Yoga: Changing The Brain’s Stressful Habits, by Alex Korb for Psychology Today.
As a neuroscientist, despite my initial incredulity, I came to realize that yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit.
This is how I see it, too. We come to the studio to practice at life. We go to challenging classes because it’s the practice at dealing with discomfort and stress that result in yoga’s great gifts: calm, peace of mind, better responses to obstacles and more confidence in our abilities to handle adversity when it comes. I try to remind my students that we’re not struggling through a hot power class just to firm up or shed pounds. We are literally teaching ourselves to relax.
I’ve historically been conflict-avoidant to a fault, because I’m afraid of how ragey I get. When I feel helpless to right some wrong (however big or small), I also feel helpless to control my anger, and anger is a terrible feeling. Over time, this avoidance has led to a certain degree of disconnect from the world around me. I plan my life and my days as carefully as I can to avoid situations and people who might trigger any stress response. Obviously, that’s no way to live.
In particular, you absorb how those around you, particularly your parents, react to stressful situations. Their reactions get wired into your nervous system. However, just because a habit is innate, and then reinforced, does not mean it is immune to change. Almost any habit can be changed, or at least improved, through repeated action of a new habit.
I’ve been practicing for less than three years, but it didn’t take long for ass-kicking yoga classes to somehow start working their magic. It takes persistence to undo a lifetime of no-longer-useful defense mechanisms, but I can see my slow progress. I trust myself now to take uncomfortable risks. I’m less afraid of physical challenges, and a little less afraid of challenging people. But where does beer come in?
To give an example of changing a similarly innate reaction, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you have a gag reflex. This gag reflex gets in the way of many college freshmen as they struggle through the college socialization process of chugging a beer. Most have a difficult time. However, by the time senior year spring break rolls around, many of them have learned how to largely suppress that reflex. Like your gag reflex, just because your stress response is innate and automatic doesn’t mean it can’t be reshaped through sustained, and intentioned practice.
Haha. I actually thought she was going somewhere else with that. Anyway…
…applying these techniques to real life is what yoga is all about. Yoga is simply the process of paying attention to the present moment and calming the mind. Over time you will start to retrain your automatic stress reaction, and replace it with one more conducive to happiness and overall well-being.
To summarize, the very good question of how the hell performing weird postures can lead to a happier, healthier existence is answered simply: the things you do and the thoughts you have change the firing patterns and chemical composition of your brain. So, do yoga. Do hard yoga! (mostly). There’ll be time enough for rocking when we’re old.