Hunching over a computer every day takes its toll on your back, neck and hips. I spend almost my whole day at the computer and last year it really started to become a problem. At first I had a little tightness in just my back and shoulders, but it progressed to sharp pains in my hip. It reached the point where the pain became distracting and actually made it difficult to work. The pain in my hip had become a real pain in the butt. It ended up being a particularly big problem while writing my book (shameless plug: The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression). And since the whole book is based on practical methods of changing your brain activity, I figured I should follow my own advice and do something about it.
I tried dictating into my iPhone, but found it awkward. I tried a standing desk, but still wasn’t comfortable. On top of that, working from home, I was having a really hard time focusing. I knew yoga would help with both the pain and the focus, but I didn’t have the time or the energy for a 90-minute class. So I decided to try something radical: 90 seconds of yoga.
As I discussed in an earlier article, yoga helps reshape the brain’s stress response. But does brief yoga help? In my own experience, yes. After just a week I felt less pain and had an easier time focusing. But was this just a placebo effect or is there something more to it? Let’s look at the scientific evidence.
Unfortunately, there are no direct studies of 90-second-yoga, but studies have shown that even 20 minutes of yoga is beneficial. And there are studies of yoga’s different components – stretching and meditation – that prove their benefits even when practiced briefly.
Let’s start with stretching. Stretching briefly every day helps improve flexibility and can reduce pain. One study, published in the journal Physical Therapy, wanted to find out the shortest amount of stretching that is still beneficial. They had subjects stretch their hamstrings for one of three durations every day: sixty seconds, thirty seconds or fifteen seconds. They found that thirty seconds of stretching per day is just as good as sixty seconds for increasing hamstring flexibility, and subjects improved by about 13%. However, even fifteen seconds a day produced benefits, increasing flexibility by about 8% (Bandy 1994). The fact that muscles can be relaxed with even brief stretching is important, because physical muscle relaxation helps reduce psychological stress (Nakaya 2004). Stretching every day will help you feel more relaxed.
On top of physical stretching, yoga also provides an opportunity for active mediation. One study looked at the effect of brief mediation on brain circuits controlling attention and focus. They found that even ten minutes of meditation a day improved activity in these circuits (Moore 2012). It’s unknown whether these benefits would still exist for even shorter meditation, but it’s definitely a possibility, particularly when combined with the stretching components of yoga.
I do ninety seconds of yoga about four days a week. I’ve definitely seen the benefits in terms of increased focus and flexibility, and reduced stress and pain, and the research suggests that you could derive these same benefits. I don’t think the specific poses are particularly important, so long as you are present (focusing on your body and breath) and stretching. A forward fold, a back bend, and a few stretches of the major muscles in your body that get particularly tight.
An added benefit of brief yoga is that it’s practical. All your usual BS about how you don’t have the time or energy is no longer applicable, and you can just ignore the overthinking part of yourself and move on to improving your life.
If you liked this article then check out my new book on the neuroscience of depression:The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time (Now available for pre-order on Amazon). Release date: March, 1 2015.
Bandy, W.D., & Irion, J.M. 1994. The effect of time on static stretch on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles. Phys Ther, 74(9): 845-50; discussion 50-2.
Moore, A., Gruber, T., et al. 2012. Regular, brief mindfulness meditation practice improves electrophysiological markers of attentional control. Front Hum Neurosci, 6: 18.
Nakaya, N., Kumano, H., et al. 2004. Preliminary study: psychological effects of muscle relaxation on juvenile delinquents. Int J Behav Med, 11(3): 176-80.