A single, 20-minute session of yoga can significantly improve brain function, a new study led by an Indian-origin researcher has found.
University of Illinois student Neha Gothe and her colleagues found that a 20-minute session of Hatha yoga improved participants' speed and accuracy on tests of working memory and inhibitory control, two measures of brain function associated with the ability to maintain focus and take in, retain and use new information.
Participants performed significantly better immediately after the yoga practice than after moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise for the same amount of time.
The 30 study subjects were young, female, undergraduate students.
"Yoga is an ancient Indian science and way of life that includes not only physical movements and postures but also regulated breathing and meditation," said Neha Gothe, who led the study while a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"The practice involves an active attentional or mindfulness component but its potential benefits have not been thoroughly explored," said Gothe, now a professor of kinesiology, health and sport studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.
The yoga intervention involved a 20-minute progression of seated, standing and supine yoga postures that included isometric contraction and relaxation of different muscle groups and regulated breathing. The session concluded with a meditative posture and deep breathing.
Participants also completed an aerobic exercise session where they walked or jogged on a treadmill for 20 minutes. Each subject worked out at a suitable speed and incline of the treadmill, with the goal of maintaining 60 to 70 per cent of her maximum heart rate throughout the exercise session.
Gothe and her colleagues found that participants showed more improvement in their reaction times and accuracy on cognitive tasks after yoga practice than after the aerobic exercise session, which showed no significant improvements on the working memory and inhibitory control scores.
"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," Gothe said.
Many factors could explain the results, she said.
"Enhanced self-awareness that comes with meditational exercises is just one of the possible mechanisms. Besides, meditation and breathing exercises are known to reduce anxiety and stress, which in turn can improve scores on some cognitive tests," she said.
The findings were published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.