At the start of 2024, I set a personal goal to improve my physical and mental health. I decided to take on the challenge of practicing yoga, due to its many known physical and mental health benefits. I have tried yoga in the past, and absolutely hated it. I hated being still, focusing on my thoughts, and being present. The yoga classes I tried were also very slow, which was not my idea of getting a good workout in. Years later, I wanted to give it another try. As a therapist, I often hear yoga being recommended to clients due to the many mental health benefits. I wanted to learn more about the many brain benefits and try it out myself.

I started attending yoga classes at a studio and realized how different it was to my experience years ago. There are many different types of yoga classes offered, all for different levels, intensities, and purposes. I enjoy that I can get a good workout in physically, but also mentally. For me, yoga is a new challenge and I find it very difficult. However, as with anything, practice is key. I like that there are modifications to many yoga poses that you can do to work your way up to the full pose.

I feel like we have all heard that yoga is great physically and mentally, but I wanted to know how. I was curious about how yoga is changing the brain, so I did some research and wanted to share with you what I gathered from it.

Deep, controlled breathing is central to practicing yoga, and this breathing activates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a main component of our parasympathetic nervous system. When our parasympathetic nervous system is activated, our bodies relax by slowing our heart rate and promoting digestion. Our sympathetic nervous system does the opposite, by signaling our body to be on alert by speeding up our heart rate and delivering more blood to areas of the body that may help us get out of danger if needed. The vagus nerve is responsible for aiding in digestion, cardiovascular activity and the immune system. One study looked at vagus nerve stimulation and how that can be used to treat depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. Vagal tone is the activity of the vagus nerve. Vagal tone is correlated with the ability to regulate stress, and through activation by deep breathing like in yoga, can help activate vagal tone making it easier for people to relax. Yoga has been proven to improve cardiovascular and respiratory function. In a study, yoga was found to reduce tendencies toward inflammatory states.

By utilizing MRI scans and other brain imaging, people who practice yoga regularly had a thicker cerebral cortex and hippocampus. The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain responsible for information processing. The hippocampus is involved in learning and memory, and practicing yoga may help reduce age-related memory decline.

Yoga focuses on uniting the mind and body through movement and breath. Yoga has many benefits for physical and mental health. After doing some research, I can see the additional benefits that yoga has in comparison to other exercises and stretching alone. I have been enjoying my time practicing yoga and feel better after taking the time out of my day to engage in mindfulness. To emphasize what my yoga instructor said in class, “the great thing about yoga is that it does not have to be perfect, it just has to make you feel good.”


The information in this article should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult with your physician prior to engaging in any exercise.