If you are looking to exercise both your body and your mind, then you may be interested in some new research conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Neha Gothe, a graduate student at Illinois who is now a professor of kinesiology at Wayne State University, led a research team to uncover data that shows a 20-minute session of hatha yoga significantly improved participants’ speed and accuracy on tests of working memory and inhibitory control. Participants showed significantly better results on these tests of retention of new information after a yoga session than after completing a moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise.
Participants underwent a 20-minute progression of seated, standing, and supine yoga postures, concluding with a meditative posture and deep breathing. They also completed a 20-minute aerobic exercise where they walked or jogged on a treadmill for 20 minutes, with each subject maintaining 60 to 70 percent of her maximum heart rate throughout the workout. All subjects in the study were female undergraduates. No significant improvements in working memory or inhibitory control were found after the aerobic exercise.
Researchers believe that following a yoga practice, participants were better able to focus because the breathing and meditation exercises aim to calm the mind and body, possibly translating into better mental performance beyond the yoga practice. Furthermore, meditation and breathing exercises are known to reduce anxiety and stress, which may help improve scores on some cognitive tests.
The full study is available in the May issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.
The physical benefits of yoga, such as increased strength, greater flexibility, and surges in feel-good chemicals like dopamine, have been proven through science. But is there a psychological component to this type of exercise, as well?
The Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living is attempting to scientifically evaluate the effects yoga has on those who practice. The institute supports a team of researchers from Harvard Medical School who are researching the impact yoga has on a wide range of mental health issues.
One such study funded by the institute is using brain-imaging studies to better understand how contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation can alter behavior, mood, and states of consciousness. Dr. Sara Lazar, principal investigator, is analyzing these images to assess if a yoga practice can change the actual structure of the brain. If so, how do these changes influence attention, fluid intelligence, and cognitive and emotional functioning? Previous work by Dr. Lazar has shown that the brains of individuals who regularly practiced Buddhist meditation are different from the brains of a control group who did not. This study will evaluate a group of highly experienced yogis to investigate whether they show similar changes to the meditation group.
Several other studies focusing on the link between yoga and mental health are ongoing. One study is attempting to reduce posttraumatic stress disorder severity and symptoms through yoga, and is currently recruiting military veterans for the next phase of research. Another study is using yoga as a preventive mental health measure in high school students — and initial results show that it improves mood states and resiliency when compared to traditional physical education. A third study involving yoga in mindful eating and weight gain prevention programs has documented changes in participants physical and mental health.
Do you recommend yoga to your clients? Do you think yoga helps psychologically as well as physically?