A new study published by the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign showed that practicing hatha yoga three times a week for eight weeks can improve older adults’ cognitive skills.
The research involved 108 adults between the age of 55 and 79. They were split in two groups and 61 of them attended hatha yoga classes, while the others met for the same amount of sessions but practiced stretching and toning exercises instead.
Neha Gothe is an assistant professor at Wayne State University and contributed to this study. She said that after the eight weeks program the yoga group was able to process more information, more quickly and accurately. They were tested on complex cognitive skills like reasoning and multi-tasking and results showed that the yoga group performances were significantly better than the stretching group.
Gothe explained that the study focused on hatha yoga, the most popular form of yoga in North America.
“It essentially is a combination of physical postures and movements, what we call as asanas, and it also has some breathing exercises, what we call pranayamas,” Gothe said. “It also has some meditative exercises as well.”
She added that one reason the yoga group showed improvement in cognition may be the amount of focus the practice requires.
“When you are practicing yoga, you are very much in the moment. You are following the instructor and the cues they are giving you so there is very little scope for your mind to get distracted, “Gothe said. “When you are out of yoga practice and when you are doing your everyday activities, you tend to carry on that focus and that attention.”
Previous research has demonstrated that practicing yoga can have immediate psychological effects. It helps decrease anxiety, depression and stress. This new study suggests that this experiment may have boosted participants’ performances by reducing their stress.
“The eight weeks of yoga practice might have led to lower anxiety and lower stress levels for our participants and that might have led them to perform better on the cognitive tasks that they completed,” Gothe said.
The findings, which were published in The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, are still preliminary. Gothe said research needs to explore whether eight weeks is sufficient or if the practice should last longer to show more differences. She said looking at other forms of yoga would be interesting to see if those affect cognition as well.