Are people who do yoga any better at a motor imagery task than those who do not?

Yoga practice has become widely accepted and practiced for health. Research studies have demonstrated that Yoga practice can reduce pain in various chronic pain conditions such as chronic low back pain, neck pain, headache, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, carpel tunnel syndrome,  rheumatoid arthritis, labour pains and in haemodialysis patients.

The question is, what is it about yoga that might lead to pain reduction?

The literature suggested that people who practise yoga have increased ‘bodily awareness’. This suggests that yoga can increase proprioception, our ability to sense the relative position of parts of our body. One way to interrogate cortical proprioceptive body maps, is the ability to judge when a body part as belonging to the left or right side of the body.

In a study, researchers from University of Canberra Australia used existing data from a large (1737 participants) online cross-sectional investigation. Among the participants, 86 of them reported regularly taking part in yoga. From the remaining participants, 86 matched controls were randomly selected. In the study, participants viewed 40 photographs of a model with their head turned to the left or right, and were asked to judge the direction of neck rotation. They then completed a left/right-hand judgement task.

They found that there was no difference between yoga and non-yoga participants for either response time or accuracy to complete the task.

The lead author commented that:

“The literature suggests that yoga increases bodily awareness – however our findings suggest that this bodily awareness may be limited to interoception (the ability to consciously perceive bodily sensations) rather than proprioception, motor planning or spatial perception – which are more obviously targeted in motor imagery, such as the left/right judgement task. That is, the large relaxation and meditative component of yoga might contribute to an enhanced interoceptive body awareness. “

The author further added possibilities why yoga might be associated with pain reduction, for example: effects on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, sympathetic or cardiorespiratory system mediated analgesia, improved strength and endurance, improved co-ordination, a calmed and focused mind, positive emotions, and optimism.