Cognition, emotions and YOGA

In the last 6 years I worked as research psychologist first in Italy (Trieste) and then in UK (London and Cambridge). My work has always been driven by the desire to help children which struggle at school. With my studies I tried to gain more insight into abilities such as memory, attention or problem solving, in order to understand their relation with children’s school attainment.

So, my research focus has always been on children cognition and through these years I developed some training games to improve memory and numeracy in order to prevent the development of learning disabilities in children. However, soon I realized that in my studies I never considered an important aspect of cognition: the emotions. Even if historically emotions and cognition have been viewed as separate, their relationship it’s simply fascinating and more and more researchers are focusing their studies on the interdependence between the two. To clarify this concept, consider the situation described below.

“Emily is 9 and she is really good at maths. She has good memory skills, she can easily remember facts rules and concepts of arithmetic. This morning Emily had an argument with her sister and she is quite upset about it: the negative feeling and thoughts are spinning in her mind. At 9 am she has a maths test and performance drastically drops compared to previous tests: she can’t remember how to do it, she can’t focus on the task”

What happened to Emily shows that negative emotions such as anger or anxiety can have a huge impact on children’s cognitive skills (McLeod & Fettes, 2007). At the same time positive emotions such as motivation and self-esteem promote a greater cognitive investment and are related to better academic achievement. Considering this relation is crucial because it means that if we want to promote children’s learning experiences we can use cognitive training programmes focused for example on memory or problem solving, but this is not the only option. Indeed, we can also consider interventions designed to induce positive emotions and reduce negative emotions, and I strongly believe that Yoga and Meditation can play a fundamental role in this picture.

Why Yoga?

Yoga is an ancient discipline that helps to create health and well-being by building body and mind self-awareness, strength, and flexibility. Nowadays, many children are too busy and from a young age begin to experience pressure to perform academically and socially. So it’s easy for children to become overly self-critical, and lose confidence in themselves. During this time, yoga could be an important facilitator of healthy physical, emotional and cognitive development. Most of the research studies focusing on adults show that yoga practice has positive effects on stress and pain relief, circulation and digestion, body alignment and posture, concentration and breathing (Kaley-Isley et al., 2010). But what does the research says about that the therapeutic effect of yoga for children?

Benefits of Kids Yoga

Two interesting papers (Galantino et al., 2008; Kaley-Isley et al., 2010) reviewed and summarized the evidence evaluating yoga as an effective for children and adolescents. The majority of available studies suggest benefits of using yoga as therapeutic intervention even if more high-quality research studies are necessary to provide definitive evidence.

Practicing Yoga is effective in improving self-confidence and in the reduction of negative behaviours (Powell, et al. 2008). Moreover, daily yoga sessions can help children develop appropriate self-regulation skills, which facilitate peer acceptance, social success, as well as academic performance (Razza et al, 2015). Other studies specifically examined how yoga increases overall ability to concentrate and focus with clear implications for learning and classroom behavior (see Galantino et al., 2008). Moreover, the studies that specifically focused on the use of yoga and meditation as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) show that yoga can be used as an effective complementary treatment to improve attention and reduce the ADHD symptoms.

In general, most of the available studies with children and adolescents stress the positive therapeutic effect of yoga on the improvement and maintenance of overall health. Yoga classes are a wonderful way to increase children’s attention, mental flexibility, self-esteem, confidence and compassion while they stretch and strengthen their bodies.   This means that trough yoga we have the opportunity to help our children to develop these  amazing life skills in a life-long perspective. Happy minds, bright future!


Cognition: is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge through thought, experience, and the senses.

ADHD: is defined in the DSM-5 as a persistent pattern of  inattention and/ or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.

Self-regulation: is the ability to monitor and control our own behavior emotions and thoughts, altering them in accordance with the demands of the situation.


Reference list

Galantino, M. L., Galbavy, R., & Quinn, L. (2008). Therapeutic effects of yoga for children: a systematic review of the literature. Pediatric Physical Therapy20(1), 66-80.

Haffner, J., Roos, J., Goldstein, N., Parzer, P., & Resch, F. (2006). The effectiveness of body-oriented methods of therapy in the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): results of a controlled pilot study. Zeitschrift fur Kinder-und Jugendpsychiatrie und Psychotherapie, 34(1), 37-47

Kaley-Isley, L. C., Peterson, J., Fischer, C., & Peterson, E. (2010). Yoga as a complementary therapy for children and adolescents: a guide for clinicians. Psychiatry (Edgmont)7(8), 20.

McLeod, J. D., & Fettes, D. L. (2007). Trajectories of failure: The educational careers of children with mental health problems. American journal of sociology113(3), 653-701.

Powell, L., Gilchrist, M., & Stapley, J. (2008). A journey of self discovery: an intervention involving massage, yoga and relaxation for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties attending primary schools. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 23(4), 403-412.

Razza, R. A., Bergen-Cico, D., & Raymond, K. (2015). Enhancing preschoolers’ self-regulation via mindful yoga. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(2), 372-385.

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