Fitness Magazine

The Power of Mental Exercise, Part 2

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Ram

The Power of Mental Exercise, Part 2

Autumn Light Festival by Melina Meza

Nearly a month ago, I wrote about the power of mental exercise (see The Power of Mental Exercise, Part 1). I had suggested incorporating some form of mental exercises in your daily list to keep the mind fit. Can you recall what I wrote and the exercises that I suggested? If you are unable to recall that information, it is time for you seriously start incorporating mental exercises as a daily life-style practice. In neuroscience, memory consolidation and recall closely reflect neuronal strength and signal transmission between neurons that are involved in memory. Short-term plasticity (STP) and long-term potentiation (LTP) are terms used in neuroscience to indicate cellular mechanisms that underlie learning and memory.
It is incorrect to assume that as long as the brain is working fine and memory is reasonably good, there is no need to pay attention to it. In reality, 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 and also wards off mental and physical diseases. Medical science has clearly elaborated the effects of mental stress on our physiology and its role in the disease process. Several scientific studies find that mental exercise can either prevent or delay the onset of the disease.
Both Ayurveda and Yoga describe the disease process as taking its roots first in the mind and gradually spreading to the body where it shows up as specific symptoms. Western medical science also accepts the mind-body connection through which emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and behavioral factors can directly affect our physical health.  In a landmark study done in 2006, Exploring Interventions to Reduce Cognitive Decline in Aging, scientists demonstrated the beneficial and enduring effects of brain fitness program in an elderly population. The study showed that seniors who received mental training could counteract the decline in mental performance that is seen in the elderly better than seniors who did not receive any kind of training. The researchers concluded that individuals who stimulated their brain more frequently experienced a slower rate of cognitive decline than others. In another study from Australia,  Mental Exercise Nearly Halves Risk of Dementia, scientists found that being mentally active diminishes the risk of age-associated dementias by nearly 50%.
Stimulation of the brain can occur in a wide variety of ways. The brain is constantly changing for people of all ages, and learning something new or novel builds and remodels new neural network connectivity. Mental training exercises must occur so that the brain can continue to grow. Today I’m going to present a variety of mental fitness exercises that you can perform in any setting. Since this is a yoga blog, I have come up with exercises that relate to yoga.

Memory Exercises
Our memory is the brain's filing system as it stores everything we have learned and continue to learn. The brain is made up of 100 billion neurons. During learning, neurons get “wired up” to each other and communicate through thousands of connections. Memories are formed when these connections are strengthened. Memory plays a crucial role in all cognitive activities, including reading, reasoning and mental calculation. Memorizing the lyrics of a new song, a mantra that you recently heard in the yoga class, street signs in a new area, and so on boost the level of certain chemicals that are responsible for the memory storage and retrieval. The information making up memory is stored in many parts of our brain, including areas that oversee the laying down of memory, some that are involved in storage and some that help with retrieval of these memories. It is easy to notice when memory fails or declines. To maintain a good memory, you need to train for it.
1. As you turn the pages of a yoga deck (cards with yoga poses) try to memorize the Sanskrit names for each pose. In the process, not only are you learning a new language but you are also laying down new neural connections each time you memorize and recall a pose and its corresponding name. It is a perfect way to stimulate the brain. The next time you see a picture of a pose in a magazine or if you happen to hear someone providing instructions for a particular pose try to recall the name of the pose in Sanskrit. Alternatively, try to recall the correct pose when you hear similar sounding names (for example, several my students get confused with Uttanasana, Utthita Parsvakonasana, Ustrasana, and Upavista Konasana).
2. Using the same yoga deck pick up five cards in a sequential order and mentally note down the name and other details scribbled on the card. Recall the information after 5 minutes preferably in the same sequence. Recall the same information after 10 minutes.
3. Open your favorite yoga text, such as the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, and select a passage to memorize that week. You can start by memorizing the passage in English. Bonus points for memorizing it in Sanskrit as well!
Attention Exercises
Attention and memory cannot operate without each other. Attention is necessary in all our daily tasks as it enables us to maintain concentration and focus on the task. Any object that is attended to will remain in the memory, while those that receive scant attention will leave no memory traces behind. One of the ways to improve attention is by simply changing our daily routines or habits. This forces the brain cells to wake up from routine tasks and pay attention again.
1. When it comes specifically to yoga, if you have a habit of doing the poses right side first, practice the same by starting on the left side before the right and vice versa. Also, try practicing in a different room or space in your house and either find or create an entirely new sequence to practice.
2. The next time you decide to practice yoga, set a timer for a specific time (say 45 minutes). When the timer beeps, crosscheck whether you were fully attentive to your yoga or how often you were distracted. Try and recall all the steps you performed on the mat. If you found yourself distracted, be aware of it the next time you do a similar task.
Visual-Spatial Exercise
Our three-dimensional world is filled with colors, figures, shapes and sizes. Visual-spatial information is about seeing, organizing and remembering. It is the ability to distinguish one object from another, distinguishing a printed object from its background, recognizing a pattern of symbols, images, or words, understanding the relationship of an object situated in space to oneself or identifying an object when certain parts of it are visible. Individuals with visual-spatial difficulties have trouble with pictures, maps, schedules or diagrams. Visual-spatial impairment is often an early symptom of a problem with the nervous system.
1. At your yoga studio, look around and note everything you can see both in front of you and in your peripheral vision. Pick out five items and their exact locations. Write down as many details of the location and items as possible. After completing your yoga practice and before exiting the place, recall from memory all the five items, their location and other details. Challenge yourself to recall again all the details after two hours. (In a home setting since you are very familiar with the placement of objects in the room, try the above mentioned exercise in a different room or space in your house.)
As we age, it’s important to not only flex our physique but our mental makeup as well. With this two-part series on the importance of mental fitness, I hope you are more aware of how to exercise the different functional aspects of the brain.  Can I ask you to challenge yourself with daily activities that will help you break a mental sweat and sprout your neuronal branches thereby keeping the brain in shape? Good luck with the mental workout!!

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