Fitness Magazine

Mental Exercise

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge

by Ram

Mental Exercise, Yoga and the Perfect Brain

Abstract Lights by Melina Meza

Generally we assume that as long as the brain is working fine and memory is reasonably good there is no need to pay attention to it. But the concept “use it or lose it” applies to the brain as well as the body. Our brains are like the car engines; just as the performance of the engine is enhanced as long as the oil is changed regularly, similarly the brain actively grows and rewires itself in response to stimulation and learning. Brain fitness, mental fitness and mental exercise all mean the same thing: it is the act of performing a mentally stimulating task that keeps the brain fit. Several scientific studies find that mental exercise can either prevent or delay the onset of mental and physical diseases.  Furthermore, age-associated memory loss can be prevented by: 1) physical activity/exercise, 2) staying mentally active, 3) being socially active, 4) eating a healthy diet, 5) leading a stress-free life and 6) sleeping well.
Several scientific studies point to the benefits of yoga (asanas, meditation and pranayama) in combating stress, keeping the individual physically and mentally stable and active, improving the digestive capacity and also helping in the sleeping process, all of which will result in combating age-associated memory loss. Yoga does this through multiple cellular mechanisms.  Studies show that the practice of yoga has beneficial effects on emotional well-being and general mental acuity without any of the side effects. Yoga increases brain chemicals such as endorphins and enkephalins that contribute to a feel-good response and ward off mental stress. It is akin to stimulating the brain in a positive way, which results in optimal brain function all of which can keep an individual alert and sharp.
So the questions are: Do I practice mental exercises? Does this involve yoga in any way? Is there anything that I do regularly with yoga that I feel will contribute to my brain health?
I incorporate yoga as part of my daily mental exercise regime. Yoga to me is not just about asanas but about all forms of the discipline that bring the body-mind-breath in tune. I sincerely feel that my yoga practice is keeping me mentally agile and physically fit.  Here are eight simple mental exercises that I incorporate as a daily/regular practice to combat age-associated memory loss and other mental illness.
Meditation: I do a 30-minute meditation and pranayama practice combined with an hour of asana practice. Meditation helps to settle my unruly mind and allows me to focus consciously. I also believe that meditation gets to places in my brain that asanas simply cannot penetrate. Meditating helps me to ease smoothly into my asana practice. Similarly, doing asanas helps me deepen my meditation practice.
Pranayama: I have a daily practice of pranayama. It helps me to calm down, reducing the Flight or Fight response. I have found it particularly useful in relieving stress in my mind that primarily comes from lab work.
Asanas:  I commit to a one-hour home asana practice when I am not teaching at the studio. My yoga sequence keeps varying each day and this variation in the asana sequence is a perfect way to stimulate the brain. In addition, I switch the sides lest I end up with a dominant side. (Some of the poses that I routinely do on the right side first, I practice the same by starting on the left side and vice versa.) Furthermore, as I do each pose I mentally call out the name of the pose preferably in Sanskrit thereby stimulating the “recall” centers of the brain.
Additionally, I end my asana practice with inversions. My rationale for this: with age there is a decline in the volume of blood flow into the brain. This decreases the hemoglobin, sugar and oxygen content to the brain that may be responsible for age-associated mental problems. Inversions trigger increased blood circulation to the brain (by reversing gravity) thus keeping the brain nourished and healthy.
Physical Exercise: My day doesn't feel right if I go without some form of physical activity. There are days when I feel so tired and my brain refuses to work smoothly towards the end of the day. Being aware of the fact that physical exercise is not only important for body's health but it also helps the brain stay sharp, I force myself to go for a workout to the local gym. The antidepressant-like effects kick in after exercising for just 20 minutes.
Santosha: I try to smile a lot and be happy and contented; smiling helps to improve mental and cognitive skills, interpersonal skills and it adds years to life. (See Santosha, Smiling and Longevity).
Satya: Truth frees us from all kinds of emotional turmoil and telling the truth significantly improves a person’s mental health and has a positive impact on health and longevity. So I do my best not to lie and if I am in a fix, I will avoid answering. (See Satya: The Truth about Lies and Healthy Aging.)  

Anger Management: Research from several diverse groups indicates that rage and anger are definitely hazardous to health. Anger has been associated with chronic over stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, which, in turn, increases blood pressure and heart rate, causing alterations of ventricular function. These days I rarely get angry primarily because of my long-standing pranayama and meditation practice, techniques that are known to curb anger and achieve calmness. (See Anger Management: Philosophy, Science and Yoga.) 
Karma Yoga/Selfless Service: Research studies show that selfless service provides freedom from emotional disturbances including desires, ambitions, fear, worry, anxiety, judgment, rage etc leading to true happiness and improved cognitive skills. Therefore, I engage in selfless service and voluntary acts during weekends that brings greater fulfillment to my life. (See Selfless Service for Harmonious Longevity.)

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