TWELVE MINUTES TO A YOUNGER BRAIN Exercise for mind and body
It’s been proved to hone, tone and give you a fabulously youthful body, but the latest buzz about yoga is how it can help de-age your brain. Best of all, even the busiest woman should have time to do it
YOGA IS DEFINITELY HAVING A MOMENT
From boardrooms to church halls, you’ll find all ages, shapes and sizes in downward dog or doing a cat pose. It seems we just can’t get enough of this ancient practice, said to be good for mind, body and soul. Yoga really does seem to offer the whole package – as well as toning and strengthening the body, improving posture and mobility and reducing chronic pain, it also soothes
stress and anxiety. There’s been a whole raft of research into its benefits over the past decade – done regularly, yoga can lower your risk of heart disease, reduce back pain, improve asthma, support the immune system, boost mood, lower anxiety and beat insomnia, as well as helping you lose weight and improve your eating habits. But the hot news is that one kind of yoga could also help to stave off Alzheimer’s. Just 20 minutes a day of Kundalini yoga reversed the early signs of dementia, according to a UCLA study published in the Journal Of Alzheimer’s Disease. Researchers took a group of people aged over 55 who were dealing with the kind of niggly, everyday memory blips that aren’t serious, but can still be frustrating – blanking on names, forgetting appointments, misplacing car keys (or the car). We may laugh these off as Senior Moments, but they can also be a warning flag – people with mild cognitive impairment are two and a half times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. At the start of the study, the volunteers underwent memory tests and brain scans. Then they were divided into two groups. The first were
given 20 minutes of brain training exercises, such as word association games, to do at home every day. The second group attended a weekly, hour-long Kundalini yoga class, and then practised a short Kundalini meditation exercise called Kirtan Kriya every day at home.
After 12 weeks, both groups were better at memorising words and names. But MRI scans showed that the yoga group had significantly improved their brain connectivity, suggesting that the changes would be longer lasting. They also experienced an additional benefit – notable improvements in their visual-spatial memory skills, which makes driving and navigating much easier. Plus the yoga group reduced their levels of depression and anxiety and showed increased resilience to stress.
THE 12-MINUTE MEMORY BOOSTER
Kundalini classes involve chanting in Sanskrit, repeating simple repetitive phrases, such as Sat Nam (Truth is my identity) or Ong Namo Guru Dev Namo
(I call upon the divine wisdom), in a sort of tuneless singing voice. But it’s worth getting over the cringe factor because it’s the chanting that brings the benefits. ‘When you practise the mantra, the tongue is pushed against the roof of the mouth and that stimulates around 30,000 nerve endings and around 80 reflexology points, so the whole body benefits,’ says Kundalini teacher Mariya Gancheva, who combines teaching yoga with a job as an investment banker in the City of London. ‘But it’s also a very effective form of meditation – focusing your mind on repeating the sounds means it’s less likely to wander off.’
In the Kirtan Kriya Kundalini exercise, there is also a sequence of hand positions called mudras, which involve touching the thumb to the pads of your fingertips, that you coordinate with the chants. According to Professor Helen Lavretsky, who carried out the UCLA study, the mantra-mudra combination enhances production of a protein in the brain that stimulates connections between neurons. It’s also thought to regenerate activity in the telomeres, the end-bit of our DNA that helps slow down the ageing process. In a previous study, practising 12 minutes of Kirtan Kriya daily for eight weeks boosted telomere activity by 44%.
‘One of the first major changes I noticed when I started doing Kundalini regularly was my memory improving,’ says Mariya. ‘I started remembering phone numbers without really trying. My focus and concentration at work have also improved. I work on the trading floor, and it’s full-on for eight hours. I used to rely on coffee to keep me sharp; now my energy levels are naturally high all day.’
On paper, Kundalini yoga certainly sounds appealing – for a start, Lycra is optional, and participants are encouraged to wear loose-fitting clothing in natural fibres. It’s often done on a soft sheepskin rug (Demi Moore has been snapped carrying hers rolled up between classes), instead of the traditional rubber yoga mat, to minimise stress on the joints. There’s also nothing fast-paced about it – rather than rattling through sweaty sun salutations, you hold postures for longer, while focusing on your breathing. Many of the postures are done from a seated position. The result is a deep and energising feeling of calm. ‘It teaches you to focus the mind and not let stress
affect how you feel,’ says Mariya. ‘Kundalini is known as the yoga of awareness. Your body will change, but what people notice first after practising it is that their mind becomes sharper and more awake. You stop spending so much time drifting through life on autopilot.’
Of course, Kundalini is not the only way to improve your memory. Your dementia risk goes down if you don’t smoke or overdo the booze, and you are not overweight. Eating a balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables and keeping active also protect brain health.
Other types of yoga are also good for your brain – significant improvements in working memory were found in a group of 55 to 79 year olds who practised Hatha yoga and meditation three times a week for eight weeks, compared with a group that did a similar amount of stretching. But if your New Year’s resolution is to find a new way to relax, or to take up meditation, Kirtan Kriya is a simple way to do it in just 12 minutes – we show you how below. It might even help you find your keys!
To find a certified Kundalini teacher near you, put your postcode into ‘Search for a class’ on kundaliniyoga.org.uk. Or you can find online classes taught by the world’s top teachers at kundalinilounge.com.
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