Exercise is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, and yoga is one popular type of physical activity that can serve as both a primary form of exercise as well as a restorative, supplemental practice to keep athletes’ bodies supple and strong. But research shows there is more to that yoga class than a just a great stretch and post-yoga glow. A 2012 study to be published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health confirms a concrete connection between the practice of yoga and improved focus, attention, and memory. Many studies have been conducted to prove the relationship between aerobic exercise and improved cognitive function, both in terms of ongoing, regular exercise programs and the immediate effects of individual bouts of physical activity. The improvements have been found primarily in areas of cognitive performance called executive functions, which the authors describe as, “a set of goal-directed processes like planning, scheduling, working memory, task coordination, cognitive flexibility, and abstract thinking.” Exercise has been shown to have a positive effect particularly on inhibitory control – the ability to focus attention on relevant items and ignore irrelevant information. While the beneficial mental impacts of aerobic exercise are strongly supported by research and literature, less attention has been paid to non-traditional forms of exercise such as yoga and tai chi. These activities place completely different cardiovascular demands on the body, and specifically involve a mind-body component.
This recent study sought to compare the impact of yoga to that of aerobic exercise on both working memory and inhibitory control. After collecting baseline data for comparison, participants were led through a 20 minute Hatha yoga class that involved several standing, seated, and supine postures. During each of the postures, participants were encouraged to mindfully engage specific muscle groups while regulating their breath. The class ended with a meditative pose. For the aerobic portion of the study, participants ran on a treadmill at a self-selected speed and incline that would allow them to stay within a 60-70% of their maximum heart rate, as this is the range and exertion level at which previous studies have found cognitive improvement. The same cognitive function tests were administered to the subjects after completing both the yoga session and treadmill run.
The study found that reaction times were shorter and accuracy was greater in participants after they finished practicing yoga. The subjects’ performance after the aerobic exercise test did not show any significant improvement from the baseline performance, despite data from previous studies. Subjects also reported feeling calm and relaxed after the yoga session, while most reported simply feeling tired after completing the aerobic exercise. The researchers suggest that the elevated, positive mood commonly reported after practicing yoga is one factor that contributes to the improvement in cognitive ability. Yoga’s emphasis on body awareness and focus may improve attention and focus in other areas of life, as well. Yoga has also been found to reduce anxiety, which has been shown to impede activities that require attention.
There are so many important, irrefutable reasons to incorporate more movement into one’s daily routine, so even if yoga is uncharted territory, the mental benefits alone are enough to validate including it in one’s repertoire. For readers in the Boston area, Back Bay Yoga, Baron Baptiste Studios, Inner Strength Studio, and Sweat and Soul Yoga are just some of the many wonderful options available for classes that invigorate the body and the mind.