Yoga and meditation improves brain fitness at four levels. First, it helps to develop new stem cells in the hippocampus; second, it improves the optimal blood flow in the brain, which enhances the cerebral metabolism; third, it encourages nerve cells to bind to one another; and fourth, it enhances the production of BDNF which creates new neural pathways in the brain.
What is Brain Fitness?
Brain fitness is the ability of a human being to meet efficiently the diverse cognitive demands of everyday life. It includes the ability to assimilate information, understand relationships, and develop reasonable conclusions and plans. Brain fitness can be developed by regular brain exercises designed to challenge the cognitive skills. Scientific research confirmed that sound sleep, healthy lifestyle, mental stimulation, physical exercise and good nutrition can improve brain fitness. On the other hand, chronic stress, anxiety, depression and prolonged cortisol can decrease brain fitness. For centuries yoga and meditation are known to improve brain fitness and mind power. Integrating yoga with Buddhist Vipassana meditation is an excellent way to improve brain and body fitness.
In the book, ‘Yoga and Vipassana: An Integrated Lifestyle’, Dr. Amit Ray explained the ways to integrate yoga and meditations to enhance life. By exercising the brain with yoga and meditation in the right way we can improve our cognitive ability and brain fitness as well.
How to Improve Brain Fitness?
Brain fitness can be improved by the combination of physical exercises and mental exercises. Challenging activities such as chess playing, regular dancing, practicing yoga, meditation, tai chi and various structured mind training meditation programs also increase brain fitness. It is observed that regular systematic mental challenge by novel stimuli increases production and inter-connectivity of neurons and nerve growth factor. It also prevents cell death and loss of connections between neurons.
Brain Fitness and Aging:
Starting in the womb and throughout our life, the vast network of neurons in the brain continues to expand, adapt, and learn. But starting from our early 30s, most of us lose about 1 percent of the volume of the hippocampus annually. Hippocampus is a key portion of the brain related to memory and learning. The brain essentially does not have muscles but it controls muscles. The brain, like all muscles and organs, is a tissue, and its function declines with underuse and aging.
Lack of memory is a common complaint among elders. The brain is capable of producing new brain cells at any age. Hence considerable memory loss is not an obvious result of aging. But just as it is with muscle strength, you have to use it or lose it. Our lifestyle, health habits, and daily activities have a huge impact on the health of our brain. Independent of our age, there are several ways through which we can improve our cognitive skills, prevent memory loss, and protect our grey matter. Learning new things, staying engaged are vital for a healthy body and mind system. Empathy, loving kindness and meditation greatly improve brain fitness.
The brain does not store excess energy and derives almost its entire energy requirement from aerobic oxidation of glucose. Therefore, it requires a continuous supply of glucose and oxygen to meet its energy requirements. When blood flow to the brain stops and there is an absence of oxygen occurs, a loss of consciousness results in 5-10 seconds. If the blood flow is not resumed within several minutes, there is permanent brain damage. With underuse and aging the blood flow in the brain reduces.
Different regions of the brain have different energy requirements, which are related to the neuronal activity in these regions. In normal condition, yoga, exercises and running are the good ways to supply oxygen. Movement of fingers and hands increases metabolism in the particular brain regions.
The quantity of blood flow is directly related to brain activity. The brain does not do mechanical work, like that of cardiac and skeletal muscles, or osmotic work, as the kidney does. Our brain does not have the complex energy-consuming metabolic functions of the liver. However, brain does biosynthetic activities with the hormones and neurotransmitters with utmost precision.
After 40 years of age, hormonal changes occur in the body. The outward appearance of a typical middle-aged person shows increased abdominal fat and shrinkage of muscle mass. Inwardly the person shows decrease in bone density, weakening of the heart and memory loss. These are the hallmarks of hormone imbalance. Regular hormone blood tests protocol provides the person and the physician with the information necessary to safely adjust hormone levels. Yoga exercises and pranayam (breathing exercises) adjust the hormonal levels and eliminates the hormonal imbalances in a natural and healthy way.
With underuse and aging, the cerebral metabolism in the brain reduces. Cerebral metabolism has important consequences on motivation and mood (e.g., vigor, fatigue, anxiety, depression). Central motor drive from the cortex and increased brain mitochondrial activity could certainly enhance cerebral metabolism. Meditation and yoga practices enhance cerebral metabolism in the brain.