Doing yoga may help patients in the early stages of psychosis to improve their memory and attention while alleviating symptoms such as depression, according to a University of Hong Kong study.
While medication has been shown to help reduce hallucinations and delusions, it has limitations, the researchers say.
"As the condition progresses, patients' cognitive functions deteriorate and taking medicine doesn't help that," postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry Dr Jessie Lin Jinhxia said in releasing the study results yesterday.
Four years ago, Lin and her team began recruiting female patients aged 18 to 55 for the study, the first to look at the effects of yoga on early psychosis patients.
The 60 patients who took part were receiving similar but not identical treatment.
They were divided into two groups - one of the groups practised yoga while the other did not do any extra physical exercise. The yoga group did 36 one-hour yoga sessions over a 12-week period.
Assessments after the 12 weeks showed that their attention score increased by 13 per cent and visual-motor co-ordination by 10 per cent. Those in the control group experienced decreases of 13 per cent and 2 per cent, respectively.
MRI scans on those who did yoga found an average volume increase in their post-central gyrus, an area in the brain responsible for sensory functions.
For those in the control group, this area decreased.
Head of psychiatry Professor Eric Chen Yu-hai explained that the brain structure improved when it was used, such as during exercise.
Yoga was especially beneficial to the patients because it involved exercising both body and mind.
Lin, a yoga instructor, said patients usually lacked motivation to exercise and yoga was simple for them, so she and the team wanted to look into whether it had benefits.
Both groups in the study showed improvements in their memory and symptoms such as depression, but the yoga group showed more obvious improvements.
A previous study conducted by the team found that aerobic exercise - treadmill walking and cycling - improved the memory of early psychosis patients, but it also found that yoga was more beneficial to their attention and co-ordination.
The team has designed a set of yoga programmes for such patients and will offer free classes for them starting next month.
Between 100,000 and 200,000 people in Hong Kong are estimated to be suffering from psychosis.