The review, published in the journal Brain Plasticity, focused on 11 studies of the relationship between yoga practice and brain health. “We see increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice,” Gothe said. The hippocampus is involved in memory processing and is known to shrink with age, Gothe said. “It is also the structure that is first affected in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”
The amygdala, a brain structure that contributes to emotional regulation, tends to be larger in yoga practitioners than in their peers who do not practice yoga. The prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks such as the default mode network also tend to be larger or more efficient in those who regularly practice yoga.
“We found that those who had done yoga for eight weeks had an attenuated cortisol response to stress that was associated with better performance on tests of decision-making, task-switching and attention.” Yoga helps people with or without anxiety disorders manage their stress, Gothe said. “The practice of yoga helps improve emotional regulation to reduce stress, anxiety and depression,” she said. “And that seems to improve brain functioning.”
“The prefrontal cortex, a brain region just behind the forehead, is essential to planning, decision-making, multitasking, thinking about your options and picking the right option,” Damoiseaux said. “The default mode network is a set of brain regions involved in thinking about the self, planning and memory.”
Like the amygdala, the cingulate cortex is part of the limbic system, a circuit of structures that plays a key role in emotional regulation, learning and memory, she said. The studies also find that the brain changes seen in individuals practicing yoga are associated with better performance on cognitive tests or measures of emotional regulation.