People have significantly superior brain function after a bout of yoga exercise compared to aerobic exercise, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reported in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health.

The authors, as background information, explained that yoga has become more popular over the last decade. However, there is not much research that focuses on the relationship between yoga exercise and cognition.

Study leader, Professor Neha Gothe and team set out to determine what the effects of an acute yoga exercise session, compared to aerobic exercise, might be on cognitive performance.

Cognitive performance refers to a person’s mental processes, including memory, attention, producing and understanding language, learning, problem solving, reasoning, and decision making.

The team recruited 30 volunteers, all of them college-aged females from the University of Illinois. Their average age was 20 years. They completed three counterbalanced testing sessions:

  • A Hatha yoga exercise session – consisting of a 20-minute progression from sitting, to standing and then supine (lying down looking up) yoga postures. The sessions involved contracting and relaxing different muscle groups, as well as regulated breathing. Participants finished off with a meditative posture and deep breathing
  • An aerobic exercise session – participants worked out on a treadmill with an incline at 60% to 70% of their maximum heart rate throughout the 20-minute session
  • A baseline assessment

Their cognitive performance was tested after each session.

The researchers found that after the yoga exercise, the participants’ cognitive performance had improved much more compared to after their aerobic sessions or at baseline.

In fact, cognitive performance after aerobic exercise was not statistically different from the readings measured at baseline, contradicting some previous study results.

Prof. Gothe said:

“The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities.”

The researchers suggested that perhaps enhanced self-awareness that comes with meditational-type exercises is possibly one of the mechanisms that helps cognition. We know that meditation and breathing exercises reduce anxiety and stress, which in turn may lead to better cognitive performance.

The authors concluded in an Abstract in the journal:

“These findings are discussed relative to the need to explore the effects of other nontraditional modes of exercise such as yoga on cognition and the importance of time elapsed between the cessation of the exercise bout and the initiation of cognitive assessments in improving task performance.”

  • Yoga helps lift mood and control anxiety – a team from Boston University School of Medicine found that yoga may be better than other exercises in lifting mood and reducing anxiety.
  • Yoga And Meditation Change Gene Response To Stress – researchers from MIT and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center published a study in PLoS One which suggests mind and body techniques included in yoga exercises and meditation put the body in a state of relaxation response (deep rest) that can change how genes behave in response to stress.
  • Yoga may help people with hypertension (high blood pressure) – a team from the University of Pennsylvania found that yoga can have a beneficial effect on patients with hypertension by reducing their blood pressure.
  • Yoga, a cost-effective treatment for back pain – an article published in the journal Spine reported that a yoga intervention program called “Yoga for Health Lower Backs” is probably cost effective not only for the UK’s National Health Service, but for the wider society as well. Researchers compared the 12-week specially-developed group yoga intervention program to conventional general practitioner care.
  • Yoga reduces the risk of developing atrial fibrillation – people who practice yoga often and long term have a considerably lower risk of experiencing episodes of atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat). Atrial fibrillation is a major cause of stroke in seniors. Researchers from the University of Kansas Hospital found that not only did yoga reduce atrial fibrillation risk, but also improved anxiety and depressive symptoms among participants who practiced yoga frequently.

    Study leader, Dr. Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy, said “These findings are important because many of the current conventional treatment strategies for atrial fibrillation include invasive procedures or medications with undesirable side effects.”

Christian Nordqvist