Yoga Better for Your Brain Than Exercise


Yoga is being shown to have many health benefits. The latest benefit that a new study in Journal of Physical Activity and Health says is that yoga may provide a good work out for your brain.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researchers recruited 30 undergraduate women to participate in a 20-minute Hatha yoga session.

Three types of poses or asanas were performed by the participants: seated, standing and supine. Meditation and deep breathing closed out the yoga sessions.

Then, to compare other types of exercise with yoga, the subjects were also asked to complete a 20-minute session of aerobic exercise by either walking or running on a treadmill.

In order for each participant to reach 60 to 70 percent of maximum heart rate throughout the session, the treadmill’s speed and inclination were adjusted.

The women were tested on their cognitive abilities after each session.  After the yoga session, the subjects showed greater accuracy and quicker reaction times.  Contrary to previous findings, there was no significant increase in cognitive performance after the aerobic exercise.

The study showed that participants performed significantly better in speed and accuracy on tests of working memory and inhibitory control, two measures of brain function associated with the ability to maintain focus and take in, retain and use new information.

According to lead researcher Neha Gothe, now a professor of kinesiology at Wayne State University:

“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 explained in a press release that many factors could explain the results. One of the factors could be that mediation and breathing exercises are known to reduce stress which may result in stronger cognitive performance. Also,  the increased self-awareness that comes with meditation could be a factor, according to Gothe.

“Yoga is an ancient Indian science and way of life that includes not only physical movements and postures but also regulated breathing and meditation,” Gothe added.

She led the study while a graduate student at the university. “The practice involves an active attentional or mindfulness component but its potential benefits have not been thoroughly explored.”

It came as a surprise to Gothe and her colleagues that participants showed more improvement in their reaction times and accuracy on cognitive tasks after yoga practice than after the aerobic exercise session.

Edward McAuley, the director of the Exercise Psychology Lab where the research was conducted, noted that while the study is small, the results are important.

“Yoga research is in its nascent stages and with its increasing popularity across the globe, researchers need to adopt rigorous systematic approaches to examine not only its cognitive but also physical health benefits across the lifespan,” McAuley stated.

“Yoga is becoming an increasingly popular form of exercise in the U.S. and it is imperative to systematically examine its health benefits, especially the mental health benefits that this unique mind-body form of activity may offer,” McAuley added.

According to the 2012 Yoga in America study published by the Yoga Journal, 20 million Americans practice yoga.

Compared to the previous study, which was conducted in 2008, that’s a 29 percent increase in the amount of Americans who are yoga practitioners.

Yoga is also big business. Approximately 10 billion dollars has been spent by yoga practitioners on various products including equipment, clothing, vacations and media.

Women compose the majority of the practitioners, at 82 percent. The majority of these, 62 percent, fall between the ages of 18 and 44. Some of their varied reasons for practicing yoga include flexibility, stress reduction, physical fitness and conditioning, and improving overall health.

If you’re curious and would like to read the rest of this article, it can be found at: Gothe N et al. (2013) The Acute Effects of Yoga on Executive Function.


Written by: Douglas Cobb

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