Yoga: More than just a good stretch!

August 26, 2016

Over the past few years, yoga has become increasingly popular, providing an oasis for ‘yogis’ to stretch, relax, and relieve the stresses of this crazy, hectic life. However, a recent study shows that instead of just providing ‘a good stretch’, yoga, when combined with meditation, can improve mood and visuospatial memory. I think that while most people intuitively know that physical activity and maintaining a lifestyle that places a premium on physical health are important, many (myself included) fail to consider the impact that mental health can have on overall well-being. Yoga, which allows one to be physically active, also permits one to transcend their physical environment and can be a respite of calm in whirlwind days.

            The study, which was discussed in The New York Times recently, and is found in the April edition of Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, was a 12-week randomized control trial that primarily took place at the University of California, Los Angeles. The researchers’ main aim of the study was to see if yoga, when compared to MET (memory enhancement training), provided similar or improved changes in mental performance and improved neural functional connectivity. MET is a technique that is presently being used in studies and is aimed at preventing cognitive decline and improving participant’s quality of life. While there are countless types of yoga, the type employed for this study was Kundalini yoga. This yoga technique incorporates meditation, breathing exercises and various poses which are easy for even the least active person to perform. The participants in the yoga group also performed Kirtan Kriya meditation, a form that includes repetitions of various sounds and ‘dancing’ with hand movements. The researchers placed participants 55 years or older with memory complaints and slight cognitive impairment (without previous diagnoses of dementia or yoga experience) into 2 groups:

  1. MET- weekly 1 hour sessions with education, instructional memory strategies to improve memory, and homework; participants were asked to practice exercises for 15 minutes per day at home and do a homework completion log.

  2. Yoga-  weekly 1 hour sessions of Kundalini yoga with 15 minutes daily of Kirtan Kriya meditation at home

The participants completed a series of cognitive tests and had an fMRI (functional MRI scan) at baseline and again after 12 weeks. At the end of the 12-week study, both groups demonstrated resting brain activity changes indicating improved memory. Both groups fMRI scans also showed improved communication, particularly in the DMN network, which encompasses regions of the brain such as the hippocampus, that comprise memory and learning. The DMN structures are thought to be the network most affected by aging. However, the yoga and meditation group also demonstrated increased connections between regions of the brain that control attention, perhaps indicating improved focus. Additionally, the yoga group had a statistically significant increase in mood, visuospatial memory, and scored lower on assessments that test for depression.

It has been widely demonstrated that running, walking and other forms of cardiovascular exercise have a myriad of benefits on mental health and improvements in cognition. However, how do those benefits translate for people who cannot physically partake in that kind of exercise? What about the elderly? Or physically disabled? Or simply those who do not enjoy the arduous task of running? What is really fantastic about this study in particular is that yoga, when combined with meditation, has proven to be beneficial in improving mood and mental performance and is a relatively non-encumbering activity. People from all backgrounds can participate, and participate at various levels of fitness. The research in this study was performed in older adults, but for future research, it would be interesting to see if these promising results translated to younger individuals.

I have recently begun to practice the art of yoga myself, and it has been quite the challenge for me to learn to ‘let myself go’ and truly ‘be’, without purpose, plans, or keeping an eye on the time. However, as much as a beginner as I am, I find that it does provide me with a sense of calmness and serenity. I may enter classes feeling tight, but I sure do leave them feeling ‘light’. Until next time, Yoga.



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