Practicing hatha yoga three times a week can improve sedentary adults’ performance on cognitive tasks that are relevant to everyday life, a promising study indicates. The study involved 108 adults between ages 55 and 79 years; 61 of them attended hatha yoga classes. The others met for the same number and length of sessions and engaged in stretching and toning exercises instead of yoga.

At the end of the eight weeks, the yoga group was speedier and more accurate on tests of information recall, mental flexibility and task-switching than it had been before the intervention. The stretching-and-toning group saw no significant change in cognitive performance over time. ‘It is possible that this focus on one’s body, mind and breath during yoga practice may have generalised to situations outside of the yoga classes, resulting in an improved ability to sustain attention,’ said Neha Gothe, a professor at Wayne State University.

Hatha yoga is an ancient spiritual practice that involves meditation and focused breathing while an individual moves through a series of stylised postures. Participants in the yoga intervention group showed significant improvements in working memory capacity that involves continually updating and manipulating information. 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,’ added co-author professor Edward McAuley from University of Illinois. According to Gothe, yoga has an immediate quieting effect on the sympathetic nervous system and on the body’s response to stress. 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’, she noted.