In Tune with Yoga and the Mind

Cognitive function might be sharper and more accurate with 20 minute yoga practice

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The 'oms' and deep breaths with yoga can bring calmness and peace. And the focus can also make the brain sharper and respond faster.

A recently published study found that doing 20 minutes of yoga was linked with faster reaction times and improved accuracy on memory tests when compared to doing aerobic exercise.

The findings showed that non-traditional modes of exercise that impact brain function, like yoga, should be further explored, according to researchers.

"Give yoga a try."

The aim of the study, led by Neha Gothe, MA, doctoral candidate in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, was to see how single yoga exercise sessions compared to aerobic exercise affected people's cognitive function, or how well their brain works.

The study included 30 college-age women recruited from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who performed three different exercise sessions.

One exercise session focused on yoga and another involved aerobic activities. Participants who regularly practiced yoga, martial arts, tai chi or other mind-body based exercises were excluded from the study.

Participants were surveyed on their previous physical activity from the past six months. The questionnaire asked participants about the frequency, intensity and duration of their activity.

Among the participants, 17 engaged in at least 150 minutes per week of aerobic activity as recommended under the CDC guidelines.

The participants underwent two different cognitive tests to measure how quickly they think. The tests involved responding to a series of arrows and shapes as that appeared on a monitor as quickly and accurately as possible.

Both tests were performed before and after each exercise session. The exercise sessions were conducted one-on-one with the exercise leader.

During the yoga session, participants mirrored the poses performed by the instructor for 20 minutes.

With the aerobic exercise session, participants were instructed to exercise at 60 to 70 percent of their heart rate max, which is the total capacity that the heart can work.

Cognitive performance was significantly better after the yoga session than after the aerobic session, researchers found. Participants had faster reaction times and increased accuracy on the tests after doing yoga.

Aerobic performance was also not significantly different from participants' baseline performance before doing the exercise sessions.

Researchers said that because yoga focuses on body awareness and attention to breathing or specific parts of body, it is possible that yoga may improve more attention in general.

Jack Newman, CEO of the Austin Tennis Academy and dailyRx Contributing Expert said, "The results do not surprise.  At the Austin Tennis Academy we teach students a short calming exercise, similar to those who do yoga experience,  to help reduce heart rate and calm the mind.  This makes for clearer and quicker decision making on the tennis court."

"There appear to be at least two mechanisms by which the practice of yoga or exercise improves cognitive ability," the researchers wrote in their report. "Lowered mood is associated with declines in cognitive function and Hatha yoga has been reported to produce improvements in mood comparable to aerobic exercise."

The authors noted that the number of participants included in their study was small and was comprised of only female college students. The findings can't be generalized to men or larger populations.

The participants might have also expected that yoga could lead to improved cognitive performance, which may have skewed results. As a result, the researchers selected only participants who did not regularly practice yoga.

The researchers said future research should look at the ties between yoga, blood flow and cognition, as well as how tai chi and other martial arts affect the mind.

The study was published online May 10 in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health. No conflicts of interest were declared.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 9, 2013
Last Updated:
March 12, 2015