Few scientific studies have examined movement-based embodied contemplative practices such as yoga and their effects on cognition.
In a randomized controlled trial researchers led by Neha Gothe, MS, PhD, assistant professor, Division of Kinesiology, Health and Sport Studies at Wayne State, Detroit and colleagues examined the effects of an 8-week Hatha yoga intervention on executive function measures of task switching and working memory capacity.
According to Professor Gothe, “Hatha yoga requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate.” It is possible that this focus on one's body, mind and breath during yoga practice may have generalized to situations outside of the yoga classes, resulting in an improved ability to sustain attention."
For the study researchers recruited 108 older adults, mean age 62 years that were randomly assigned to one of two groups; Hatha yoga or stretching and toning and all participants had participated in an hour long exercise class for a period of eight weeks. At the end of the trial participants completed a set of tasks that judged their action times on information recall, mental flexibility and task switching.
The results showed that the Hatha group was speedier and more accurate on tests of information recall, mental flexibility and task-switching than it had been before the intervention. The stretching-and-toning group saw no significant change in cognitive performance over time. The differences seen between the groups were not the result of differences in age, gender, social status or other demographic factors, the research team reported.
Professor Edward McAuley, PhD, Department of Kinesiology and Community Health , University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne and Arthur Kramer, PhD, Director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science & Technology also contributed to this study.
Professor McAuley commented "Participants in the yoga intervention group showed significant improvements in working memory capacity, which involves continually updating and manipulating information.” "They were also able to perform the task at hand quickly and accurately, without getting distracted. These mental functions are relevant to our everyday functioning, as we multitask and plan our day-to-day activities."
In closing Professor Gothe comments "These studies suggest that yoga has an immediate quieting effect on the sympathetic nervous system and on the body's response to stress.” "Since we know that stress and anxiety can affect cognitive performance, the eight-week yoga intervention may have boosted participants' performance by reducing their stress."
The researchers write “Although the underlying mechanisms need to be investigated, these results demand larger systematic trials to thoroughly examine effects of yoga on executive function as well as across other domains of cognition, and its potential to maintain or improve cognitive functioning in the aging process.”
This study is published in The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.