I can be a total grouch when I don’t do yoga. Just ask my mom: on mornings that are particularly rough especially after a restless night of limited sleep, I can get snarky and on evenings after long trying days, I can be passive-aggressively curt. Yet a yoga session either at home or in the studio can make me feel almost instantly better. It may sound like magic, but there is research to back up that feel-good high. I won’t elaborate on the studies here, but I will take a brief moment to recommend reading Desai’s 2015 article in the Journal of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice which suggests that a regular yoga practice physically alters the brain and also has effects on brain wave activity.
The asanas, in a sense, mirror the psychological stresses we experience in our minds, and yoga helps us find stability, strength and grace in the midst of that chaos.
Neurobiology can rationalize yoga’s effects as well: breathing work combined with challenging poses can condition us to better cope with physiological stress. This is because in theory, the mind-body connection is bidirectional: our bodies condition our minds AND our minds condition our bodies. When we contort ourselves into physically challenging asanas (postures) while breathing in such a way that is controlled (the same way we breath when we are relaxed), we are training the mind to relax in the midst of a stressful challenging situation.
Here, I want to share how yoga has transformed my mentality beyond the mat, and how I try to incorporate the practice of mindfulness in my everyday life:
- You are not your thoughts: Yoga has taught me how to sit alone with my thoughts. Most people find this extremely uncomfortable as I did too when I first started to incorporate serious meditative work into my sessions. Sometimes our thoughts can be scary and overwhelming, so yoga helps us practice observing our thoughts without identifying with them. You are not your thoughts. Thoughts are wisps of smoke that dance, entice and seduce us. We give them power by believing them, repeating them, thinking them regularly. But thoughts themselves are not who we are.
- You are the thinker: So if you are not what you think, who are you? The answer is that you are the thinker. You are then being who thinks the thoughts. If you let this one sink in and really internalize it, this realization can be quite empowering. You are the thinker, which means you are the agency that creates thought.
- Your body has a wisdom of its own: As I continued to develop a regular yoga practice, I realized our bodies are reservoirs of information. We are conditioned the believe that intelligence is solely located in our minds, but the large clumps and fleshy heaps of organic matter we call our bodies has an intelligence of their own. Our bodies are governed by biological principles and physiological laws that dictates how they function. My favorite example of the body’s intelligence is the concept of compensation. For example, when a main coronary artery is blocked or partially occluded, the vessels of the heart branch out physically to find a new route to bypass the occluded artery so that all parts of the heart get oxygen. The mind did not consciously do this; the body knew.
So if you are not what you think, who are you? The answer is that you are the thinker. You are then being who thinks the thoughts.
I have worked with several physicians who are also enthusiastic yogis. During my family medicine clerkship in Vermont, one of my preceptors was a renowned addiction medicine specialist and his hobby was doing yoga on a paddleboard on Lake Champlain in the summer. I thought that was the coolest thing. These kinds of experiences encouraged me to continue my yoga practice, and I’m thankful for it.
I’m by no means perfect in that I am human: despite my regular yoga practice, I still get annoyed, angry, upset and am still embarrassingly prone to falling into a spiral of self-deprecating thoughts. The beauty of yoga is that the journey is in the mind. The asanas, in a sense, mirror the psychological stresses we experience in our minds, and yoga helps us find stability, strength and grace in the midst of that chaos.