Can yoga – and all of its contemplative practices – contribute to a healthier cognitive aging process?

My husband and I try to remember to laugh when we walk into a room and then have to stand there for a few minutes because we realize we forgot why we were heading there in the first place.  And I think a sense of humor is critical in many circumstances, so applying it to myself as I age is putting a value into action!  However, instead of accepting the gradual decline in the neural circuitry of the brain as we age, what if you were to learn that there was a simple way to preserve the connectivity in our brains that contributes to overall health?  Would you be willing to try it?

Well, with the assistance of brain imaging, research studies can see the impact of contemplative – or attentional – practices on very specific areas of the brain, which opens the door to more rigorous studies that shed light on how such practices can support a healthier cognitive aging process.  These brain imaging techniques have shown that there are changes in the functional connectivity of our neural networks as we age.  Now the idea of ‘before and after’ imaging can be applied more broadly in research, beyond the studies that focus on prescription medications.

My experience when I am able to give something my full attention is one in which the memory of the moment is so much richer and stronger, whether it is a conversation with someone or simply sitting outside in nature.  I find that I can more easily recall the details of the experience when reflecting on it, almost as though I am experiencing it again in all of its colors and textures.  So if there is something I can do to help support the health of my ability to maintain my attention, I say ‘sign me up!’

Recent data from studies looking specifically at yoga and other contemplative practices such as meditation suggest that such practices may revert, at least in some part, the effects of aging on the functional connectivity in the brain.  The intention of the research is to look at how using the body and breath as the focus of contemplation helps to preserve cognition and the neural connectivity of those brain areas that typically decline with age.  When we hold the body in one of the shapes of a yoga practice, and bring the mind’s awareness to focus on the experience of the breath in that shape, it supports the parts of the brain that support cognition and brain connectivity.  Sounds pretty good to me for simply moving the body and breathing with intention and attention!

If you are so inclined to read more about the details of a recent research study looking how yoga and other contemplative practices impact specific parts of the brain involved in maintaining a healthier cognitive aging process, click the link below:

Can meditation support your immune system, especially in light of the effects of COVID-19?

As someone that suffered with anxiety for most of my life, I am personally so grateful for my yoga practice, which includes various contemplative practices such as meditation.  (Click here for a great image that reflects the many different types of contemplative practices.)  What I found through the ongoing use of these tools is a consistent way to navigate stress to maintain my body, mind, and soul health.  Stress is still present – and I no longer have any expectations of living a stress-free life – yet it no longer accumulates into an expression of anxiety.

Meditation is a very personal experience.  It is the personal nature of the practice that can make it difficult to try and especially hard to maintain.  There are also many different forms of meditation, so it definitely is not one-size-fits-all.  Yet the intention behind meditation – to slow down the mind and help us detach from our thoughts – creates space.  It is this space that can be scary.  When we encounter stress, one of the most common tools humans go to in order to deal with the freeze/fight/flight response is distraction.  We might distract ourselves by watching shows, eating, drinking, shopping, or one of the many other forms of impulsive behaviors that bring feelings of guilt and remorse along with them.

And yet more and more research is demonstrating the benefits of meditation, including how it can support our immune system functioning, which is vital right now in light of the pandemic.  Meditation, whatever form of it that works best for you, helps to regulate the normal, natural human stress response, reducing the inevitable inflammation effects of that response.  If we can find a form of meditation that we enjoy, then this tool can become the sharpest one in our toolkit and the one we consistently turn to when we feel anxiety building.

One of the more creative methods of meditations I utilize is journaling.  This expressive writing tool has also been shown to reduce anxiety and depression.  Relax Like A Boss, a website dedicated to wellbeing and stress, put together an ultimate guide to meditation journals.  If you might consider this form of meditation, you can link to the guide here for tips on how to get started.

Contemplative practices do not have to be done for long periods of time, unless that works for you.  Another one of my favorites is conscious deep breathing, and I do this several times a day for just a few minutes.  It acts like a reset button for my nervous system.  You might count how long you inhale and how long you exhale or you can include visualizations, such as colored light.  You might add affirmations, such as inhaling peace and exhaling stress, if that helps give the thoughts in the mind the necessary mini vacation.  Simply keep in mind that you cannot do it wrong!

I think what is most exciting is how research is looking at the body-mind connection more and more and not approaching the body and mind separately when working towards health.  One recent review of the research literature focused on the interconnected physiological processes in the body that supports the continued inclusion – and expansion – of meditation in the treatment of diverse medical conditions.  What they looked at more closely is the impact of stress on the gut microbiota and how meditation supports the health of our gut, leading to a healthier mind through the regulation of neurotransmitters.  The research team recommended the integration of meditation into conventional health care and wellness models.  If you would like to read more about this review, click the button below: