Researchers are still sorting out the exact mechanism, but they suspect it has to do the way these practices stimulate different areas of the brain tied to mood, memory, and emotion, says Nikesh Bajaj, DO, a neurologist specializing in sports neurology and traumatic brain injury.
Known as the brain’s command center, the frontal lobe houses the primary motor complex (which controls movements of the face, arms, and legs) as well as decision-making and problem-solving. Controlling our actions and moods and practicing restraint are frontal-lobe processes. Evidence shows that yoga can improve frontal lobe functions.
Survival behaviors such as eating and reproducing are connected to the limbic system, a complex network that plays a role in our sense of smell, memory, and emotions. Studies have shown that compassion-based meditation strengthens the limbic system.
Within the limbic system you’ll find the hippocampus, a tiny part of the brain involved with learning, emotions, and memory. Multiple studies have shown greater hippocampal volume in yogis, which results in better working memory than in nonpractitioners (depression is strongly linked to memory problems).
A multifunctional workhorse that encompasses the primary centers for sensation, the parietal lobe is the portion of the brain that’s responsible for body awareness—especially when moving into yoga poses. In studies, mindfulness meditation increased thickness in the parietal lobe.
Responsible for visual processing, the occipital lobe allows you to follow along as you fl ow through yoga poses. But it can also play an important role in mental health. Deficits in the occipital lobe may be an initiating factor for the onset of depression, but yogis have been shown to have more mass here.
The cerebellum (which translates to “little brain”) coordinates movement and balance. Your ability to stand in Vrksasana (Tree Pose) or Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III) is rooted here. Yogis tend to have increased gray matter in the cerebellum, which correlates to better memory, attention, and motor function, and fewer cognitive failures.
Connecting the brain and the spinal cord, the brainstem regulates certain imperative, involuntary actions such as breathing and the heartbeat. Near the top of the brainstem is the pontine tegmentum, which is thought to control the body’s sleep-wake cycle. This could be why yoga has such a positive influence on sleep quality: It’s deep inside the brainstem where the neurons that link deep breathing with relaxation and anxiety are located, giving you that sense of meditative calm that envelops your body during yoga practice.
The bean-sized pituitary gland serves as the main connection between the nervous system and the endocrine system—the glands throughout the body that produce hormones responsible for everything from growth and development to metabolism. Studies have shown that Brahmari Pranayama (Bee Breath), directly benefits the pituitary gland by lowering blood pressure.
Auditory speech and language processing are rooted in the temporal lobe. The amygdala lives here, and it plays a pivotal role in emotions and ambitions. Studies have shown that those who practice meditation and yoga display more emotional balance and reserve because they have less activation of certain centers within the amygdala.
This story is part of Yoga Journal’s Special Report: How Yoga Can Improve Your Mental Health