Yoga Boosts Brain Function

A 20-minute daily yoga session could boost your brain power. In a new study from the University of Illinois, researchers found that people had improved working memory and inhibitory control after a single 20-minute yoga session.

Earlier research has shown that aerobic exercise can improve people's performance on cognitive tests, and lead author, Neha Gothe and her colleagues sought to understand whether yoga produced the same brain benefits.

They asked 30 undergraduate female students to perform either aerobic exercise or yoga for 20 minutes. The Hatha yoga session involved muscle relaxation, regulated breathing, and isometric contractions. Women in the aerobic group either walked or jogged on a treadmill at 60-70% maximum heart rate -- the level that has previously been tied to better cognitive test scores. Before and after the physical activities, participants took cognitive tests intended to estimate how well a person can focus, learn, and remember information.

Researchers were surprised to discover that the yogis had better scores than those in the aerobic exercise group. The aerobic group had no significant improvements immediately after exercise, while the yogis had better reaction and accuracy.

"It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout," Gothe stated in a press release. "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 mind-body improvements produced by yoga may be one reason why it's been found to be beneficial for musculoskeletal conditions. Studies suggest that yoga can significantly reduce symptoms associated with knee osteoarthritis, back pain, and neck pain.


McAuley E. The acute effects of yoga on executive function. Journal of Physical Activity & Health 2013; 10: 488-495.