Yoga & the Brain

Does yoga improve our memory, emotional control and ‘ageing’ of the brain?


You may not think about your brain much.

It’s just always there, chugging away, thinking thoughts for you and pumping out hormones (yes – it also releases hormones!)

You can just live your life, without ever thinking about this big squishy thing in your head! However…


Why think about your brain?

The brain suddenly becomes something people think about when they are getting older. The reasons for this are obvious! But why not start thinking about it a bit earlier???

As I’ll explain later, there’s good reason to look after your brain now, whatever age you are. By doing the right kinds of exercise, we could improve our brain health, and potentially delay or avoid these age-related declines!

Another reason to think about your brain is our EMOTIONS. If you find your emotions are in control of you, rather than the other way around, then there is some work to be done to help you (and your loved ones) get a more peaceful experience in life!


Delving into the science

Recently, I’ve been on a journey of delving into the research behind yoga and its effects on our health. This week I found a fascinating, yet mind-boggling (pun intended) review of the literature on yoga and it’s effects on the brain.

The authors reviewed 11 scientific studies; 6 of which compared long-term yogi’s and ‘yoga-naive’ people, and 5 studies that had conducted a yoga ‘experiment’ and had measured their participants before and after a yoga programme (Gothe et al., 2019).

I’ll be highlighting some of the findings of this review study, but I’ll leave out a lot of Neuroscience speak! (Mostly because it makes my brain ache just reading these words).


The structure of the brain

You may think of the mindfulness benefits of yoga as being purely ‘psychological’, but one very consistent finding across these studies was that a mind-body practice, such as yoga, changed the PHYSICAL shape of the brain!

This was true for lots of areas such as: frontal cortex, hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex and insula, grey matter volume, grey matter density, cortical thickness. (Ps. Don’t worry if none of these words make sense to you!)

So, what does that MEAN of how our brains operate?


Yoga & Memory

There was evidence that a long-term yoga practice increased the activation of something called the default mode network (DMN) in the brain, and consequently memory performance.

The majority of the studies reviewed also highlighted changes in hippocampal volume following yoga practice. The hippocampus is known to be involved in learning and memory.

The authors noted that this effect on the hippocampus has also been shown after aerobic exercise and after mindfulness programmes. So they suggested that exercise alone and mindfulness alone, as well as a COMBINATION of the two in the form of yoga, have a positive effect on this brain structure.

The exciting thing about this finding, as mentioned by Gothe et al. (2019), is that a yoga practice COULD play a role in preserving the brain structure that declines in age-related neurodegenerative diseases and chronic stress!


Yoga & Grey Matter

You may have heard of grey matter. This is an essential type of tissue in your brain and spinal cord. It plays a significant role in mental functions, memory, emotions and movement.

Some of the studies that Gothe et al. (2019) reviewed suggested that yoga practitioners have higher grey matter volume in a number of regions! (I’ll spare you the complicated names).

And the reason that we want to keep this grey matter large and healthy is that it is involved in: cognitive control, inhibition of compulsive behaviours, the contextually appropriate selection and coordination of actions, and reward evaluation and decision making.

In normal-person speak, these describe your logical brain! How to act accordingly and made logical decisions in a context where we might be triggered to act ‘reactively’.

Pretty essential for life, I’d say!


Yoga & Emotional Control

Now here comes my favourite – emotional control. It’s my favourite to discuss because I’m absolutely guilty of losing my temper now and then!

Do you loose your cool often with those closest to you? It may be that your ‘emotional’ brain is leading the conversation, not your ‘rational’ brain.

You may have heard that our ’emotional brain’ is the Amygdala and the ‘rational brain’ is the Pre-Frontal Cortex. People all differ in how emotionally or rationally driven they are, but in general it’s quite useful to be able to feel and acknowledge your emotions, while not letting them run the show!

Well, there’s science speak for this too…

Research has found that exerting cognitive (rational) control over emotional processes leads to increased activation in the lower dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC). At the same time this leads to deactivation in the amygdala (the emotional brain).

The studies reviewed by Gothe et al. (2019) suggest that yoga practitioners, when asked to do a demanding task designed to stir negative emotions, appear to activate regions of their pre-frontal cortex that indicate cognitive control (rational control).

Plausibly, these findings indicate that, when in a pickle, long-term yoga practitioners can recruit the parts of their brain that help them avoid negative emotional experiences. Instead, they use more of the rational brain, usually used for memory and the control of impulsive behaviour.

Quite a mouthful!

But basically, long-term yogi’s seem to be better at ‘choosing’ whether or not to react to negative emotions when they appear. Instead of shouting at someone, they may stop and take a deep breath instead.

Sounds useful, doesn’t it?


Yoga & Brain Ageing

Of course this discussion is not complete without addressing AGEING of the brain!

Needless to say, the loss of cognitive function (ability to perform normal brain functions such as memory, conversation, movement etc.) can be devastating to someones life and that of their loved ones. Thankfully, not all of us will experience this! (So, don’t let me worry you too much).

However, there will be an inevitable decline in structure and function of our brains as we age, even if the effects on things like memory are only minuscule for many of us.

So, it’s worth finding out what might help keep our brains healthy!

Well, following a yoga intervention, participants had an increase in connectivity of regions in their brain’s default mode network (DMN), and this was associated with improvements in verbal memory recall.

This is important in the context of keeping the brain healthy as we age. Indeed, better connectivity of the default mode network (DMN) has been associated with less age-related brain function decline for both typical older adults, and those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Similarly, other studies reviewed by Gothe et al. (2019) also showed a positive effect of yoga on the grey matter of the brain. As grey matter declines with age, it seems that yoga (through combining physical activity and mindfulness aspects) is a brain-protective activity as we age!


The take away message

If you’ve managed to wade your way through all that science-speak, well done!! Now just my final thoughts about how we can apply this to our own lives.

Regardless of your age, it’s beneficial to have a healthy, sharp, emotionally stable brain! (Don’t you agree?)

What I see as the take-away message from this review study is this: Staying active (in any way) AND doing a regular mindfulness practice (whether that is meditation, yoga nidra, or any other form of yoga) is important for your BRAIN!

Science doesn’t yet know exactly which component of being active and mindful is the ‘active ingredient’ in benefitting the brain, but they are pretty certain that these things a GREAT for this big, old squishy thing in our head!

So, however you can fit it into your life, get a sweat on, use your muscles, and regularly find a quiet moment to be mindful: breathing deeply and becoming aware of the sensations in your body in a non-judgemental way.

In MY opinion a fantastic way to do this is… Ashtanga Yoga! 😉

Your BRAIN (years from now) will thank you!

Yoga homework

Plan in 3 short yoga/exercise/meditation session this week!

(Your choice which you choose)

Start small

I’m a big fan of starting a healthy habit by doing SHORT sessions.

If you plan to exercise or do yoga, then start with 20 to 30 minutes!

If you plan to meditate, just start with 5 minutes!

And if you need a little help getting started with Ashtanga yoga, go along an have a look at my classes… 😉

You deserve some YOU time!

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I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


Gothe, N. P., Khan, I., Hayes, J., Erlenbach, E., & Damoiseaux, J. S. (2019). Yoga effects on brain health: a systematic review of the current literature. Brain Plasticity, 5(1), 105-122.

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