quality of available data.

It is important to note that the observed improvements appear to be due specifically to the mindfulness and meditation exercises that punctuate the yoga sessions. During sessions, the use of these exercises will have an essential synergistic effect. Learning how to direct one’s attention to the present moment and one’s emotions is essential to noticing the effects of yoga on anxiety symptoms and cognition. Additionally, other factors such as being in a group and having positive interactions during sessions may also contribute to reducing anxiety-depressive symptoms.

If you want to practice yoga and see the results for yourself, you have to answer one question: what to choose? Of the many types of yoga that exist, three stand out in the studies we reviewed: hatha yoga, kundalini yoga, or kripalu yoga. If you had to pick one to get started, this would probably be one of them… Find a class near you!

The original version of this article was published Conversation.

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