Many people choose yoga and meditation to find relaxation, peace of mind, ease anxiety, and increase flexibility. A new study suggests that yoga and meditation may offer even more benefits for your mental health and overall wellness – according to the researchers; it may improve visual and verbal memory just as well as standard memory training, and ease depression.
Given the fact over 2 billion people will be over 60 by 2050, researchers at UCLA, the University of Adelaide, and the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Center are eager to find solutions for some of the most common problems of aging, such as trouble remembering or what the researchers call cognitive impairment. Some studies show as many as 10 to 20 percent of older adults will experience mild problems, but even this increases your risk for dementia.
Why Yoga vs. Brain Training?
Some earlier studies showed that both yoga and meditation could improve cognitive function, but few had looked at just how they might affect the brain on a structural level using MRI scans or compared them to the “gold-standard” otherwise known as memory enhancement training. This type of brain training has gained popularity, and you may have even used it yourself to help you remember names and vocabulary. Memory training involves learning and practicing strategies like making up stories to remember items in a list or grouping words based on an overarching category to better remember them. Many have taken it for granted that brain training is the best way to stave off mental aging, but the researchers wanted to know if yoga and meditation might be another, or better, option.
About the Study
The study is just preliminary but very promising. It involved 25 participants 55 years or older who not only complained about memory issues themselves; they also had documented mild memory issues based on a clinical dementia rating. None of them had mental or medical disorders, a diagnosis of dementia, and none had previously practiced yoga or had direct cognitive training.
The researchers took brain scans to see how their brain’s connections were working while they were just resting, and not engaged in any tasks. They were also divided into two groups, one worked on brain training while the other focused on yoga and meditation.
The brain training group met for 12 weekly sessions, where they learned about memory and how to develop strategies to improve it. They also had homework to practice the skills they learned in class and participated in activities to boost confidence and tackle the doubts that come along with memory loss.
Yoga and Meditation
Fourteen participants took a 60-minute weekly Kundalini yoga class for 12 weeks:
- 5 minute tuning in
- 10 minute warm up
- 10 minute breathing techniques
- 20 minutes Kriya yoga (small, simple movements, visualization, combined with breathing and muscle tensing and relaxing)
- 11 minutes meditation
- 4 minute closing
The yoga group also practiced KirtanKriya meditation on their own for 12 minutes each day, which involves small hand motions and chanting.
How Yoga Compares to Brain Training ?
By the end of the study, it was clear both yoga with meditation and the memory training improved brain connections in the prefrontal cortex and other areas like the hippocampus. The researchers explain these parts of the brain are important for memory because they are involved in retrieval, encoding, how you reflect on your own life, and planning for the future. More connections indicate these aspects of memory are improving, too.
The researchers conclude that yoga was just as effective as memory training for improving recall, verbal memory, attention, and self-control or regulation. What set the yoga group apart were improvements in visuospatial memory and depression. Since the yoga and chanting meditation involved visualization, it may have helped strengthen this aspect of memory, and improve awareness as well.
This study shows that yoga combined with meditation can significantly improve how your brain works, even when it’s resting and help protect memory. There are some limitations, but hopefully further studies will be larger and longer. As the researchers point out, they didn’t follow up after the 12 weeks to see whether the participants who practiced yoga or had brain training went on to develop dementia or other memory problems.
For now, however, there are many forms of yoga for you to try, many of which are low key and safe for all age groups. It seems like the same aspects of yoga and meditation that lead to relaxation, directing your focus, breathing exercises, and controlled movements not only increase mindfulness, they protect your mind as well.