We’ve learned that yoga can make us limber like Gumby, help relieve anxiety and pain, and reduce blood pressureDoes yoga therapy reduce blood pressure in patients with hypertension?: an integrative review. Okonta, N.R. Medical Center of Central Georgia, Macon, and Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia. Holistic Nursing Practice, 2012 May-Jun;26(3):137-41.A comprehensive yoga programs improves pain, anxiety and depression in chronic low back pain patients more than exercise: an RCT. Tekur, P., Nagarathna, R., Chametcha, S., et al. Division of Yoga & Life Sciences, Swami Vivekanada Yoga Research Foundation, Bengaluru, India. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 2012 Jun;20(3):107-18.. And all those warrior and dog poses can help get us into serious shape. But what about our brains?

A new study not only suggests that yoga is good for our brains, but that it actually makes them work better. Find out how yoga, and exercise, contribute to a healthier brain below.

Photo by Colin Gould

What’s the Deal?
University of Illinois grad student Neha Gothe and her colleagues used 30 female college students as subjects in the study. The students visited the lab on three separate days (without having exercised at all). On the first visit — the baseline session — students completed an exercise history questionnaire, andthen the researchers led them through two cognitive tests: The Flanker Task, and the N-back Task. (Basically, the first test measures working memory, while the second measures attention span.)

On the second day, participants practiced 20 minutes of Hatha yoga (a style known for its emphasis on breathing). Each woman wore a heart rate monitor while getting her yoga on and the researchers measured resting heart rate pre-yoga, and their heart rate after the 20 minutes (though it’s unclear how this data was analyzed in the results). The practice included seated and standing postures, contraction and relaxation of different muscles, and concluded with a short meditation with deep breathing. (Note: The researchers excluded participants who were regular practitioners of yoga or other mind-body based exercises such as tai-chi and martial arts.)

The third day focused on aerobic exercise as the women hopped on a treadmill and walked or jogged for 20 minutes. For consistency’s sake, each subject exercised at a speed and incline to maintain 60 to 70 percent of her maximum heart rate for the full session (a range shown to improve cognitive performance)The effect of acute aerobic and resistance exercise on working memory. Pontifex, M.B., Hillman, C.H., Fernhall, B., et al. Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL. Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise, 2009 Apr;41(4):927-34..

After each exercise session, the participants took the cognitive tests again. The researchers found that test scores were significantly better following the stint of yoga — reaction times were shorter and accuracy was greater after the yoga session compared to 20 minutes on a treadmill. Perhaps even more interesting, jogging resulted in nearly the same cognitive performance as the baseline testing when the women didn’t exercise at all.

Is it Legit?

According to previous research, “Yes.” This isn’t the first time researchers have linked exercise and cognitive performance, though most previous studies focus on aerobic activityEffects of acute physical exercise characteristics on cognitive performance. Brisswalkter, J., Collardeau, M., Rene, A. Laboratory of Ergonomics and Sport Performance, University of Toulon-Var, La Garde, France. Sports Medicine, 2002;32(9):555-66.Exercise and Children’s Intelligence, Cognition, and Academic Achievement. Tomporowski, P.D., Davis, C.L., Naglieri, J.A. Educational Psychology Review, 2008 June 1; 20(2): 111-131.. And in terms of time spent getting buff, both continuous training and occasional bursts of activity have been shown to positively affect cognitionFitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults: a meta-analytic study. Colcombe, S., Kramer, A.F. Beckman Institute and Department of Pyshcology, University of Illiniois, Urbana. Phsycological Science, 2003 Mar;14(2):125-30.Acute cardiovascular exercise and executive control function. Hillman, C.H., Snook, E.M., Jerome, G.J. Department of Kinesiology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL. International Journal of Pyschophysiology, 2003 Jun;48(3):307-14..

The study sample was admittedly super small and only included ladies (sorry, gentleman). But what’s cool about this study is that it’s one of the first to investigate the immediate effects of exercise on our brains (tested within five minutes of leaving the yoga mat or hopping off the treadmill).

One possible explanation for yoga’s superpowers on our brains is the “mind-body connection,” using thoughts to positively influence some of the body’s physical responses. The researchers explained that a combination of meditation, breathing, and body awareness may very well explain increased attention. We’d like to see the researchers study practicing yogis (rather than just newbs) in the future. And hey, if this research is one more reason to roll out the yoga mat, then we’re in!

Do you feel more quick witted after a yoga sesh compared to a run or long walk? Let us know in the comment section below, or tweet the author at @nicmcdermott.