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Yoga may improve focus, ability to remember new things

Doing yoga for as little as 20 minutes may be able to boost your brain power.

Subjects who participated in a single yoga session had better speed and accuracy scores on working memory and inhibitory control tests than after they tried an aerobic exercise session of the same length. These tests are indicative of a person's ability to maintain focus, as well as absorb and remember new information, and aerobic exercises had previously been shown to boost scores in those areas.

"Yoga is an ancient Indian science and way of life that includes not only physical movements and postures but also regulated breathing and meditation," lead author Neha Gothe, a professor of kinesiology, health and sport studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, said in a press release. "The practice involves an active attentional or mindfulness component but its potential benefits have not been thoroughly explored."

According to the 2012 "Yoga in America" market study, 8.7 percent of U.S. adults or 20.4 million people practice yoga in the U.S. About 62.8 percent of American yogis are between 18 and 44, and the vast majority -- 82.2 percent -- are women.

An additional 44.4 percent of Americans consider themselves "aspirational yogis" and want to try yoga sometime in the future.

Thirty female undergraduate students were instructed to do a 20-minute session of Hatha yoga, which involved seated, standing and supine positions. The exercises involved relaxing different muscle groups, regulated breathing and isometric contractions, meaning the joint angle or the muscle length does not change during the process. Meditation and deep breathing were also involved.

The subjects were also instructed to complete a 20-minute aerobic exercise where they walked or jogged on a treadmill. The incline and speed was adjusted until the person maintained a 60 to 70 percent maximum heart rate -- which had previously been shown to stimulate cognitive abilities in other studies -- throughout the session.

However, in this study, after the aerobic exercise session there was no significant improvements on working memory and inhibitory control scores.

On the other hand, right after the yoga session people improved their reaction times and accuracy on the tests.

"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. "The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities."

Gothe hypothesized that improving one's self-awareness through yoga's meditation exercise, as well as reducing anxiety and stress through the session may have boosted performance.

"Yoga research is in its nascent stages and with its increasing popularity across the globe, researchers need to adopt rigorous systematic approaches to examine not only its cognitive but also physical health benefits across the lifespan," co-author and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign kinesiology and community health professor Edward McAuley said in a press release.

The study was published on June 5 in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.

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