When Baxter travels around the country sharing our ideas about yoga for healthy aging, he often asks his students to list their top worries regarding getting older. Hands down, the number one fear they list is developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, even when there is no family history of it. So we’ve spent quite a lot of time learning about brain health and how we can use yoga to support it as we age. We’re happy to report there are quite a number of ways!
So today we’re providing recommendations for how to use your yoga practice to foster brain health, including both your cognitive health and the health of your central nervous system. If you are already practicing well-rounded active sequences that include a few restorative poses (or at the least a good Savasana), breath work, and meditation, that’s a great start, because regular exercise, stress management, and meditation for brain strength are all going to help both your brain and your nervous system.
The following recommends recommendations are for those who want to focus especially on brain health, whether you are just concerned about brain health in general, or have a special motivation, such as a family history of brain problems, such as early onset dementia or Parkinson’s disease.
What to Practice. For your balanced practices that include asanas, stress management, and meditation, be sure to vary the sequences that you practice as well as the individual poses that you include to keep your practice sessions fresh and stimulating for your brain! On rest days consider practicing a short “brain practice,” which could include meditation, a yoga philosophy study session on your own or with friends, or even time spent reading yoga books to find new poses, practices, and sequences to try.
How Often to Practice. In general, work toward practicing five to six days a week. Because exercise is important for brain health, we recommend practicing an active asana sequence (or another type of exercise, such as walking) around three to four days a week. On the other days, either work on your short brain-stimulating practice, an equanimity practice of your choice, or—if chronic stress is a problem—a short stress management session (see below).
Static Poses. The more physically challenging a pose is, the greater the workload is for your heart, which is a particularly good way to exercise your cardiovascular system and foster brain as well as your heart health. So we recommend including the challenging poses in your sequences for brain health as you would for cardiovascular health. See Techniques for Improving Cardiovascular and Heart Health for pose recommendation and timings.
Besides providing exercise to benefit the brain and nervous system, static poses stretch your tissues, including the tissue around your nerves. With a regular asana practice, you can release holding patterns around your nerves, permitting more slide and glide through muscles and joints, which allows them to function them more effectively.
Finally, balance poses help improve your proprioception (see How We Balance), fostering the health of the specialized nerves that allow you to sense where your body is in space.
To add learning into your asanas, vary your static poses as much as possible. Switch which side you start on, change your arm positions, or create a new version of a static pose.
Dynamic Poses. Dynamic poses and flow sequences practiced for their cardiovascular benefits also foster brain health. So we recommend including dynamic poses in your sequences for brain health as you would for cardiovascular health. See Techniques for Improving Cardiovascular and Heart Health for recommendations for dynamic poses to practice and how fast to move between poses.
Also, like static poses, dynamic poses stretch tissues, including tissues around the nerves, so you can use dynamic poses to release holding patterns around your nerves, permitting more slide and glide through muscles and joints, which allows them to function them more effectively.
A special advantage that dynamic poses provide is that because you are moving quickly from one position to another, all dynamic poses and flow sequences improve the functioning of your proprioceptors (see How We Balance), the specialized nerves that allow you to sense where you are in space.
To add learning into your asanas, vary your dynamic poses and sequences as much as possible, and experiment with inventing new mini vinyasas and flow sequences.
Meditation. If you already have a regular meditation practice, simply continue practicing as usual, with your favorite technique. If you do not currently meditate, because meditation has been shown to improve brain structure and function, we strongly recommend that you start. See Yoga Meditation Techniques for information.
Stress Management. When you’re not feeling particularly stressed out, a well-rounded practice that includes active asanas and short-sessions of the stress management techniques of your choice will help keep your stress levels in check. And if you chose meditate every day, or do breath practices, restorative yoga or supported inversions on your rest days, all the better. However, because stress management is so important for brain healthy, if you’re experiencing chronic stress or entering a stressful period in your life, we recommend practicing at least a short stress management session for about 20 minutes every day. What you practice for your short stress management sessions could be any of the relaxation practices you prefer or that work in your particular circumstances: seated or reclined meditation, calming breath practices, one or two restorative and/or supported inverted poses, or a guided relaxation program.
Equanimity. Because cultivating equanimity as you age will allow you to think more clearly and make better decisions, as well as help you handle brain changes to the brain that might arise over time, consider focusing on equanimity practices, such as studying yoga philosophy, practicing yoga for emotional wellbeing, and meditating to understand your thought patterns, that help you stay balanced and cultivate contentment with what you have and what you don’t have.
Healthy Eating and Digestion. Eating a healthy, nutritious diet fuels your brain and nervous system and helps support their health. And due to the way your gut is connected to your brain, keeping your gut healthy and happy through by maintaining a good diet and supporting good digestion, also benefits your brain and nervous system health. See How Yoga Helps Your Digestive System for information about how to use yoga to support healthy eating and healthy digestion.
Sleeping. If you have trouble sleeping for just one night, it can affect your brain function the next day. But if you have chronic sleeping problems, ongoing lack of sleep can more have serious effects, such as impaired memory, and may even be linked to dementia. So, if chronic insomnia is a problem for you, we recommend that you use your yoga practice to support better sleep. See 5 Tips for Better Sleep.
Learning. Because your brain is “plastic” and continues to actively grow and rewire itself when it is stimulated, we recommend using your yoga practice as a way to keep learning. Try new poses or new variations of familiar poses, new sequences, and new practices beyond asana (such as mudras or breath practices) on a regular basis. We also recommend studying yoga philosophy, because in addition to helping you learn to cultivate equanimity, yoga philosophy will expose you to new concepts and terminology (some of which are quite challenging to work your head around!). And because learning a new language is especially effective for brain health, try working on your Sanskrit!
Community. Remaining socially active supports brain health and delays the onset of dementia. Social engagement is a learning exercise, and as with other mentally stimulating activities, helps build up healthy brain cells and the connections between them. Attending yoga classes and participating in your local yoga community is a good way to stay socially active as well as to keep your practice going strong. If you’re not already active in the yoga community, find a way to join:
— Find a regular class you can afford
— Attend free events at your local yoga studio
— Go on a retreat (if it’s in your budget)
— Attend yoga conferences
— Practice yoga with a friend
— Attend a yoga book groups
— Participate in an online yoga community
— Volunteer for yoga community service
We hope after all this you’re starting to feel encouraged, because you now have a rich set of techniques you can use to support your brain health. It’s never too early start supplementing your yoga practice with these techniques, so try something new today!
*This article originally appeared on the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog and is reprinted here with their permission.
About Baxter Bell, MD:
Baxter Bell, MD, C-IAYT, eRYT500 fell in love with yoga in 1993 while he was working full-time as a family physician. His appreciation for the potential of yoga for fostering health, healing, and equanimity was so great, he soon stepped down from his medical practice and trained to become a yoga teacher. Now he focuses on teaching yoga full time, both to ordinary students of all ages and physical conditions, and to the next generation of yoga teachers, to whom he teaches anatomy and yoga therapy along with his accessible, skillful style of yoga. He also sees students privately, helping them use yoga to help heal from and/or cope with a wide range of medical conditions. At this point, with 18 years of teaching experience under his belt, Baxter brings a unique perspective to his teaching, combining his understanding of anatomy and medicine with his skill at instructing people from all walks of life and all levels of ability.
In addition to teaching classes, workshops, and retreats internationally, Baxter is co-author of the new book “Yoga for Healthy Aging,” a past presenter at Yoga Journal Conferences and the International Association of Yoga Therapy’s Sytar Conference, and teaches online courses and classes at Yoga U Online. Baxter is also the co-founder and writer for the popular Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, where he shares his knowledge of medical conditions, anatomy, and yoga with practitioners and teachers across the world. He has written articles for Yoga Journal and the journal of the International Association of Yoga Therapy. And he is often quoted as an expert on yoga and health by major national news outlets such as the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
Learn more about Baxter: baxterbell.com
About Nina Zolotow:
Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog, Nina is a yoga writer as well as a 500-hour certified yoga teacher, a certified Accessible Yoga teacher, and a long-time yoga practitioner. She is the former Editor in Chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, the co-author with Baxter Bell of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being and co-author with Rodney Yee of Yoga: The Poetry of the Body and Moving Toward Balance. She is also the author of articles on yoga and alternative medicine.