Can yoga make you smarter?

Many people think of yoga as an activity that helps them become more flexible in their bodies. More recently, yoga practices have been associated with the health benefits of stress reduction, especially as we learn how chronic stress contributes to physical and mental health conditions. Now, new research from UCLA adds to the conversation about how yoga supports cognitive function and memory.

“Before I started doing these studies, the usual perception of yoga was that it’s good for stress reduction. Nobody thought of yoga as being a brain-fitness exercise that could lead to better plasticity,” says Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a psychiatrist at UCLA and lead investigator.

Dr. Lavretsky has conducted two studies about memory, cognitive function, and yoga. In the most recent one, compared to people in the control group, who practiced memory training exercises, those in the yoga group preserved the gray matter in their brains. (The memory-training group’s gray matter declined.) The yoga group also showed improved mood, greater resilience to stress, and more improvement in executive function. 

The yoga practice in these studies included movement, breathing practices, chanting, and meditation, specifically Kirtan Kriya. According to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, this practice activates parts of the brain that are central to memory. Another study shows with medical imaging that Kirtan Kriya can increase blood flow and creates several positive changes to brain structures. 

If you’d like to try Kirtan Kriya, follow along to this video of IAYT-certified yoga therapist Denyse LeFever demonstrating the practice.