Do you find that practicing yoga helps you to maintain focus and better take in, retain, and use new information? A new study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health suggests that a basic hatha yoga session facilitates improvements on tests of cognitive function, including working memory and inhibitory control. Inhibitory control refers to the ability to control inappropriate responses or behaviors, while working memory can be thought of as the brain’s sticky note, storing short-term information for problem solving, organizing, and paying attention. Immediately following yoga practice, participants performed significantly better on these measures than when engaged in moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise for the same duration.
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Previous research has shown that participation in aerobic exercise boosts immediate cognitive function, particularly executive function. Executive function refers to a number of goal-directed processes (for example, planning, scheduling, working memory, task coordination, cognitive flexibility, etc.) that entail planned interactions with the environment. Research suggests that mindfulness practice boosts executive function; as a similar practice with the addition of breathwork, relaxation, and movement, yoga may be particularly effective.
Researcher Neha Gothe, who conducted the study while a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign, recruited 30 young, female undergraduate students to participate. Each participant engaged in three study sessions: baseline, yoga, and aerobic exercise. The order of these sessions were randomly allocated, such that some participants received yoga first, others the baseline condition, and others still aerobic exercise. Termed “counterbalancing,” this random ordering minimized “order effects,” which refers to the likelihood that consistently offering the conditions in the same sequence across subjects will bias (alter) results in a systematic or predictable way.
At the baseline session, subjects were assessed on tests of cognitive and aerobic function. The 20-minute yoga session incorporated seated, standing, and supine postures; mindful and deep breathing; and concluded with a ‘meditative deep breathing posture.’ Selected postures included standing forward bend, triangle pose, downward facing dog, easy camel pose, and sun salutations. The 20-minute aerobic session was executed on a treadmill, with a speed and incline combination that sustained 60-70% of participants’ estimated maximum heart-rate. Immediately following each session, participants were tested on measures of cognitive performance.
The researchers theorized that yoga would improve cognitive performance over and above aerobic exercise. Yoga was found to shorten reaction times and significantly improve accuracy for tasks that required greater amounts of executive control. Contrary to their hypothesis, and previous research, they did not find that aerobic exercise yielded the same results, which may be due to the sample size or methodological differences between this and other studies.
Yoga may boost cognitive function through several pathways. The researchers suggest a general increase in body awareness or attention may generalize to the domain of cognition. Similarly, mood has been shown to impair cognitive function; because yoga improves mood, this represents another plausible explanation for the research findings.
Have you ever noticed yoga to affect your ability to focus on, retain, or use new information? What about aerobic exercise (for example, running, cycling, swimming)?