Hatha Yoga

Whether you love the endorphin rush you get after a run, or the sense of peace you feel after the final om in your favorite yoga class, exercise of all forms clearly has mental benefits.

But now, a new study from researchers at the University of Illinois reveals that yoga may be even better for your brain than other forms of exercise. You read that right: Your warrior pose could actually be making you mentally stronger, too.

In a study published in the Journal of Gerontology, 61 older adults committed to attending an hour-long hatha yoga class, led by a certified yoga instructor, three times a week for eight weeks. Over the same period, another group was assigned to do a 60-minute toning session three times a week. While the yoga group did sun salutations, the other group got sweaty with resistance band work, bicep curls and total-body strengthening.

Then, rather than measuring each group’s success in terms of pounds shed or muscle gained, the participants were assessed by the changes in brain power they experienced between the start and end of the study. And their results might make you a little more eager to finally master your down dog.

The group practicing hatha yoga saw significantly increased performance on various cognitive tests measuring working memory, mental flexibility and multitasking abilities, compared to the group focused on toning.

Your Brain on Hatha Yoga

Why the difference between the yogis and the get-toned set? Hatha yoga, the most common form of yoga practiced in North America, is known for requiring participants to integrate poses with breathing and meditation practice.

“It is possible that yoga’s ability to quiet the mind and assist our ability to focus without becoming distracted led to [the participant’s] improved ability to focus and sustain attention,” says study author Edward McAuley, a professor at the University of Illinois. Furthermore, various types of yoga, and meditation, have previously been associated with decreasing stress and anxiety — two factors that have been shown to have a negative impact on a person’s concentration, McAuley notes.

If yoga has been on your bucket list of workouts to try, this study demonstrates it may bring you more than just physical benefits. The tests completed by study participants indicate that getting your lotus on could make you better at managing multiple projects at work, or blocking out distractions when you’re trying to be more productive.

“The tasks are representative of that aspect of cognition called executive function,” says McAuley. “We call on executive functions all of the time, as they deal with our abilities to plan, to inhibit inappropriate responses, multitask, store information in working memory for retrieval at a later time to execute a particular task, etc.”

And while building muscle may make your body feel great and help your mind get happy, it doesn’t necessarily require you to pay attention to your breathing, or to aim for a meditative state of mind.

That said, if you’re more of the jogging or CrossFit type, don’t sweat it. You’re still getting plenty of health benefits.