In the March/April 2020 Yoga Journal Magazine, an article was written titled, "Mind Games." The author, Tasha Eichenseher wrote, "Resent research studies have demonstrated how yoga (i.e., asana, meditation, mantra, and mindfulness) can improve health and happiness. Now, scientists are uncovering how these practices can help prevent memory loss and delay the onset of more serious and scary cognitive impairments that often come with age...Helen Lavretsky, PhD, psychiatry professor and researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, has managed some of the longest-running studies of mind-body interventions for depression and cognitive decline in older adults. In 2008, she started studying how meditation, yoga and other gentle-movement practices, such as tai chi and qi gong, affect both mood and memory. she states, 'We've found that these movement practices help improve mood, resilience, and cognition; reduce inflammation; and positively affect brain health.'"
When we learn new skills, we are creating new neural pathways, improving our neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to rebuild. Learning a variety of yoga asanas, meditation styles, and mantras can all be considered new skills, especially when you are modifying the sequence and observing how the body and mind changes and adapts with time. It is no surprise to learn new research explaining how the practice of yoga can improve our memory and focus and help fight dementia and Alzheimer's.
In the article, Tasha sites the research conducted by Dale Bredesen, MD and author of the New York Times bestselling book The End of Alzheimer's. Bredesen sites four key areas we can do to optimize our brain health now so we can stay sharp as we age and stave off more serious cognitive impairment later in life. These four key areas are: sleep, stress management, exercise (physical and mental), and diet.
Our yoga practices can help in almost all of these areas. We can manage our stress with the practice of restorative yoga, pranayama and meditation. These practices invite us to slow down and feel calmer on the inside. We can balance our autonomic nervous systems using these practices to help us move into a rest-and-recovery state known as the parasympathetic system, and shut down the fight-and-flight response of our sympathetic system.
Yoga asana can get us moving in our bodies. We do not need to run or play tennis to get our heart rates up. In the YJ article, Lavretsky says, "mind-body practices that combine meditation and movement may be the most beneficial...the difference is that yoga practices recruit parts of the brain that are involved in speech, motor function, and the ability to make complex decisions." Rolling out your mat is not only beneficial for your physical strength, balance and flexibility, but it is good for the mind as well.
To strengthen the mind, you can practice a 12-minute Kirtan Kriya meditation. You can practice this with a CD, on YouTube or on your own. It is a meditation to help with memory and practiced by many. You can also use mala beads and practice a mantra. This type of meditation allows your mind to focus and concentrate on a word, phrase, sound, or set of words that seekers use when they practice meditation. This science is both subtle and profound. It leads to a state in which the meditator allows the mantra to repeat itself internally in the deepest and most subtle way possible. The goal is to give the mind an internal focus, or point of concentration, so that it does not continue its normal, scattered pattern of mental activity. If followed properly, this technique allows the mind to quiet itself and become still. Read more about the benefits of using mantra in a Yoga International Article titled The Science of Mantra written by Swami Rama.
Sleep is such a critical aspect to our brain health. We know deep sleep impacts learning and memory. It is during this time when our brains clear out waste products. Yoga nidra meditation can help you ease into sleep. It is a step-by-step guided meditation inviting you to turn away from your day's obligations and turn inward allowing you to rest. You can also practice a pranayama or breathing technique lengthening the exhale. For example you can inhale for a count of three or four, pausing briefly and then exhale for a count of six, seven or eight. This can help turn off the body's stress response and invite the body and mind to slow down and go to sleep. You can practice both of these styles of meditation on my "Mary McCarthy Resilience & Grace" podcast. A yoga nidra practice is episode #10 and "Breathing into Sleep" is episode #7.
As you continue on your journey of resilience and grace, I hope these suggestions have inspired you to consider the four key elements to improving your brain health. These practices can help us prevent cognitive decline as we age and allow us to live our lives to the fullest with joy and love.