Yoga practice can help lower stress and improve cognitive performance

Yoga practice linked to lower stress, better cognitive performance in older adults

Older adults who practiced hatha yoga three times a week for eight weeks were better able to manage stress and performed better on cognitive tests than their peers, researchers report in the journal Biological Psychology.

Study participants were 55 to 79 years of age, had no mental or physical disabilities and reported being sedentary for at least six months prior to the study.

Roughly half of the 118 participants were assigned to a hatha yoga class; the others engaged in a stretching and toning class.

The team also measured levels of cortisol (a chemical marker of stress) in the saliva to gauge participants’ stress before and during cognitive tests, which were conducted at the beginning and end of the eight-week program.

The tests challenged their ability to hold information in memory and to multitask.

Hatha yoga is an ancient spiritual practice that involves meditation and focused breathing while moving through a series of stylized postures.

“Hatha yoga requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate.”

“It is possible that this focus on one’s body, mind and breath generalizes to situations outside of the yoga classes, resulting in an improved ability to sustain attention.”

Previous studies have shown that yoga can have immediate positive psychological effects by decreasing anxiety, depression and stress.

“We were expecting to see something similar in our group,” she said.

“But we didn’t see a significant drop in cortisol in the yoga group at the end of the intervention. They pretty much stayed the same.”

The stretching group, however, had significantly higher cortisol levels while performing the cognitive tasks at the end of the intervention.

The differences between the groups were not the result of differences in age, gender, social status or other demographic factors, the researchers found.

Participants in the yoga group took the same amount of time to perform the cognitive tasks as those in the stretching group, but their answers were 4 to 15 percent more accurate, Gothe said.

“It’s possible that – consciously or unconsciously – they were doing some deep breathing, relaxation or mindfulness practices that they learned in the yoga sessions, and these helped them better focus on the task and perform better.”

“Findings from this trial provide preliminary evidence that nontraditional physical activity interventions, such as yoga, may serve to balance neuroendocrine levels in older adults, thereby preventing or slowing cognitive decline.”

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Citation: Gothe NP, et al. (2016). Yoga practice improves executive function by attenuating stress levels. Biological Psychology, 121: 109-116. DOI:
Figure legend: This image is credited to Neha Gothe.