A new understanding of the power of yoga

Psychiatrist Helen Lavretsky studies yoga's effect on the brain.
“Before I started doing these studies, the usual perception of yoga was that it’s good for stress reduction. Nobody thought of yoga as being a brain-fitness exercise that could lead to better plasticity,” says Dr. Helen Lavretsky. (Photo by Josh Sudock/UCLA Health)
“Before I started doing these studies, the usual perception of yoga was that it’s good for stress reduction. Nobody thought of yoga as being a brain-fitness exercise that could lead to better plasticity,” says Dr. Helen Lavretsky. (Photo by Josh Sudock/UCLA Health)
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5 min read

Women at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease can boost their brainpower, enhance brain neuroplasticity and improve their sense of memory function by practicing yoga and meditation, according to a new study by researchers at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

Led by UCLA Health psychiatrist Helen Lavretsky, MD, the study compared the effects of memory-enhancement training versus Kundalini yoga on a group of women in their 60s with vascular risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and memory complaints. Each group attended either an hourlong yoga or memory-training class once a week for 12 weeks and did about 15 minutes of daily at-home practice.

Both the memory-training group and the yoga group improved in cognition, mood and resilience, the study found. “But where they differed was in brain variables and also in immune function, shown by changes in inflammatory markers and gene expression,” Dr. Lavretsky says.

“The yoga group preserved their gray-matter volume in multiple areas of the brain relevant for cognitive function,” she says. “And the memory group declined — there was a decrement in gray-matter volumes.”

The yoga group also improved in subjective perception of memory function, while the memory-training group improved in objective memory measures. In other words, the yoga group felt like their memory was better, even though objective measures didn’t show improvement, and the memory-training group actually improved their memory but didn’t subjectively feel that way.

Brain benefits of yoga

This is the second study Dr. Lavretsky and her colleagues have conducted comparing the cognitive benefits of yoga to memory training. The first looked at the effects of the two interventions on people with mild cognitive impairment. Like this new study, it found that both groups improved on memory measures, but the yoga group also experienced improved mood, greater resilience to stress and more improvement in executive function (mental processes that allow for planning and monitoring thoughts and behaviors).

The study also found important changes in inflammatory markers shown by the yoga group, along with “change in the gene expression within the inflammatory pathways and with the improved brain structure and functional connectivity,” Dr. Lavretsky says.

Dr. Lavretsky was inspired to conduct studies on the benefits of yoga on memory after her earlier research found cognitive improvements in caregivers who practiced a form of meditation associated with Kundalini yoga called Kirtan Kriya.

Kirtan Kriya involves mantra chanting, while tapping the thumb to the fingertips (similar to acupressure) and visualizing white light coming into the crown of the head. In the study, stressed but otherwise healthy caregivers either practiced Kirtan Kriya or listened to relaxing music for 12 minutes a day over eight weeks. Researchers found that those in the meditation group reduced depressive symptoms and improved mental health and cognitive function compared to those in the music group. The meditators also showed improvements in signs of stress-induced cellular aging.

“Before I started doing these studies, the usual perception of yoga was that it’s good for stress reduction,” Dr. Lavretsky says. “Nobody thought of yoga as being a brain-fitness exercise that could lead to better plasticity.”

In subsequent studies, older participants added a complete yoga class per week in addition to the home practice of Kirtan Kriya meditation. The yoga class included gentle stretching and movement, breathing exercises, chanting and meditation, which made it a multi-component intervention that results in the stimulation of several brain regions leading to changes in brain function and cognition,” Dr. Lavretsky says.

Try it yourself

If you have 12 minutes a day, learning and practicing Kirtan Kriya meditation “would provide you with the tool for self-regulation accompanied by significant biological changes in stress response and cellular aging that can rejuvenate your body and brain,” Dr. Lavretsky says. “But if you could use an hour a week, that would be even more impactful. I usually recommend doing different activities. Doing both yoga and memory training can be of a bigger benefit for your body and brain.”

Any mind-body practice, including tai chi, meditation, yoga or qi gong, is beneficial, she says. Mind-body practices have been shown to reduce the number of drugs people need, improve athletic and school or work performances, improve sleep and perceived stress, and improve the quality of relationships. Breathing-based interventions, such as yoga, also tend to reduce vascular risk factors by lowering blood pressure and heart rate, Dr. Lavretsky adds.

“Breathing is so universal — it’s a powerful tool for self-regulation,” she says. “And it’s not controversial. It’s not religious; it’s not spiritual; you don’t have to believe in things. You just have to breathe slowly and consciously to invoke a lasting physiological change and reduce stress.”

For example, doing three minutes of 3-3-3-3 “boxed breathing” (inhaling for 3 seconds, holding for 3 seconds, exhaling for 3 seconds, and holding for 3 seconds) would bring the breathing rate to five breaths per minute, she says, and may help increase feelings of calm and lower blood pressure and heart rate up to 20 points. Preschool children can be taught to do this, which would give them a lifelong tool to fight the effects of stress and anxiety, she adds.

And if breathing, meditation, yoga or tai chi don’t float your boat, just go for joy, Dr. Lavretsky suggests.

“Do things that are joyous and that will enhance your quality of life and your level of happiness and contentment,” she says. “You can dance. You can walk on the beach and do breathing exercises. Being in nature is known to reduce stress levels. So it’s not a strict prescription. You can vary it according to your preference and achieve the same relaxation that can benefit your body and mind.”

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