Can yoga make you smarter? It’s not as much of a stretch as you think.
A recent study out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tested this idea on 30 female college students and found that just 20 minutes of yoga enabled them to better complete mental tasks that involve the speed and accuracy of their working memory and other important measures of cognitive performance.
In fact, as a brain booster, yoga outperformed an intense bout of aerobic exercise, which has already been shown to have positive effects on the brain.
“It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout,” said lead researcher Neha Gothe in a press release.
Although there may be many reasons for the results, Gothe believes that yoga’s focus on mindfulness may be an important factor. “The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath,” she said. “Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities.”
Starting from mountain pose (tadasana)—standing straight with your feet together—bend over at the hips and place your palms flat on the ground on the outside of your feet, taking care to keep your back and knees straight. If you have difficulty reaching the floor, bend your knees slightly and grip your ankles. Hold for up to one minute and go back up to mountain pose.
Starting again from mountain pose, shift your weight to your left leg. Bend your right knee and lift your right ankle so that your right foot comes to rest on your inner left thigh, with your heel as close to your groin as you can manage and your toes pointing down. Try to keep your hips and shoulders vertically aligned. Lift your arms over your head either straight up with palms in, or with palms together in prayer position. Stare at a fixed point in front of you to help keep your balance. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch legs.
Stand with your feet about a leg-length apart, knees straight, and raise your arms parallel to the ground, palms down. Point your right foot out 90 degrees from the direction you’re facing—i.e. in line with your body— and your left foot at about 45 degrees. Bend at the hip so that your torso is over your right leg and your spine is approximately parallel with the floor. Your right hand can grip your shin or rest on a block behind your calf. Raise your left arm vertically so that your arms form a straight line, and look at your left thumb. Hold this pose for up to one minute, then return to the standing position and switch sides.
This is a reverse triangle pose. Start the same way, but when you bend your torso to the right, bring your left arm down instead of your right. Either grip your shin, or rest your left hand on a block or the floor if you’re flexible enough. Lift your right arm vertically, and either look up at your right thumb, or straight ahead (that is, behind you) if you’re less advanced. Hold for up to one minute, then switch sides.
Start on all fours. Hands should be shoulder distance apart with fingers spread and legs should be hip distance apart. Tuck your toes under and begin to lift your knees off the ground. When you knees are lifted about 12 inches, press your chest towards your legs and straighten your legs and arms as much as possible. Initially, you may not be able to reach full extension due to tight shoulders or hamstrings. If this is the case, allow the legs to stay slightly bent, keeping the chest moving toward your thighs. If your shoulders are tight, try turning your fingers slightly to the sides to create a little more space. Hold for up to one minute, relax in child’s pose, then repeat.
Kneel with your legs hip-width apart, shins and top of feet flat on the floor. Your thighs, back and neck should form a straight line perpendicular to the floor. Place your palms against your lower back, and slowly begin to arch your upper back, keeping your lower back as straight as possible. Reach back with one hand and hold onto that foot’s heel; then rotate slightly and do the same with the other hand, so that you’re now propping yourself against your feet. Don’t bend your head back all the way, or you could cut off circulation and make yourself dizzy and nauseous. Use your neck muscles to keep your head from tilting too far, and tuck your chin if necessary. Hold for up to one minute, relax in child’s pose, and then repeat one more time.
Start from a kneeling pose, sitting on your heels with your legs and feet together, back and neck straight, and rest your arms over your knees. Reach back and lightly grip your heels with your thumbs on the outside. Exhaling, bend your torso over your thighs so that your forehead touches the mat; and then, inhaling, lift your hips so that your weight is resting lightly on the crown of your head. Concentrate on holding the position for up to two minutes.
This 12-part sequence is to be done continuously, at a natural pace. Begin in mountain pose. Press your palms together in a prayer position and lift your arms over your head into upward salute (urdhva hastasana), arching your back slightly. Bend forward into standing forward bend (see above). Then, arch your torso slightly away from your legs and lift your head so it’s facing forward.
From the previous pose, bring one leg back into a lunge, and then bring the next foot back so that your feet are hip-width apart. Your palms should be flat on the ground, hands facing forward, wrists bent 90 degrees. Straighten your back so that you’re in plank pose—legs, spine and neck should form a line. Bend your arms to lower your body into four-limbed staff pose (chaturanga dandasana) and touch your knees to the ground.
From four-limbed staff pose, lower your pelvis to the ground and arch your torso upward so that you enter upward-facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana). Roll back into downward-facing dog on an exhale.
On an inhale, step one foot forward between your hands into a lunge and perform the first three poses in reverse: standing forward bend, upward salute, and mountain pose. Repeat the sun salutation sequence once or twice more.
A true lotus pose, with each foot on top of opposing thigh and knees to the ground, is difficult, if not impossible, for most beginners—and can cause injury if done incorrectly. Instead, sit cross legged, straighten your back, place your hands on your knees with palms up and thumb and forefinger together. Close your eyes and focus on deep breathing. Hold for four minutes.