There's no question that integrating yoga into your life can manifest substantial benefits for both your physical and mental well-being. In reality, the potential effects of Downward Dogs and Sun Salutations on our brains are far more than we may have expected. NBC recently investigated what yoga does to your brain, tapping Jonathan Greenberg, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. "We know that accumulating evidence shows yoga is good for your body, health, and mind," he explains. "Yoga has been used in the treatment of anxiety conditions, depression, insomnia, eating disorders, and others."
One potential reason yoga has the power to change your brain is its "big impact on dialing down chronic stress," NBC writes of Greenberg's assertion. "We know stress is a very fertile ground for many physical and mental ailments," he notes. Yoga also helps to eliminate some of the physical ramifications of chronic stress, decreasing the inflammation that is triggered by it, according to a study published in International Psychogeriatrics; your brain listens to signals from your body, so when you feel physically calm and at ease, it will follow suit.
Yoga also has the power to shape your brain in positive ways as you age, actually turning back the clock in some ways. In a separate study featured in International Psychogeriatrics, adults over 55 with mild cognitive impairment who spent three months practicing kundalini yoga saw improved memory as well as an increase in executive functioning (time management, attention to detail, etc.) and emotional resilience. Furthermore, Greenberg references other studies that reveal how much the brain can change with meditation: "After eight weeks of meditation training, research found that the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory, developed more gray matter density."
The right insula—the region of your brain that's involved in body awareness—is also larger in individuals who meditate. This means you're able to be more aware of when your body is responding to a stressful situation. "Knowing your reaction to stress can help you identify the emotion, nip it in the bud, and prevent it from escalating," explains Greenberg. So just how much yoga is needed to begin reaping these benefits? While a single session can help aid your stress response, forthcoming research Greenberg is working on suggests 40 minutes a day is required for significant stress reduction.
Yoga isn't just great for your brain. Next, see how it can benefit your gut health, as well.