When world-famous yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar visited the San Diego Zoo in 1990, he and a group of yoga teachers accompanying him stood watching the flamingos, many of them standing one one leg. He is reported to have pointed to one bird as it balanced on one foot, beak tucked under its feathers, fast asleep, challenging his group: “Can you relax like that?”

The answer, of course, is no. For humans, nodding off while balancing on one leg is out of the question. Even relatively simple balances like Vrksasana (Tree Pose) and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) demand our full, wakeful attention in a way that other standing poses do not. The instant we lose focus, we fall over.

But why do we do them? Balances form a key part of the yoga repertoire for students at all levels. As well as being fun (or a relief from an eye popping strenuous sequence in some classes), they do require our full attention in a way other poses do not.

Research is now emerging that, as well as developing strength and stability, they may even go some way to reversing some of the effects of ageing. Yoga Journal recently reported:

“In a way, both yoga and meditation are ‘brain exercises’ that engage different parts of the brain based on the components of practice (breathing, movement, postures, chanting, visualization, concentration), and can help the brain form new connections and recover from injuries, or as we call it, to stimulate neuroplasticity,” says Helen Lavretsky, M.D., M.S., director of the late-life mood, stress, and wellness research program at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

Lavretsky noted that in both of the aforementioned studies, yoga and meditation were used in combination with other approaches, such as exercise, music therapy, medications, and brushing of the teeth. However, she says yoga practice and meditation may be helpful in prevention of dementia (a general term for loss of memory and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life) in several ways.

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