Most people know that yoga can ease stress and even help relieve back pain from sitting at a desk all day, but a new study suggests it can also improve your brain health — and practicing just once or twice a week can be enough to reap the benefits.
Yoga benefits the brain in ways that are similar to aerobic exercise, according to the study published in the journal Brain Plasticity, which has also been shown to improve cognitive performance, attention and memory.
For the study, researchers reviewed 11 studies that looked at the effects of practicing yoga on the brain. They found that yoga appears to have a positive effect on key areas areas "responsible for memory and information processing, as well as emotional regulation," Neha Gothe, study author and director of the exercise psychology lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tells CNBC Make It. (Those areas are the hippocampus, amygdala and cingulate and prefrontal cortexes.)
What is it about yoga that provides such a brain boost?
"We believe one of the key mechanisms could be that regular yoga practice impacts emotional regulation," that is, it helps reduce stress, anxiety and other negative emotional responses, Gothe says. Other studies have shown that improving your mood is related to better brain health and functioning, she says.
While there are lots of different styles of yoga with varying degrees of intensity, the researchers found that Hatha yoga tends to have the most benefits. This is a form that combines physical movements (called asanas) with breathing exercises (called pranayama) and meditation (or dhyana), Gothe says. "So, a combination of the three core elements of yoga seems to have an impact on the brain structure and function," she says.
The right "dose" of yoga required to experience the brain benefits depends upon the person, Gothe says. But most people in the studies found a benefit after practicing yoga just once or twice a week, for 10 to 24 weeks, she says.
And if that's not enough to get you to roll out your mat, other research suggests that yoga can improve your sleep, increase mindfulness, relieve anxiety and even help you stick to healthy habits in other aspects of your life.
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