Study finds yoga practice improves mental capacity

Getty Images

Adults who did yoga three times a week for eight weeks improved their performance on tests of their brains' executive function, while adults who did a stretching and strengthening program for the same time didn't, according to research published in The Journals of Gerontology.

Executive function is a term applied to a collection of mental tasks that appear to happen automatically. Examples of executive function include planning, working memory and troubleshooting.

In the study, 118 people with an average age of 62 were divided into two groups. One group took a one-hour Hatha yoga class three times a week for eight weeks; the other group took a one-hour class consisting of stretching and strengthening exercises three times a week for eight weeks. Hatha yoga is a common type of yoga that features sequences of relatively gentle poses and emphasizes focusing on one's breath and being present.

Both groups took a series of executive function tests before and after their eight weeks of exercise classes. The stretch-and-strengthen group performed the same on the tests before and after, but the yoga group improved significantly on some, especially those having to do with working memory.

One of the tests the yoga group improved on was correctly identifying what item they'd seen two items ago when presented with a series of images. 

The brain's frontal lobes are thought to be heavily involved in executive function. Earlier research has suggested that a yoga practice can lead to increased activity in the frontal lobes.