Contributed By a Reader, Emma Flixton
As more of us struggle to balance the demands of work and family life and aim to achieve a state of physical and mental health and wellbeing, yoga is becoming an increasingly popular practice in Australia and, indeed, the world over. Far from being a mere aid in strengthening the body and increasing flexibility, this millenary practice has been found to be beneficial to a host of conditions, including lower back, knee and arthritis-related pain and migraines. One recent study, however, show that yoga can also be a powerful ally in keeping our brains young and sharp.
The Study: “The effects of an 8-week hatha yoga intervention on executive function in older adults” (2014):
The above-study was carried out on 108 adults aged between 55 and 79. The subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups during an eight-week period: one participated in hatha yoga classes three times weekly and the other group engaged in stretching/strengthening sessions. Scientists found that those in the yoga group had significantly improved brain function: “Following 8 weeks of yoga practice, participants in the yoga intervention group showed significantly improved performance on the executive function measures of working memory capacity and efficiency of mental set shifting and flexibility compared with their stretching-strengthening counterparts.” According to Cogmed.com, “Working memory is a key cognitive function that allows individuals to hold information in mind, while at the same time manipulating the same or other information. For example, multi-tasking requires working memory because a person must be aware of numerous activities simultaneously. Likewise,multiplying two large numbers in your head requires the use of working memory.” Pscyh-assist.com.au, notes that “working memory declines with normal aging”, which is why activities such as yoga which benefit brain function in a specific way, are of special interest for ageing populations.
Previous Studies on Yoga and Brain Function:
In a previous study also carried out by Neha Gothe in 2013, it was found that “a single, 20-minute session of Hatha yoga significantly improved participants’ speed and accuracy on tests of working memory and inhibitory control, two measures of brain function associated with the ability to maintain focus and take in, retain and use new information.” This study involved 30 young, female, undergraduate students. The yoga employed in this case involved a 20-minute class comprising seated, standing and supine yoga poses. Subjects were instructed to contract and relax specific muscle groups as they controlled their breathing.
Possible Reasons for the Efficacy of Yoga:
The lead author of the study, Neha Gothe, noted that the brain boosting benefits of yoga may have something to do with the way it directs subjects’ attention: “Hatha yoga requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate.” Gothe added, “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.”
Yoga and Stress:
Additional recent studies have focused on yoga’s ability to lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol. One study looked at the effect of yoga sessions on women who were receiving radiotherapy for breast cancer. Women receiving harsh treatments like radiation or chemotherapy often suffer from high stress levels, as well as fatigue. The study, published in March, 2014, found that after engaging in yoga classes three times a week during a period of six weeks, women reported significant increases in physical functioning, as well as a reduction in fatigue and significantly lower cortisol levels. Yoga’s ability to battle stress has led health professionals to conclude that it can be an excellent, inexpensive and effective adjunct therapy for a variety of stress-related conditions, including anxiety and addiction. Indeed, yoga, with its emphasis on breathing control (pranayama) and mindfulness, is proving to be a popular complementary therapy in top rehabilitation centres across the globe. Addiction specialist, Stanton Peele, notes that the face of addiction treatment is changing, with new efforts being made to help recovering addicts discover their own ability to make a change: “Treatment isn’t about rescuing people, but rather enhancing their existing motivation, values, resources and skills that allow them to change.” As budding yogis grow in confidence and ability, they begin to value mindfulness, their ability to control negative thoughts and impulses and to keep stress in check through a healthy lifestyle. Health writer, Leslie Kenton, notes that “The secret is getting the right balance between stress and relaxation… (and) supporting your body physically with food, exercise and natural stress relievers to enable you to face stress with ease.”