How might yoga therapy promote neurogenesis?

By Evi Dimitriadou

Neurogenesis is the formation of new brain cells (neurons), an important process that continues throughout our entire lives and is part of the maintenance of our central nervous systems. Although it might sound unbelievable, we can influence this process: A healthy diet, good sleep, physical activity, and learning new things increase neurogenesis; excessive stress, anxiety, depression, and poor sleep can interfere with neurogenesis. Cancer treatments, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease can also diminish neurogenesis.

Yoga is a good tool for encouraging neurogenesis. Yoga practices are known for reducing stress and helping people feel more balanced. Slow, controlled movements, diaphragmatic breathing, synchronizing breath and movement, and meditation are all recommended for activating the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which is part of how we reduce stress. Stress reduction is important for regulating mood, sleep, and inflammation, so better managing stress supports neurogenesis.

Neurogenesis is also bolstered by neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to learn new things, such as a yoga posture, a different breathing pattern, or how elements of yoga philosophy relate to your life. The physical exercise of yoga postures can also encourage neurogenesis. Contralateral movements, such as swinging the arms while walking and most twisting poses, are also important physical patterns to practice in support of neurogenesis. 

Mixing things up is another way to promote neurogenesis through yoga: Varying your practices challenges your brain to learn new patterns. Getting better at any specific set of postures or breathing exercises can be rewarding and important, but for neurogenesis variety and learning new patterns are key.

Yoga therapists develop personalized practices based on the needs and goals of an individual or small group. The directory on this site can help you find an IAYT-certified yoga therapist to help develop and modify brain and body practices for longevity, including by promoting neurogenesis.

Evi Dimitriadou, C-IAYT, is the founder of Yoga Therapy Greece, an IAYT Member School. She is working on a masters degree in psychology and neuroscience of mental health conditions from King’s College in London.