Image credits: hhach.

As an aging baby boomer, my thoughts often linger on the possibility of contracting Alzheimer’s as I drift closer and closer to the four score and ten. In fact, it’s estimated that worldwide, 1 in 10 people has some sort of dementia. There are a number of studies which give some indication of what is actually happening in the deteriorating brain, with several indicating that lifestyle can do a great deal to prevent such problems. It’s already well established that staying fit does a great deal to protect the brain. Even regular walks can have significant upsides. Research has also shown that keeping your mind active (ie through learning a foreign language) can also stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s.

My interest of late is to study how yoga can also play a role in protecting the brain. Yoga has been proven to be surprisingly effective at fighting psychiatric diseases and improving overall healthAccording to Ayurveda, the sister system of yoga, the major work of defending the brain rests with our lymphatic system which always produces the first response to challenges we are exposed to both internally and externally.

Lymph which is Specific to the Brain

While there are many things we’ve yet to discover about the brain, recent research points to the existence of two lymph type drainage systems for the brain. Up until recently, it was thought that the only drainage system of the brain was the Cerebral Spinal Fluid (CSF). CSF is a type of fluid, similar to lymph, which circulates around the central nervous system making a buffer against shocks and knocks, bathing the inner ventricles (chambers) of the brain with nutrients and carrying away toxic wastes. This movement of CSF up the spine and around the brain has been found to be enhanced by breathing practices and spinal movement and may be hindered by spines which are misaligned.

A healthy brain compared to a brain suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Image credits: National Institutes of Health.

Also aligned with this lymphatic system are the glymphatics vessels which drain each cell deep within the brain. These glymphatics have been found to operate almost exclusively during deep sleep and their function is enhanced when we lie on our sides. Therefore, to initiate this type of cleansing, we need to ensure we get a good night’s sleep of 6 – 8 hours.

The latest finding in this connection is that of actual lymph vessels which line the blood vessels of the brain performing the same work that their brothers and sisters do in other parts of the body – cleansing and replenishing. Keeping the lymph moving through exercise and deep breathing and not letting it block up due to stress is a region that yoga practices can take an active role in.

The Dementia Brain

Cognitive decline, especially Alzheimer’s disease, is associated with a build-up of a protein called beta-amyloid in the brain. Normally this neurotoxin is flushed out of the brain by our lymph vessels but if it is inhibited in some way this beta-amyloid builds up becoming very sticky and adhering to the nerves causing plaques, tangles and dead spots in the brain.

Have a Yoga-inspired Sleep

It has also been discovered that when we sleep the glymphatics open up much like hidden caves and drain copious amounts of these dangerous neurotoxins. One study estimated that it takes from 6 – 8 hours of sleep for an efficient draining process – a good reason to get the correct amount of sleep! And how you sleep is important too, researchers discovered that sleeping on your side promotes much better drainage than lying on your back or on your belly.

Unfortunately, the build-up of the neurotoxins in the brain due to lack of sleep causes a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation. As the neurotoxins build up in the brain we find it harder and harder to get to sleep. In other words, a lack of sleep promotes more lack of sleep. Glymphatic malfunction has now been linked to serious problems with the autoimmune system like multiple sclerosis, infections, and inflammation and cognitive and memory related issues like the big A – Alzheimer’s.

See below for some yoga poses to help promote relaxation and sleeping.

However, don’t drop off to sleep thinking that will solve everything. There are a few more things to factor in.

Keep your spine moving

Image credits: Jay Cooke /
Jacob Postuma.

CSF is moved cyclically from the base of the spine to the head four times daily to perform its job of distributing nutrients and washing out the harmful metabolites and toxins. This flow is made possible by two pumps. One at the bottom of the spine, the sacral pump and one at the top, the cranial pump.

Studies which observed CSF flow during breathing found that the inward breath elicited a high movement of CSF whereas holding the breath suppressed it. As we breathe in, the spine performs a subtle rocking movement. The diaphragm pushes downwards onto the sacrum and causes it to form a more pronounced lumbar lordosis (minor swaying of the back) which activates the sacral pump and as we fill up into the upper lungs our sternum rises and the head draws slightly back activating the cranial pump. As we breathe out the opposite happens. So our spine is continually pulsating back and forth with the inward and outward breath and as it pulsates the CSF is encouraged in its journey up the spine into the brain and back down again.

Yoga Breathing

The deeper our breath the more efficient our pumping system will be. Many people are shallow breathers, which tends to make us feel sluggish and can have a mild effect on the brain. Complete yoga breathing teaches us to breathe deep down into a relaxed abdomen and fill up into the top of the lungs and then empty from the top to the bottom finishing with a squeeze of the abdomen. A more pronounced effect can be produced with what is known as Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath) which emphasizes a strong and often fast inward and outward breath and it is postulated that this creates a stronger movement of the CSF.

According to Dr. Don Glassey, Alternate Nostril Breathing increases pressure in one nasal cavity after another which is said to initiate the cranial pump

Brahmari Pranayama or Humming Bee Breath is a wonderfully calming breath that reverberates into the sinuses and bones of the head and increases Nitric Oxide levels. Nitric Oxide, amongst other wonderful outcomes, assists in the drainage of lymph from the brain.

Yoga Asanas

While the whole spectrum of yoga asanas is beneficial for the flow of lymph throughout the body one of the best asanas specific to the movement of CSF is the simple Cat/Cow Flow. In this pose the spine is alternately flexed and extended from the sacrum up to the base of the skull, in time with the inward and outward breath, enhancing the flow of CSF. The traditional favorite of every yoga sequence, Surya Namaskara, Salute to the Sun, has a similar pumping action.

Stress

When you have experienced a severe emotional trauma or stress (especially repeated stress), the body becomes overly acidic. When the lymph in which each cell rests becomes acidic the nutrients cannot successfully pass through the cell membranes and the wastes have difficulty passing back out. This causes the lymphatic system to congest causing acidic cellular waste to build in the body, cerebrospinal fluid and brain. To deal with this acidic environment we need to have a multi-pronged approach, taking into consideration the diet, an easy fitness regime, exercise, breathing, relaxation and meditation.

Yoga asanas and yoga breathing do a wonderful job of releasing tension, and help to calm and steady the mind. The ability to relax, consciously letting go of any tension is encouraged in every yoga asana class and those who have experienced meditation will have hopefully experienced what current research points to – a calm and steady mind and a peaceful heart.

The practice of meditation is said to be vastly important to the health of our brains. A Harvard University study performed over eight weeks discovered that meditation increases the volume of grey matter in the parts of the brain associated with learning and memory. Another unrelated study carried out by researchers at the University of California, Berkley, discovered that stress makes those same areas shrink.

While some kinds of meditation do a wonderful job of calming and relaxing the mind. Through a deeper meditation method go beyond the brain and mind and become resilient to stress because we have found a place of peace deep within no matter how much the storms of life are battering us — even if the storms are causing plaques and tangles in our brain.

Yoga Practices for our Brain

Try these yoga practices after you’ve hopped into bed to set your brain up for its nightly replenish and enhance the flow of lymph as well.

Child Pose

Child’s Pose at Live the Riverfront Moonlight Yoga 2016.

With this pose we start the relaxation process. Resting the head on the block is calming for the eyes and brain.

Kneel down, sitting on your heels with your head resting on a yoga block or firm cushion. Feel your inward breath opening up your back ribs. This pose will help to relax your mind and whole nervous system. Stay for 5 – 10 breaths.

Cat/Cow Pose

Image credits: Nellis Air Force Base.

 

Spinal movements in time with the breath will activate the CSF. These next 3 poses will help to keep the spine supple and nicely aligned.

Come into a tabletop position and as you breathe in, raise your chest up to the ceiling and as you breathe out round your spine up to the ceiling. Do this for another 5 – 10 nice long slow breaths.

Easy Side Bend

From a kneeling or sitting position raise your right arm and inhale as you lengthen your spine and exhale as you lean over to the left. Raise up and repeat to the other side and continue for 5 times to each side.    

Easy Twist

From a kneeling or sitting position inhale and raise both arms, exhale and twist to the right and bring your right arm around behind you and the left hand to the right leg. Inhale back to the center again and repeat to the other side and continue for 10 nice long slow breaths.

Complete Yoga Breathing

Image credits: Becca Tapert.

The inward breath causes the CSF to flow and activates the sacral and cranial pumps which are situated at the bottom and top of the spine and their movement causes the CSF to flow.

Again from a kneeling or sitting position, with a nicely lengthening spine bring one hand to your belly button and the other to your collar bones. In one long but soft inhalation fill up your lungs from the bottom to the top and on a long exhalation; empty your lungs from the top to the bottom. The secret of a breath which reaches down to the bottom of the lungs is to relax the belly and broaden the rib cage and to get a nicely efficient outward breath squeeze the belly towards the spine. In this yoga breathing, feel your spine gently moving with the inward and outward breath and repeat this 5 – 10 times.

Alternate nostril breathing

This exercise pressurizes individual nostril cavities and has an activating effect on the cranial pump.

From the same seated or kneeling position and raise your right hand. If it is comfortable, place your first two fingers between the eyebrows and gently stroke the fingers up and down the forehead then let them come to rest in a comfortable place. We will be breathing out and in one nostril then changing to the other nostril to again breathe out and in. Take an inward breath and close off your right nostril with your thumb, breathe out through the left nostril. Inhale through the left and then block it off with the ring and little fingers so you can exhale through the right nostril. Now inhale through the right, block it off again and the cycle starts again.

  • Exhale left/ inhale left
  • Exhale right/inhale right
  • Exhale left/inhale left, etc,
  • Do this for about 12 cycles.

Brahmari Breathing

This breathing method is very calming for the nervous system and also activates NO (nitric oxide) which assists with lymphatic drainage.
Sitting comfortably place the fingertips of one hand on your throat, take a deep breath in and as you exhale make a humming sound and feel the vibration in your throat. Keep your fingertips here for 4 breaths then raise them to your sinuses and hum again feeling the vibration in your sinuses for 4 breaths. Now bring your fingertips to your chest and hum again feeling the vibration in your chest. You might like to alter the pitch of your hum as you change finger positions.

Meditation

Meditation is said to be vastly important to the health of our brains. In fact, a Harvard University study performed over eight weeks discovered that meditation increases the volume of grey matter in the parts of the brain associated with learning and memory. Another unrelated study carried out by researchers at the University of California, Berkley, discovered that stress makes those same areas shrink.

Now take your hands down to your lap place the tip of your first finger to the tip of the thumb of each hand, close your eyes, take a long slow breath in and on the outward breath say the mantra OM HARI OM. Say the mantra while you are gently focusing your attention on the sound. As you breathe in replay the mantra in your mind and listen again and repeat for at least 10 breaths.

Child Pose

Return to child pose with your head on a block or firm cushion and remain for 5 – 10 breaths. Then roll over onto your side and rest your head on the pillow pull up the blankets and have a good night’s sleep for your brain. Namaste!

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