Practicing yoga just for 20 minutes can significantly improve brain function immediately, suggests a study.
In the study, 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 retain and use new information - improved immediately after practicing Hatha yoga just for 20 minutes.
"Participants performed significantly better immediately after the yoga practice than after moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise for the same amount of time," said researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The 30 study subjects were young, female, undergraduate students. The results were reported in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health
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% of her maximum heart rate throughout the exercise session.
"This range was chosen to replicate previous results that have shown improved cognitive performance in response to this intensity," said Neha Gothe, who led the study.
Gothe and her colleagues were surprised to see 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."
"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."