The Yoga Place Blog

Raising Global Consciousness

Improve your brain function and risk of mental disease with exercise ... and preferably with yoga that is structured a specific way

I realised that in my last blog I had made the statement that exercise was one of the best known ways of reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease without giving any evidence. ( I correct this with charts below)

Yet exercise provides more than just a reduction is aged related mental diseases - it produces a whole host of improvements in brain function .... as long as it is creating increased blood flow that contains growth hormones to your brain. So not all exercise is equal for all functional outcomes.

If you have limited time to exercise, in my opinion, you would be hard pressed to find something that delivers more than a "breath" and "mindfulness" centric yoga practice that combines dynamic strengthening physical work that specifically generates growth hormones in a class where a large proportion of the class is "inverted" so that the increased blood flow and hormones are driven to your brain.

These two criteria eliminate a lot of what has now been come to be called yoga. I will deal with the "inversion logic" in this post and the "breathing" and "mindfulness" in a following post.

To give you an example, I have calculated that on average students spend 47% of the first 300 breaths of the asana part of the class in an inverted position. In the equivalent part of of an Iyengar or Bikram class this would be zero.
Evolution and Brain Function

Our evolutionary past can explain a lot about the brains optimal environment. The human brain evolved under conditions of almost constant motion. From this, one might predict that the optimal environment for processing information would include motion. That is exactly what one finds - the best business meeting would have everyone walking at about 3 km per hour.

The charts that you are about to see come from Dr John Medina's
"Brain Rules" website

Exercise profoundly improves cognitive function and this fall away if exercise is stopped.

Exercise also worked in older populations to improve brain function

Researchers also studied two elderly populations that had led different lifestyles, one sedentary and one active. Cognitive scores were also profoundly influenced. Exercise positively affected executive function, spatial tasks, reaction times and quantitative skills.

Aerobic exercise is better than strengthening exercise and the best option combines both (and an even better option includes a whole bunch of upside down work but I don't have the "proof" for that yet)

So researchers asked: If the sedentary populations become active, will their cognitive scores go up? Yes, it turns out, if the exercise is aerobic. In four months, executive functions vastly improve; longer, and memory scores improve as well.

And as little as two, thirty minute aerobic sessions a week can radically reduce a whole host of brain disease in the aged

Why is Aerobic exercise better than strength exercise for cognition and why is a combination of the two better?

From Dr John Medina's perspective, exercise improves cognition for two reasons:
  • Exercise increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. One of the most interesting findings of the past few decades is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental sharpness.
  • Exercise acts directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself. It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress.

Aerobic exercise is better at creating and increase in blood flow in your body than static strength training is - movement creates flow.

And strength training produces more growth hormones that aerobic training - which is why weight lifters or people who want to grow big muscles do strength training.

So if you do strength training to generate growth hormones, followed immediately by aerobic training to generate the blood flow to take the growth hormones to your brain, you will improved neurogenesis or growth and repair of brain cells.

Why inversions - movements where your head is below your heart - turbocharge this process

If you have followed the logic of why increased blood flow to your head is a key factor driving improved brain function then it should be easy to follow that upside down postures help increase blood flow to your head.

And inversions help in other ways too. Inversions lower your blood pressure and increase the tone of your parasympathetic nervous system - the rest and digest part of your autonomic nervous system that needs to be activated to put your body into repair and growth mode - so that all the growth hormones and extra blood flow to your brain generates growth and healing.

By my estimate, in the first 45 minutes of the movement part of the class, 47 percent of it is inverted - in the average Iyengar or Bikram class this would be zero percent