While you may know that exercise promotes better brain function, one type of exercise may be especially effective for preserving your memory and thinking ability.

I realize “exercise” is a four-letter word for many people, but this type of exercise isn’t very hard work and doesn’t require much of your time. I often find that when people realize exercise will actually make them smarter, it provides that extra oomph of motivation they need, especially if I can give them an easy way to get moving.

The exercise I’m talking about is the meditative practice of yoga. To offset the effects of aging on your intellectual abilities, researchers believe you’ll benefit by doing yoga several times a week. Does it involve some kind of religious practice? I’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s consider the startling benefits. . .

Feel Your Memory Increase

A studyi at the University of Illinois shows that practicing yoga three times a week for two months or more can boost your ability to remember and deal with the tasks vital to living independently. The research involved about 100 people aged 55 to 79.

At the end of eight weeks, the people in the study who took yoga classes could recall information faster and more accurately than people who were merely taught stretching exercises. The yoga students also displayed more mental flexibility and were better at switching among various mental tasks than they had been before taking the classes.

The difference between yoga and other types of exercises resides in its focus on mindfulness and focused breathing. In other words, it gets your mind and body to work together. Yoga entails assuming a series of well-defined postures while you meditate and concentrate on the way you inhale and exhale.

“Hatha yoga (yoga with breathing control) requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate,” says researcher Nea Gothe. “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.”

The ability to pay attention to the task at hand goes hand in hand with an increased facility at ignoring the distractions around you, include the chaos of thoughts and worries produced by your own mind. This training at focus and concentration may explain the proven cognitive benefits of yoga.

“Participants in the yoga intervention group showed significant improvements in working memory capacity, which involves continually updating and manipulating information,” says researcher Edward McAuley. “They were also able to perform the task at hand quickly and accurately, without getting distracted. These mental functions are relevant to our everyday functioning, as we multitask and plan our day-to-day activities.”

Gothe points out that other studies show yoga can improve your mood by easing depression, stress and anxiety.

“These studies suggest that yoga has an immediate quieting effect on the sympathetic nervous system and on the body’s response to stress,” she says. “Since we know that stress and anxiety can affect cognitive performance, the eight-week yoga intervention may have boosted participants’ performance by reducing their stress.”

Mindfulness

The yoga study in Illinois adds to a growing volume of research demonstrating that — with a modicum of practice — you can train your mind to “be all it can be,” as those Army recruiting commercials used to say.

Researchii at the University of Utah shows mindfulness techniques (a type of meditation) can help people who suffer chronic pain cut back on opioid painkillers and experience reduced pain.

In this study, the mindfulness practice was taught in daily 15 minute practice sessions. Participants did three minutes of mindful breathing before they took their opioid medications (which they were already taking before the study started).

Practicing mindfulness resulted in a 63 percent drop in opioid over-use and a 22 percent reduction of impairments caused by pain among the participants. The benefits persisted for three months after the end of the practice sessions.

The lesson of this type of research: Don’t take a slowdown of your brain’s abilities lying down (unless that’s one of the yoga positions you are practicing). Instead, train your brain to resist a memory fade.

Is Yoga a Religion?

What about the religious aspect? Does yoga involve buying into some kind of cult? With most classes and teachers it doesn’t involve believing anything in particular so it doesn’t conflict with any other faith as such.

Depending on the teacher and the method, it may involve belief in a vague, undefined supernatural (think of the Force in Star Wars). For other teachers, yoga may be just pure exercise and mindfulness without the baggage of any belief system. But more extreme forms may involve idolizing a guru as some kind of semi-divine being. I dislike this and won’t participate.

In short, yoga comes in different shapes and sizes, so you can shop for one that’s right for you. Too often, the guru stuff is a scam, and even when it’s sincere (and it’s hard to say when that’s the case), I want no part of it. If you like it – well, that’s your call.

There is no question that the state of mind you achieve may well resemble the state of mind you associate with prayer. This is good – it’s actually the source of many of yoga’s benefits. But if the route to get there involves veneration of something or someone you don’t want to venerate, I think it’s easy enough to find a “non-denominational” form of yoga that will make you comfortable.


  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25024234
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24491075

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