I’ve known about the many health benefits of yoga for years now, as I practice every week. In my book, When Cancer Hits, I wrote about how yoga can help soothe side effects like insomnia, mood swings, constipation, brain fog, and aches and pains.
Now, we’re learning that yoga can actually help us to change stressful habits. Because of the unique connection between brain and body-and how yoga helps us to calm and soothe that connection-over time, we learn to enjoy a calmer outlook overall.
If you’re trying to lose weight, relax your tense body, slow down your hurried life, or otherwise make any sort of change, you may find that yoga helps you do just that.
Learning to Stay Calm While Under Stress
I first read about this ability of yoga to change habits in Psychology Today, in an article written by Alex Korb, Ph.D. In the article, Korb talks about going to a yoga class with his father, and how going through all the poses was more stressful than he expected.
“Within 15 minutes I was dripping so much sweat I could barely hold a downward-facing dog,” he writes. “Yet all through the poses the instructor kept talking about how we were supposed to keep our breathing calm, and steady. Remain calm? Are you kidding me? My muscles were shaking as I tried to hold myself in pushup position 4 inches above the floor.
Korb later writes that as a neuroscientist, he realized that yoga works “not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful.” Facing this stress in your body while working to calm the mind teaches students to produce a calmer reaction to all sorts of stress, in and out of the exercise room.
“It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurological benefit,” Korb writes.
Making Better Decisions Off the Mat
Changing the habits that are ingrained in our lives isn’t easy. We may resolve to avoid that hot fudge sundae after 10:00 p.m., but when the evening rolls around somehow our resolve flies out the window and we’re squirting out the whipped cream.
Dr. Timothy McCall, author of Yoga as Medicine and medical editor at Yoga Journal told the Huffington Post that habits are stubborn, and though people may know they need to change their diets and start exercising, for instance, it’s difficult to actually succeed. Yoga helps rewire the brain, he says, to help replace negative patterns with positive ones.
“What we do with yoga is we start a practice,” McCall says, “and we repeat it, ideally every day….The more we repeat this positive pattern, the deeper those new neural networks become and the more they can eventually out-compete some of our older habits, habits that can tax our health and lead to stress, disease, and dysfunction.”
The funny thing about yoga-and I have experienced this-is that the more you are on the mat, the easier healthy decisions become when you’re off the mat. Suddenly I found myself craving healthier foods, and I became more sensitive to negative energy around me. McCall says that’s all a result of yoga’s rewiring.
“When yoga is practiced with sensitivity and attention,” he says, “it gradually increases awareness. It awakens your body to feel what’s happening in your body, heart, and mind. When you become more aware of your body, more aware of your mind, more aware of your breath, you start to notice the consequences of your behavior.”
This awareness then helps you notice not only how that sundae tastes, but how you feel a half hour later, which is usually heavy and crummy. You notice that connection more when you’re regularly doing yoga, and it gives you the strength to say “no” to that sundae the next time around.
“It comes from the inside,” McCall says. “What a doctor tells you is one thing. But when you notice the consequences of your actions, it’s a very different-and much more effective-motivator.”
Studies Show It Works
A 2009 study demonstrated yoga’s magic at work. Researchers compared 159 high-stress adolescent students and 142 low-stress students. One group went through a regular yoga program for 7 weeks, while the other did not. The students who practiced yoga performed better on academic tests.
There are hundreds of other studies showing yoga’s ability to affect all kinds of body systems, easing depression, lowering blood sugar, improve immunity, and much more. I would ask all my readers-just try it. I can talk (or blog!) until I’m blue in the face, but you just can’t understand how this amazing ancient exercise can heal you actually feel the poses working in your body.
If you’ve never tried yoga before and you decide to give it a whirl, I’d love to hear about your results! In the meantime, if you’re having trouble changing habits or listening to your body, you owe it to yourself to see what yoga could do for you. Who knows? You may just be able to lengthen your life because of it. At the very least, you’ll spend some quality time relaxing with just your breath flowing easily in and out.
Are you a newbie to yoga? Did you notice your body changing as you practiced? Please share your experiences.
Picture courtesy Mr. Lightman via freedigitalphotos.net.
Alex Korb, Ph.D., “Yoga: Changing the Brain’s Stressful Habits,” Psychology Today, September 7, 2011, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201109/yoga-changing-the-brains-stressful-habits.
Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D., “Your Brain on Yoga: How to Kick Bad Habits and Foster Better Ones,” Huffington Post, August 9, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eva-norlyk-smith-phd/yoga-habits_b_1751363.html.
Amit Kauts and Neelam Sharma, “Effect of yoga on academic performance in relation to stress,” Int J Yoga, 2009 Jan-Jun;2(1):39-43, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3017967/.