If you haven’t jumped on board the yoga bandwagon, it’s never too late to start and experience the many mind and body benefits you’ll reap from regular practice. The good news is; you don’t have to commit to an hour every day in order to have a healthy mind.
“Truth be told, there is no magic number or exact amount of time to reap the benefits of yoga,” says Emilie Maynor, yoga instructor, wellness and mindful living coach at Emilie Maynor Living. Many people claim to experience lowered stress, increased clarity and productivity after just five minutes of practicing yoga, she says. Here, Maynor walks us through the brain benefits of yoga. After reading through these, you might be tempted to become a yogaholic!
The difference between yoga and other forms of physical activity is the use of controlled breathing, called Pranayama, in conjunction with physical postures, called Asana. Asanas are designed to open the body and calm the mind. A daily yoga practice of just 20 minutes can alleviate physical and mental tension while also increasing blood flow to the brain and other vital organs. By lowering the stress response and balancing the nervous system, the brain feels calm and alert, making for a healthy mind.
Reducing the stress response in the body, often known as the “fight or flight mode” (our caveman days when stressful situations could be deadly) is a key benefit of yoga. By balancing the central nervous system and reducing stress, the brain is able to function at a higher level. When you’re overly stressed, you’re expending a tremendous amount of physical and mental energy. (Remember how you felt drained after a huge work project was completed?) The way you act or think during stressful times actually changes the firing patterns of your brain, depletes energy, and taxes body processes, like hormone production. A regular yoga practice balances your body’s stress response, which helps with focus, awareness, and improved mood and sleep. (How a yogaholic sleeps!)
The brain needs three times as much oxygen as our muscles do in order to function properly, according to the National Association for Child Development. Yoga increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which is crucial for brain plasticity. Brain plasticity helps with daily cognitive abilities, like memory recall, comprehension, and critical thinking, all of which tend to be on the decline as we age. And while aging is inevitable, a cognitive decline doesn’t have to be. Practicing yoga as little as three times a week helps strengthen muscles and nerve cells. Strong, active nerve cells promote better internal communication. Doing yoga often maintains good communication between nerve cells, muscles, and organs, which is essential for daily cognitive abilities, like mental flexibility, multitasking or memory recall. “Regular yoga practice helps us sync communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, sharpen our memory, and improve agility,” according to the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Yoga is a centering practice. The controlled breathing and physical postures help many people suffering from anxiety, depression or mood disorders by lowering the heart rate and calming respiration systems. “As those physiological responses balance, the mind is better equipped to manage thoughts and situations in a calm manner,” says Maynor.
One 2005 German study observed the positive impact of yoga in a group of 24 women that experienced consistent emotional distress. After taking two 90-minute yoga classes per week for three months, the women reported improvements in perceived stress, depression, anxiety, energy, fatigue, and well-being, according to the study conclusion. The women’s depression scores improved by 50 percent, anxiety scores by 30 percent, and overall well-being scores by 65 percent. “Initial complaints of headaches, back pain, and poor sleep quality also resolved much more often in the yoga group than in the control group,” according to an article quoting the research in Harvard Health Publications.
The key to experiencing a boost in brain health and overall wellness from yoga is consistency, says Maynor. A regular practice of three to five times a week for 60 to 90 minutes has profound long-term benefits. If you’re just getting started, Maynor recommends trying a class at a yoga studio as they’re likely to have knowledgeable teachers and props to help you ease into difficult postures. Many studios offer a ‘beginners series’ session which are a great place to start and be surrounded by other students who are at your level. “If going to studio isn’t right for you yet,Yoga with Adriene on YouTube is my recommendation,” says Maynor. “She's an awesome instructor and does a great job with helping viewers pace the practice safely!” (Not to mention she has almost 1 million subscribers!)
With yoga moving into mainstream popularity, it’s easy to be intimidated by pictures of young, fit yogis in flexible positions (yes, incredible yogis of Instagram, we’re looking at you!). It’s important to remember that at its core, yoga is simply a practice of unifying the body and mind through mindful movements and deep breathing, and any age, shape or size can experience the positive effects of yoga through a dedicated practice, says Maynor. “Whether you prefer a fast flow class or a gentle, therapeutic style the physical and brain benefits of yoga are accessible to any body."