Research has revealed that just one 20 minute session of Hatha yoga considerably improved speed and accuracy on tests of inhibitory control and working memory, 2 measures of brain function involved in the ability to maintain focus and take in, retain and also make use of new information.
Individuals that took part in the study performed considerably better right after the yoga practice as opposed to after moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise for the identical time period.
The yoga session entailed a 20 minute progression of standing, seated and supine yoga postures which included isometric contraction and relaxation of various muscle groups as well as controlled breathing. The session ended with deep breathing and a meditative posture. Individuals also performed an aerobic exercise workout in which they jogged or walked on a treadmill for 20 minutes. Every individual exercised at an appropriate incline and speed of the treadmill, with the objective of maintaining 60 – 70% of their maximum heart rate during the exercise workout.
The researchers were impressed to see that individuals exhibited more improvement in their accuracy on reaction times and cognitive tasks after yoga practice when compared to the aerobic exercise workout, which exhibited no noticeable improvements on inhibitory control and the working memory scores.
It seems that after yoga practice, the individuals were better able to process information quickly and more accurately, focus their mental resources, and also learn, keep and update bits of information better than after an aerobic exercise workout. The meditative and breathing exercises aim at keeping the body and mind calm and keep distracting thoughts away while focusing on the body, posture and breath. Perhaps these processes translate beyond yoga practice when performing mental tasks or everyday activities.
The results could be explained by several factors. One of the possible mechanisms could be the enhanced self-awareness that accompanies meditational exercises. Breathing and meditation exercises are known to reduce stress and anxiety, which subsequently could improve scores on certain cognitive tests.