Remember That Pose? Yoga, Memory, and Cognition

Sometimes mental illness can seem to get in the way of living life to the fullest.  People with mental health problems may face challenges – at work, school, in relationships with family, and other important areas of life.  In my interactions with people with mental illness I’ve noticed that many of the difficulties people encounter are related to trouble with memory and thinking; for example, missing appointments because they forget them.  Curious about how yoga could help with this, I looked at the latest research to learn more.
One way we can understand the effect of mental health on thinking is the cognitive resources theory. Humans have a limited amount of cognitive resources – that is, energy and willpower used for thinking, making decisions, and remembering – at any given time.  Dealing with mental health challenges uses up these resources and leaves fewer of them for other tasks like remembering schedule details or making a meal (Cohen, McGovern, Dinzeo, & Covington, 2014).
Research by Lin et al (2015) found that women with a serious mental illness who did yoga 3 times a week over 12 weeks saw improvements in their memory.  This study compared the yoga group to both an aerobic exercise group and a control group that didn’t do either. The findings showed that yoga was even more effective than aerobic exercise for memory and focus (but don’t give up on cardio – the aerobic exercise group gained other benefits).  In older adults without mental illness, doing yoga regularly was more effective than basic strengthening and stretching exercises for improving working memory, mental efficiency, and flexibility of thinking (Gothe, Kramer, and McAuley, 2014).
It seems there is something special about yoga and how it benefits the mind.  One of the ways I think yoga supports the brain differently from other activities is the communities built around it. People who engage in more socially-directed community activities, such as going to a book club at the library, attending a sports event, or stopping by Maha to sit on the best couch ever, tend to do better on certain tests of mental ability (based on preliminary analyses of forthcoming research by the Temple University Collaborative).  Therefore, it’s not a stretch to think that when I walk into Maha and see familiar friendly faces who share my passion for yoga, I could be getting a boost to my memory and focus!

Mental Health Spotlight provided by Katie Pizziketti in collaboration with the Temple University Collaborative on Community Inclusion of Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities. 

The Temple University Collaborative receives funding from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number #90RT5021-02-00). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This article does not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.