Putting Your Mind to Yoga

Yoga boosts brain function, fights chronic stress, and raises oxytocin levels.

Posted Nov 15, 2013

yoga cobra pose
More than 20 million U.S. adults practice yoga, based on a 2012 survey commissioned by Yoga Journal. That’s a jump of 29% since 2008. The growing interest in yoga has been paralleled by a boom in yoga research.

This year alone, new studies have shown that striking a Warrior Pose may help combat mental fatigue, stress, depression, and even schizophrenia. Here's a roundup of some of the most intriguing new findings.

Boosting brain function

Doing yoga for just 20 minutes can give your brain a quick boost, according to a study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the study, 30 healthy, young women first completed tests of working memory and inhibitory control—two measures of brain function associated with being able to stay focused and learn and use new information.

Next the women practiced yoga for 20 minutes on one day, and they walked or jogged on a treadmill for the same amount of time on another day. After each exercise session, they completed the cognitive tests again. Doing yoga led to improved speed and accuracy on the tests. In contrast, walking on the treadmill didn’t have this benefit.

Yoga probably had an edge because it emphasized mindful movement and meditative deep breathing. In a nutshell, yoga helped people calm their minds and tame distracting thoughts, and those benefits seemed to carry over to later mental tasks.

Busting chronic stress

On the list of “stressful places to be,” prison must rank near the top. A study from Oxford University looked at the benefits of yoga practice for 100 inmates, mostly male, doing time in English prisons. The inmates were randomly assigned to either 10 weekly yoga classes or a control group. Before and after the yoga course, all the inmates also completed a battery of psychological tests to assess their stress, mood, mental well-being, and impulsiveness.

The yoga group showed decreased stress, improved mood, and reduced psychological distress, compared to the controls. Yoga practice was also associated with better performance on tests measuring impulsiveness and attention.

The researchers noted that chronic stress, depression, and other mental health problems tend to be rampant in prison populations. Offering yoga in addition to standard mental health care might reduce those problems. Plus, by promoting self-control, yoga might decrease aggression and antisocial behavior. And if it can help people feel better in medium-security lockup, chances are it can make life more tolerable in an office cubicle or suburban carpool.

Lifting a depressed mood

There’s mounting evidence that yoga helps manage depression—perhaps as effectively as antidepressants in some situations. In a study from India’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, for example, 137 individuals with non-suicidal depression were offered three treatment options: yoga with an antidepressant, yoga alone, or an antidepressant alone. Although more than half chose the latter, 26% opted for yoga plus medication, and 17% opted for yoga alone.

Both yoga groups took part in 12 sessions over the course of a month, each led by a yoga therapist with a graduate degree in that discipline. A couple of booster sessions were provided over the next two months as well. Plus, the yoga groups were encouraged to practice daily at home.

All three treatment groups were less depressed by the study’s end, but the two yoga groups were doing better than the medication alone group. Because participants weren’t randomly assigned to their groups, however, it’s impossible to draw firm conclusions about the relative merits of yoga and antidepressants. Perhaps the most motivated individuals—and therefore those most likely to recover—were more apt to sign up for yoga practice.

Increasing oxytocin levels

Among the varied symptoms of schizophrenia, difficulties with social cues and relationships are often particularly difficult to treat. In another study from India’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, adding yoga to schizophrenia treatment improved social-occupational functioning and the ability to recognize facial emotions.

For the study, 43 people with schizophrenia, all stabilized on medication, were randomly assigned to either a month of yoga therapy or a control group. The improved social awareness in the yoga group was associated with increased blood levels of oxytocin, a hormone that helps the brain tune in to subtle social cues and promotes social bonding.

This was the first study to show that yoga raises oxytocin levels. If that’s borne out by future research, both in psychiatric patients and in healthy individuals, it could be another pathway by which practicing your Sun Salutation leads to a sunnier life.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a writer who specializes in health, psychology, and the intersection between the two. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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