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Your Brain on Yoga

Gretchen Reynolds, writing last week in the New York Times, unearthed an interesting study that seemed to validate my views about yoga and aging — but not quite in the way she may have intended.

Researchers at UCLA rounded up 29 middle-aged and older folks who suffered from mild cognitive impairment and assigned them to two groups: one focused on mental exercises and the other was asked to practice Kundalini yoga. Twelve weeks later, both groups demonstrated improved brain power, but the aspiring yoginis felt happier and scored higher than the other group on tests measuring balance, depth perception, and object recognition. The yoga and meditation sessions also seemed to improve practitioners’ ability to focus and multitask.

The study subjects were described as being anxious about potential memory loss as they aged, and researchers suggested that the combination of mindful movement and meditation in Kundalini yoga may have reduced participants’ stress hormones while boosting levels of the biochemicals associated with better brain health.

I don’t know Kundalini from Iyengar, even though I’ve been practicing yoga for several years. But I do know that I’m generally happier after the session is over than when it starts. If I’m to believe the UCLA study, that’s probably because something good happened in my brain. But it’s just as likely due to something bad not happening in my hamstrings.

That’s not to say my brain is not exercised during my weekly yoga experience.

Last Thursday, for example, I collected valuable insights on the size of our solar system, the medicinal uses of a common herb, and the proper use of the term proprioception. All this emerged from random comments between (and sometimes during) poses. I like to call it conversational yoga.

Ours is a small group of awkward geezers for whom any pause in physical activity is an invitation to fill the gap with some theory, question, or sudden realization — some of which occasionally relate to yoga. This tendency may challenge the UCLA study’s conclusions about improved focus, though it may also support its findings on multitasking.

In fact, Helen Lavretsky, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and leader of the study, told Reynolds she and her team were “a bit surprised by the magnitude” of the brain effects. That’s because they don’t yet fully understand how yoga and meditation had managed to trigger physiological changes in their subjects’ brains.

It is an interesting question. I think I’ll bring it up next week at yoga.

Thoughts to share?

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