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If you’re a yoga devotee, you don’t need to be reminded of the power of good it provides for greater flexibility and strength.

But does yoga provide any other benefits to help keep our brains and minds sharp and working well.

Why yoga?

There are a myriad of types of yoga practice (I counted 14) and whether your preference is for Hatha Yoga, Ashtanga, Bikram or Iyengar there’s something that feels slightly virtuous about taking your own yoga mat to class before getting into the downward dog or salute to the sun.

Why yoga? Apart from enhancing flexibility, wellbeing and happiness yoga has been used to assist in the management of stress, anxiety, insomnia and various medical conditions including arthritis, across all ages.

As far as brain health goes there are three areas of benefit.

Reducing Inflammation

Managing inflammation matters because it is a key contributor to a wide range of diseases including heart disease, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cognitive decline.

Yogic breathing and meditation have been shown to reduce cortisol levels, that at toxic levels damages neurons and leads to higher levels of inflammation in the body.

Practising yoga regularly as a lifestyle intervention reduces the harmful effects of stress and inflammation and can slow down the pace of aging. In a fairly intensive program of yoga and meditation comprising 90-minute sessions five times a week for 2 weeks, results showed a significant reduction in cortisol and inflammation along with higher levels of BDNF, which is known to be neuroprotective.

If you’re up for a yoga retreat, another study showed how a 3-month program that incorporated 2 hours of sitting meditation, an hour of moving (yoga practice) and one hour of chanting daily also significantly reduced cortisol, inflammatory biomarkers and tripled levels of BDNF.

Boosting Brains

Turning back the years with yoga practice was shown in one small study that compared memory (brain) training and Kundalini yoga in a group with mild cognitive impairment. The yoga group showed greater improvement in visuospatial memory in addition to boosting mood and coping skills and reducing anxiety.

And if your schedule doesn’t permit for intensive programs or retreats even a single 20-minute session Hatha Yoga can bring about a positive result. One study compared the impact on cognition between yoga and 20 minutes of moderate to intense aerobic exercise in young female undergraduates on a treadmill. Here yoga won hands down with a significant improvement in speed and accuracy of working memory, improving a person’s ability to take in and retain useful new information compared to the aerobic group.

It’s thought this is because aerobic exercise primes the brain for improved performance after the event through changes in blood flow and the release of mood-enhancing and growth factors. Yoga has a more immediate effect via the focus on breathing and meditative approach, calming the mind and lowering stress and anxiety to enable better cognitive function.

Another short 6-week program also confirmed the working memory effect and enhanced mindfulness score but more research using larger groups is required to explore the potential cognitive benefits of yoga in greater depth.

Calming Minds

Yoga isn’t just for keeping brains young and working well, it enhances a sense of wellbeing and calm, the perfect soothing balm to help you manage the crazy busyness of our lives.

Yoga’s benefit being it helps you to stay cool, calm and collected even when under pressure. Your blood pressure and heart rate stay low and because it’s easier to avoid being triggered into the fight-flight-freeze response you retain access to the pre-frontal cortex, your conscious thought, so you stay calm and alert.

You’ve probably noticed, it’s far easier to deal with life’s curveballs when they head your way if you’re starting from a place of greater perspective, calm and reasoning.

Schools are also exploring the use of yoga. The CALM program is a daily school-based program based on mindfulness and yoga used to promote wellbeing, stress management and positive mood and there’s an app to go with it too.

How much yoga do you need?

That’s going to depend on what works best for you and how much yoga time you are prepared to schedule into your week.

In an ideal world, a daily yoga practice would be fantastic. But why not start with the goal of two sessions a week building to three when possible? While a single session will get you started, it’s not enough for long term stress reduction, improved wellbeing and cognitive function.

If your yoga mat has been gathering dust in the hall cupboard, it’s time to get it out, put on your yoga pants and book your next class. Your brain (and body) will thank you for it.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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