Slow Yoga vs. Vinyasa: Research on the Cognitive Benefits

Article At A Glance

In our fast-paced, exercise-oriented culture, most new students gravitate toward fast-paced vinyasa yoga, thinking that slow yoga is just for beginners. What could possibly be the benefit of a slow, mindful practice? New research that compares restorative yoga to vinyasa shows that restorative yoga excels at improving cognitive function in breast cancer patients. Read about the benefits of intentional rest and slow yoga practice.

A few times, I’ve been accused of having an anti-vinyasa agenda and divisively pitting exercise yoga against more traditional slow yoga practices. But that’s never been my intention. When you’ve been told that you are a “beginner,” “gentle,” “not real yoga,” or “a waste of time” teacher (and all those are real epithets, BTW), but you think that if people just gave it a go, they might discover something amazing and different in slower yoga practices, then you have some work to do. If you want to be relevant, you have to get good at differentiating what you do from the mainstream stuff.

Anyway, there haven’t been that many studies looking into the difference between slow, mindful yoga practices and faster workout-type yoga. So, I was pretty excited to see this one.

The Research: Cognitive Effects of Slow Yoga vs. Vinyasa Yoga

Slow, gentle, restful yoga has many cognitive health benefits research says.

Researchers sought to compare the cognitive effects of restorative yoga versus vinyasa yoga in breast cancer survivors who were previously sedentary. They had two groups. One practiced restorative yoga three times a week for an hour for 12 weeks. The other practiced vinyasa (which researchers called “vigorous yoga”) for the same time over the same period. Both groups were supposed to practice on their own for 12 more weeks.

The restorative group showed significant improvement in overall cognitive function and also a significant improvement in what’s called “fluid cognitive function,” which is about the capacity to solve novel problems and to process and integrate information.

The vinyasa or “vigorous yoga” group did not significantly improve overall cognition or fluid cognitive function, but they did improve their crystallized cognition scores. (“Crystalized cognition” is the amount of stuff you’ve learned over time).

Slow Yoga and the Benefits of Rest

Relaxed Young Woman Lying in a restorative yoga pose with props in Baddha Konasana or Butterfly Pose

So, here’s a little commentary on this study.

It makes sense that folks doing three hours of restorative yoga a week improved overall cognition and problem-solving skills. I think this is partly, or maybe even primarily, because they were given three hours of intentional rest per week, which the brain and body desperately need for healing. Most people in our hyper-speed world do not get this much real rest every week (sorry, Netflix and wine don’t count). Some research suggests that slow, mindful stretching may have positive benefits, including reducing inflammation.

Breast cancer can be a highly stressful diagnosis, even when folks get to the cancer-free remission stage. Having significant amounts of time to rest and nurture oneself each week could possibly be an important factor in mitigating the health-eroding effects of intense stress and improving cognitive function.

But why didn’t the vinyasa group experience the same benefits?

Vinyasa Yoga Benefits and Cautions

Group of young sporty people practicing yoga's Virabhadrasana 1 or Warrior 1 Pose in a Vinyasa flow yoga practice.

Well, vigorous vinyasa classes tend to share similarities with fitness classes. They will likely confer similar benefits—cardiovascular and pulmonary health, muscle tone, strength, and increased proprioception. But they do not necessarily offer the same level of nurturing that’s available with slow yoga. This includes benefits to the mind, neuroendocrine-immune system, intrinsic muscular tension, etc., which can all affect cognition. I could also go down the cortisol and menopause rabbit hole here. Over-exercise may dysregulate diurnal cortisol curves in menopausal women. In some cases, it may contribute to overall HPA axis dysregulation or allostatic load, thus having a detrimental effect on cognition.

Healing with Slow Yoga

Slow yoga or more mindful yoga with props can have many benefits for the practitioner.

Restorative yoga (and possibly other slow, mindful yoga) provides an opportunity to uncouple from cultural hyper-speed to access essential mental and physical rest. Rest is one of the most critical components of any significant healing work. And rest is not particularly valued in our culture. So, perhaps having to show up three times a week for an hour of deep rest conveys invaluable benefits beyond the cognitive for folks. And being part of a study meant they didn’t have to feel guilty about not doing “real yoga.”

Another critical point is that restorative classes allow interoceptive awareness skill building. This includes noticing how your body feels, tuning into your breath, adjusting positions to find greater comfort, tuning into new sensations as they arise and subside, feeling gentle, pleasurable stretching sensations, etc., which may also support cognition.

Interoceptive awareness is a skill that is quite difficult to build when you are moving your body quickly, trying to follow instructions, breathing fast, and trying to maintain both proprioception and balance. Those activities trump attention to internal sensations (and the inner knowing they convey) because they are essential for survival. And survival is always the number one bio-imperative.

Different Yoga Styles, Different Benefits

Vigorous yoga has many benefits. More than 50 years of solid research demonstrate cardio exercise’s benefits. I would never dispute that.

But in some ways, this vital research is a double-edged sword for those who teach slower, more internal yoga practices. On the one hand, it’s great because it can convince some folks to get some exercise. On the other hand, when applied to yoga, many people think restorative and gentle yoga practices can’t possibly have benefits because they are not cardio-oriented. They believe gentle, chair, and restorative yoga are for people who can’t do “real” yoga. And that the benefits of yoga come with the burn.

This study suggests otherwise. It tells us that restorative practices have different benefits—not better, just different and equally important. The public is just starting to tune in, and a lot more education needs to happen, making me want to drape myself over a bolster and breathe for a bit.

Reprinted with permission from Subtle Yoga.

c-iayt certification logoCommitted to the widespread adoption of yoga as a population health strategy, Kristine Kaoverii Weber, MA, C-IAYT, eRYT500, YACEP has been studying yoga and holistic healing for nearly 30 years advocating, speaking, and teaching about yoga since 1995, and training educators since 2003. Her organization, Subtle® Health, LLC, provides holistic, mind-body training, education, and clinical services with the mission of enhancing community health infrastructure. She is the director of the Subtle® Yoga Teacher Training for Behavioral Health Professionals program at MAHEC in Asheville, NC, presents workshops and trainings internationally, and is frequently invited to speak about yoga at health care conferences. After completing her BA and MA at Georgetown University, Kristine trained extensively in many styles of yoga, including Viniyoga, as well as in Asian bodywork therapy and homeopathy.

She is the author of The Complete Self Massage Workbook and has published articles in the International Association of Yoga Therapist’s journal, Yoga Therapy in Practice, and other wellness publications. Her work has been featured in Redbook, BodySense, Women’s World, Natural Health, and Lifetime TV.

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