Yoga for Brain Health?

Writing a book like The New Yoga is not the last word in where yoga should be going, but an staging post in an evolving journey to more evidence-based yoga. That journey brings me today to assess the evidence for yoga playing an important role in sharpening the mind to prevent cognitive decline.

It was a huge breakthrough forty or fifty years ago when neuroscientists declared that the continual decline in our mental abilities as we age is not set in stone as they and the public earlier believed. The discovery was a 180 degree turn and holds out one of the greatest hopes for humankind – that we can rescue our brains from inevitable decline. This is especially true as baby boomers threaten to overwhelm the health care system in the next decade with a surge of Alzheimer’s and dementia. 

So, what does this have to do with yoga? Well, everything if you realize the symbiosis of brain and body.

I recently came across, Soft-Wired, How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, by Michael Merzenich, the “father” of brain plasticity. He says that when most people think about physical exercise, they don’t give much thought to its importance for brain health. He aims to change that deficit . . .

So, he highlights six simple brain plasticity-based rules for your physical exercise regime. Each one of his rules (in italics) is strongly supported by The New Yoga practice:

  1. Focus on feeling of the flow of movement. Staying attentive to your practice with the breath is what defines yoga and distinguishes it from workouts in the gym – where your attention can be on a TV or a magazine while the body does its supposedly separate workout. Merzenich stresses the importance of paying attention to the feeling of the flow of the movement to achieve cognitive as well as just physical benefit. 
  • Move with your whole body. Merzenitz contrasts this with working in the gym. Working on exercise machines in a (brainless) fitness centre is an example of how not to make the best use of your physical exercise time, he says. Before I read Merzenich I wrote on page 63 of The New Yoga: “Great athletes—and yogis—have tunnel vision for the task at hand. They are not like the person in the gym mindlessly running on the treadmill with ear buds, TV screen and magazines to divide attention.” Yoga poses involve, not just the whole body but the whole being – mind and body.
  • Rigorously avoid stereotypic movements. He advocates moving in different ways to reach the same point. In The New Yoga (page 57) I say: “Recognizing the value of variability we can consciously teach and practice yoga poses in various ways to challenge our movement and neuro-motor skills.” I first read about the value of variability in Todd Hargrove’s book, A Guide to Better Movement, in which he says the brain is best exercised with a variety of movements. (Page 85)
  • Include postural variations and weights. This is really the flip side of 3. The New Yoga addresses the need to vary the way you get into and out of poses like Virabhadrasana III, Warrior 3 (Page 57)
  • Monitor the quality and precision of your movement. The New Yoga is alignment based in so far as alignment supports injury-prevention and accurate proprioception. What characterizes great athletes is not their wide range of movement but their very precise control over a fairly normal range. 
  • Master a wide range of possible speeds. From Hatha Yoga to Vinyasa to Restorative to Yin, the speed of practice varies from a flowing routine with a few breaths per pose to many minutes in asanas.

Elsewhere (page 174) Merzenitz stresses the need to challenge our balance as a key factor for maintaining the health of our brains. And again, yoga addresses the need to maintain balance almost more than any other mainstream form of exercise. Our cultural evolution has done a wonderful job of impoverishing the maintenance of our movement control. The New Yoga corrects that deficit, emphasizing the importance of balance (pages 68-70) as the most common factor behind injury prevention in older adults. I reference mechanobiologist Katy Bowman, in Move Your DNA as emphasizing the importance of balance. So, I was excited to see someone in another field of science stressing the same need for a variety of challenges to our complex neurobiology of balance. Humans were neurologically constructed to operate in a physical world in which every step is uncertain . . . fine adjustments in posture are almost continuously required for movement control . . . Massive brain exercise results from these basic physical operations, says Merzenitz.

So next time someone says they cannot take up yoga because they can’t touch their toes, remind them of the importance of a wide range of other yoga benefits for brain health – and perhaps show them a copy of The New Yoga!

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