Yoga & The Brain

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!

Learn more about BendyLife yoga...

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


Reference

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.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

I’ll help you gain body confidence and contentment

with short, easy-to-follow yoga classes from your LIVING ROOM!

On-demand and LIVE

Check out what I offer!

I’m a Small Business

Give yourself the gift of self-care for a super affordable price, while supporting an independent, small business!

I enjoy getting to know each and every new yoga student – so can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Jolanthe x


Bendy for Life

Bendy for Life

How can we become fit 80 year olds?

 

Have you got a vision for yourself when you’re older?

I do! I want to be mobile enough to do all the things that I enjoy! Dancing, walking, running, yoga, looking after grandchildren… just to name a few! (And I’d love to be doing pretty well mentally too!)

In this mini blog I will write about what we need to be doing NOW to enable that future vision to come true.

I’ll review a few research studies that have looked at data across the life-course to see what people are doing in middle age (or younger) to enable a more active and healthy older age.

This topic is relevant to EVERYONE. The younger you start thinking about your future self, the more likely it is that your future self will be strong and fit!

 

Why think about ageing?

Thankfully, it’s easy to be optimistic about our ourselves when we’re in our 70s and 80s, from our current point of view in younger bodies. (And 30s, 40s and 50s is STILL young!)

“I’ll be like those young-at-heart oldies in California!”

Perhaps ageing is a topic that you’d like to ignore. After all, if you’re in your 30s, 40s or 50s, then there’s still ages left, right? That’s true! However…

The saying “start as you mean to continue” is REALLY relevant when it comes to our physical abilities in older age. How can you expect your 70 year old self to attend a yoga class, if you’re not laying the foundation for this now?

Our bodies inevitably become less able with age. If you start off today with a low level of fitness, strength and flexibility, then this will decline steadily over the next 20, 30, 40 years…

But if you get your mobility, cardio-fitness and strength at a great level TODAY then (despite age-related declines) you’ll be at a MUCH better place in your 80s!

That’s the (quite obvious) theory, but what does the research say?

 

Life-course research

Life-course research uses the assumption that our behaviours (and environmental influences on us) all throughout our life have a cumulative effect on how we will be at the end of our lives.

“Isn’t that obvious?” I hear you ask.

Yes, it is obvious. But even so, not all research uses this perspective! And it is actually quite difficult to study the life-course effect. Researchers need to collect data from the same individuals throughout their whole lives. (This means studies need to be 90 years long!)

Thankfully, there are longitudinal studies that have been collecting data from volunteers for decades. Other studies have interviewed older adults and asked them to recall their lifestyles and physical activity levels in the past.

Researchers have been able to learn some interesting things from these!

 

How can we be MOBILE 80-year-olds?

What can we do NOW to be mobile in older age?

Mobility is not a very sexy term, but it is THE MOST useful thing for when we’re older. Just think: the ability to walk, drive a car, engage in active hobbies, cook, clean, wash and dress ourselves and socialise!

Well, Patel et al. (2006) interviewed 1026 Italian older adults about their past and also assessed their physical mobility at their current age. They found that more exercise in mid-life led to stronger legs and a faster walking pace when participants were in their 70s.

This is NOT surprising, BUT it is nevertheless a wake-up call if you’re not currently exercising!

 

Mid-life is the time to get STRONG!

Strength is also linked with maintained mobility and the ability to have FUN in our older years.

A different research group (Dodds et al., 2013) used a longitudinal dataset of people in the UK (the MRC NSHD study). These volunteers had entered the study at birth in 1946, and were regularly followed-up by researchers until 2010!

Between 2006-2010 (when volunteers were 60-64 years old) 2,229 volunteers were still alive and able to take part.

Volunteers who had done more Leisure Time Physical Activity (LTPA) across mid-life had a better grip strength at age 60–64, in both men and women. Grip strength is closely correlated with whole body strength and many other markers of good health.

This association only appeared in the data after age 53, so the researchers argued that Leisure-Time Physical Activity is especially important in mid-life.

LTPA is a wide term, including any leisure activity that uses the body. So think, walking, running, cycling, golf, yoga, weight-training, other exercise (and more!)

 

But we forget about ourselves!

I don’t know about you, but most people I know in mid-life (or approaching it) are SO BUSY with taking care of their children or their older parents, or with their demanding jobs that they FORGET about their own fitness!

It’s easy to think,:

“oh I’m too busy for this now. I’ll get onto exercise when my kids are older, or when I’m retired, or …. (insert other future time-frame)”.

Another thing I have noticed is that us (women) approaching or at mid-life are also not thinking about building STRENGTH.

However, it is EXTRA important at this age to think about our fitness and strength. It is extra important to get comfortable with swinging a dumb-bell, or to spending some time in plank or down-ward dog!

So ladies, let’s build some strength NOW!

 

What about BRAIN health?

Lastly, do you want a healthy BRAIN in your 80s? (That’s a rhetorical question because… of course you do!)

Well, the evidence points towards the need to be active in mid-life too.

Gow et al. (2017) analysed data from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1921. This is a study that recruited its volunteers at age 11 (they were all born in 1921). Most of them completed a mental ability test at age 11, and the surviving volunteers completed a cognitive test at ages 79, 83, 87 and 90 years.

Volunteers recalled their activity participation for young (20–35 years), mid (40–55 years), and later adulthood (60–75 years), and at the time of the study (average age of 79).

The researchers found that engagement in leisure activities in mid-life was positively associated with having a better cognitive ability (brain health) in later life.

So, this is yet another reason for those of us approaching (or at) mid-life to start valuing and prioritising our own fitness needs!

 

“So, what’s all this got to do with yoga?”

I personally find yoga the perfect mobility and ‘age-proofing’ exercise. The style of yoga that I practice works on flexibility, strength, and balance! These are all aspects that inevitably get a little worse as we get older.

With age:

  • Tendons naturally become stiffer…
  • Muscles start to loose strength (Sarcopenia)…
  • Balance becomes more challenging…

(Sorry to put a downer on your day! But it’s true!)

So, MY view is that establishing a sustainable habit of yoga TODAY (whatever age you are), and aiming to keep this going long-term is a great bet for making your older-age vision come true.

 

What does AGE-PROOFING yoga look like?

An age-proofing yoga routine should include aspects of flexibility, strength and balance. So, just the relaxing kind of yoga (such a Yin or Yoga Nidra) won’t cut it!

I personally LOVE an Ashtanga-inspired yoga style (combined with some squats with a kettle bell and occasional short runs!)

Ashtanga yoga incorporates lots of planks and push-up style movements that really strengthen the arms, back and core. It also uses plenty of balance-challenging poses, and works on hip and shoulder flexibility.

As yoga generally doesn’t build leg-strength that much, adding in some extra squats with a weight is super beneficial for building that lower body strength that will keep you standing, walking and climbing stairs into older age.

 

The challenges of mid-life!

This is THE BUSIEST time of your life! Kids, jobs, parents, pets. etc. etc. etc. (Trust me, I get it!)

Your fitness routine has to fit in to this busy existence. So I don’t expect you to go marathon training!

That’s why I am a big fan of SHORT sessions, REGULARLY. Rather than a one-hour class once a week, I believe three session at home of 15-30 minutes would be more useful! (or even five minutes!!) As long as you’re getting into the habit of doing it regularly.

(For some science behind this idea, see my Exercise Snacking blog).

I KNOW that it is a huge challenge to put yourself first when it feels like you’re looking after everybody…

But, if you can find a way SOMEHOW to work on your strength, flexibility and balance today (even if it’s just a tiny bit)…

…then your 80-year-old self will thank you!

Homework

Take a little moment to visualise your ideal 80 year old self.


What activities do you want to be able to do?

And whatever she/he is doing – think about how you can ‘train’ for this TODAY.

However fit and mobile you want to be at age 80, you need to be TWICE that level right now!


What can you do NOW?

Then, take another moment to honestly reflect on where your mobility and fitness is right now. If necessary, plan to get in some more strength training or yoga!


Three cheers to the fit-oldies!!!

Learn more about BendyLife yoga!

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in comments below!

Jolanthe x


References

Dodds, R., Kuh, D., Aihie Sayer, A., & Cooper, R. (2013). Physical activity levels across adult life and grip strength in early old age: updating findings from a British birth cohort. Age and ageing42(6), 794-798.

Gow, A. J., Pattie, A., & Deary, I. J. (2017). Lifecourse activity participation from early, mid, and later adulthood as determinants of cognitive aging: The Lothian Birth Cohort 1921. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences72(1), 25-37.

Patel, K. V., Coppin, A. K., Manini, T. M., Lauretani, F., Bandinelli, S., Ferrucci, L., & Guralnik, J. M. (2006). Midlife physical activity and mobility in older age: The InCHIANTI study. American journal of preventive medicine31(3), 217-224.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

I’ll help you gain body confidence and contentment

with short, easy-to-follow yoga classes from your LIVING ROOM!

On-demand and LIVE

Check out what I offer!

I’m a Small Business

Give yourself the gift of self-care for a super affordable price, while supporting an independent, small business!

I enjoy getting to know each and every new yoga student – so can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Jolanthe x


Never too 'old'!

Never too ‘old’!

How to become a strong & flexible 80 year old…

 

Perhaps you feel a few aches and pains, but you haven’t thought seriously about what your body might do when you get older…

That’s OK! It’s great to live in the present moment and not to worry about the future.

However, when it comes to ‘ageing gracefully’, it DOES pay to plan a head a little.

This week, I delved into a scientific research paper that compared an Ashtanga yoga programme for people in three age groups: 20-29 years, 30-39 years, and 40-49 years (Halder et al., 2015).

The result are really encouraging!

But before I review the fantastic results of this study, let’s just briefly talk about what COULD happen as your body ages.

 

What happens as we age?

From around the age of 30 the body starts to age slowly. This might shock you! But it’s true.

By bringing your awareness to this fact, you can start to make choices to COUNTERACT these natural age-related changes.

It’s natural that:

… the body starts breaking down muscles more, and become less good at absorbing protein from the diet. This results in the natural weakening of muscles, a process called sarcopenia.

…our muscles and tendons to get stiffer, reducing flexibility. This is due to increased stiffness and rigidity of the soft-tissues of the joint capsules, muscles, facia, tendons, ligaments and skin surrounding different joints.

…our body fat starts to creep up as the hormones that drive metabolism and energy burning reduce with oncoming age (especially for women).

bone density starts to reduce (especially for women after the menopause), as the hormones involved in storing calcium in our bones reduce as well.

(BUT we can do something about all this!)

 

So what can we do?

If you’re feeling a bit discouraged after reading the list above, then please keep reading!

Exercise scientists have long agreed that weight-bearing and strength training exercise into older ages (as well as eating enough protein), is SUPER important for maintaining muscle strength and bone density.

And now there is also research showing that Ashtanga yoga is beneficial for halting age-related physical declines too!

So let’s review this super interesting study…

 

Yoga for all ages

This study recruited 79 volunteers, whom they divided into 3 groups: 20-29, 30-39, and 40-49 years. All volunteers took part in a yoga exercise regime for 3 months.

The volunteers were given a 1-hour yoga class, 6 days a week, first thing in the morning.

Yes…. This is fairly intense! But I was excited to read this, because other studies usually give just 1 or 2 classes a week, and see limited results.

The yoga style was based on Ashtanga (so lots of sun-salutations), and they also included breathing exercises and meditation.

Similar to my classes! Whoohoo! 🥳

 

‘Reversed’ ageing!

The researchers took lots of measurements: weight, BMI, body fat, and strength and flexibility of different muscles.

They found that for all measurements the oldest two groups, and especially the oldest (40-49 years) improved the most!

After the 12 weeks of yoga:

…The middle and oldest group lost weight, lowered their body fat % and moved their BMI from over-weight to the ‘normal’ category. (The youngest group was already in a healthy BMI category before the yoga programme).

…All age groups increased hand-grip strength and back strength, with the 40-49 year olds increasing strength the most.

…All age groups increased upper-back flexibility and hamstring flexibility with, again, the 40-49 year olds increasing flexibility the most.

So, the participants in the middle and oldest group essentially LOWERED their own ‘biological age’ by reducing their body fat (to a healthier level), increasing strength and increasing flexibility!

 

Applying this to YOUR life?

This study gave volunteers a 1 hour yoga class, 6 days a week in the mornings. So you might be thinking…

“I don’t have 1 hour every morning to do yoga!”

Well, looking closely at the study report, the active part of yoga contained 5 minutes of sun-salutations, and 20 minutes of yoga poses.

(The rest of the time was taken up with breath-work and mediation.)

While I don’t want to reduce the importance of the mediation side of yoga, it is fantastic to see these physical results with JUST 25 minutes of yoga a day!

This suddenly becomes a lot more realistic. 😎

(Most of us spend 2-3 hours a day scrolling social media, so perhaps we can fit in 25 minutes of yoga!)

 

A gift to your 80-year old self!

Today you might not feel the effects of age on your body. Today it is SOOOO easy to choose a chilled half hour, scrolling your phone with a lovely hot cuppa.

Yet… if you are over age 30 you WILL be ageing the tiniest bit every day.

Every bit of muscle strengthening and stretching exercise you do today will top up the ‘health’ bank-account of your future 80-year old self!

So what do you think?

Is it worth getting a little sweaty today for a fit 80-year old you?

Yoga homework

I invite you to pick a yoga practice that includes sun-salutations.

Hint: ALL my online classes do…. 😉 

 

Start saving for the future

Find a class lasting between 10 – 30 minutes, and do this on

3 mornings/evenings a week.

Let’s focus on establishing this routine…. Maybe one day you’ll do more!

 

I can help you!

If you’re not yet a BendyFriend, have a look at my offerings.

Learn more!

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in comments below!

Jolanthe x


Reference

Halder, K., Chatterjee, A., Pal, R., Tomer, O. S., & Saha, M. (2015). Age related differences of selected Hatha yoga practices on anthropometric characteristics, muscular strength and flexibility of healthy individuals. International journal of yoga, 8(1), 37.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

I’ll help you gain body confidence and contentment

with short, easy-to-follow yoga classes from your LIVING ROOM!

On-demand and LIVE

Check out what I offer!

I’m a Small Business

Give yourself the gift of self-care for a super affordable price, while supporting an independent, small business!

I enjoy getting to know each and every new yoga student – so can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Jolanthe x