Yoga is something most people are familiar with, but what might not be as well-known is that yoga is more than just some exercise and quiet time. As it turns out, yoga and mindfulness meditation can impact brain function and a person's level of energy.
A new study from researchers at Waterloo University's School of Public Health and Health Systems showed that study volunteers who practiced Hatha yoga and mindful meditation improved their brain function. What is Hatha yoga? It's a form of yoga that emphasizes physical postures and positions called "asanas." Hatha is a Sanskrit word that means "force," and it's one of the oldest forms of yoga. Included in the physical part of Hatha yoga are breathing techniques meant to control internal energy and cleanse the body and a mental component of meditation to banish negative thoughts and focus on personal spiritual growth.
In the research, which is published in the August 2017 issue of the journal Mindfulness, it was found that just 25 minutes a day of Hatha yoga was enough to improve test scores of volunteers. Peter Hall, an associate professor at Waterloo and co-author of the study, explained, "Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation both focus the brain's conscious processing power on a limited number of targets like breathing and posing, and also reduce processing of nonessential information. These two functions might have some positive carryover effect in the near- term following the session, such that people are able to focus more easily on what they choose to attend to in everyday life."
The study had 31 participants who each completed 25 minutes of Hatha yoga, 25 minutes of meditation and 25 minutes of silent reading. The reading was used as a control task. The volunteers had all completed executive function testing and cognitive measurements before the testing, and then after as well. Scores on these assessments increased after the yoga and meditation, but the reading task did not show any effect.
It wasn't just a mental improvement that the study documented. After engaging in 25 minutes of Hatha poses, the volunteers showed an increase in energy levels that was not apparent after meditation alone. Co-author Kimberly Luu stated, "There are a number of theories about why physical exercises like yoga improve energy levels and cognitive test performance. These include the release of endorphins, increased blood flow to the brain, and reduced focus on ruminative thoughts. Though ultimately, it is still an open question."
Concerning the increase in cognitive performance, Luu suggested that was likely connected to the meditation part of the study, writing, "This finding suggests that there may be something special about meditation -- as opposed to the physical posing -- that carries a lot of the cognitive benefits of yoga."
There have been many studies that show a benefit in cognition, mood and executive function after practicing yoga. While some might be intimidated by the fitness aspect, thinking that the poses are too challenging or not suited to older adults or those with mobility issues, the fact is that any form of yoga can be modified to individual needs. The video below has more information on this recent work; check it out. Namaste!