“Our bodies change our minds, and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes” ~ Amy Cuddy
At its heart, yoga promises its students much more than a bendy body and toned abs.
More and more, yoga is on the lips and minds of people across America. Yogis are everywhere, unbound by geography, age, gender, race, shape, or income bracket. Owing to its ever-growing popularity and its burgeoning incorporation into mainstream medicine, the therapeutic physical benefits of the practice are well established. With the tangible healing and palliative effects of yoga widely accepted, it is only natural that a discussion regarding the more subtle impacts a yoga practice should ensue.
While the state of one’s physical condition is unquestionably an important aspect of health, mental and emotional conditions must also be considered when evaluating overall well-being. For many, the practice of yoga begins on a mat but over time extends beyond any such narrow boundaries. As many Americans ignite and continue their love affair with asana, the ways in which the physical practice influences life off the mat should not be overlooked.
While some may become asana-adept whilst at the same time maintain a relationship with corn dogs and engage in habitual road rage, with time (sometimes lots of time) those habits tend to wear out like that favorite pair of yoga pants. Paradox is certainly embraced within yogic philosophy, and yet acts of self-injury or neglect only work to cancel out the benefits attained through practice. Happily, many yogis notice that this shift towards healthier living seems to happen almost unconsciously.
What many of us notice as our practices deepen are the ways in which we have become softer, more poised, and more compassionate in our relations to both ourselves and others; if we support it and allow it, yoga has a sly way of sneaking off the mat and seeping into our “real world.”
Yoga becomes not simply something we “do” but something we “live,” a lifestyle choice we adopt.
When I began practicing I was all about asana; I’ll take seconds and thirds and some Lululemon on the side. The asana was the end all be all of yoga for me, and I would politely decline anything resembling chanting, neti pots or kale. Meditation, what? In the early days, yoga was therapy for an injured knee and a remedy for last night’s overindulgence.
But then, slowly, slowly, slowly, both my relationship with the practice and the manner in which I conducted my life began to change in small ways: I developed a taste for pranayama and found myself conscious of all-four-corners-of-my-feet-pressing-firmly-into-the-ground as I waited in line at the health food store. I increasingly felt how freeing it was to let go of the storyline and how much easier it was to smile than frown.
Even more significantly, however, I gradually came to change how I related to myself. Free-floating anxiety has plagued my life as far back as I can remember, and while yoga has not eliminated that feeling completely, it has allowed me a new and higher perspective on my thinking. As my practice deepened, I tried on the concept of believing in my own innate worthiness and eventually talked myself into believing that it was true.
Yoga has taught me in so many subtle ways that I am okay regardless of the fluctuations that will inevitably ensue.
The changes in my behavior and thinking followed the development of my asana practice. Indeed, this series of events is forecasted by the esteemed yogi, Desikachar. In his book, The Heart of Yoga, Desikachar states that while the Yamas and the Niyamas are the first of the eight limbs of yoga, they are often not the first undertakings of the student; it is the practice of asana and pranayama that cultivate the space and awareness the student needs to amend her attitude and lifestyle so that she might live by the values proposed by Yoga.
The asana practice imparts lessons through metaphor: teaching us to stay and breathe when we are challenged, to turn towards difficulty and grow from it, to practice without attachment to results, to find balance, to be playful, and to listen to the quiet voice inside. Yoga begins its work on the mat, but its true bounty can only be fully realized when its effects play out in the world.
While the maxim, “mind over matter” is certainly pertinent to yoga asana, so too is its counterpart. A strong will and dedication to the practice will generate changes in the body, but contrariwise, the changes crafted in the body also render transformations of the mind.
The posturing of the body can influence the workings of the mind.
For a novice student, Warrior II asks the body to strengthen and stretch, to extend and expand. The chest is encouraged to broaden, and the chin to lift. Various muscles are engaged and the body is literally invited to take up space. Warrior II is aptly named as it elicits a sense of pride and determination in the student who practices it.
Over time, the pose is refined and the student is asked not only to exhibit strength and flexibility but also intelligence of alignment and resolve to maintain the shape for longer periods of time. It is during this advanced stage that a student’s practice transcends the mere physical and becomes more concerned with the mental aspects of the practice.
It is when the attention is shifted from body to mind that the real magic transpires. When the body is held in this robust, dignified, and confident shape, the mind wants in on the action! And so as the physical body is developed, so to is the intellect. Over time, Warrior II aids the yogi in uncovering hidden reservoirs of mental fortitude and suppleness and unmasks an innate ability to maintain equanimity in the face of challenge. The mind initially inspires the body to evolve so that eventually the body can assist in the more difficult task of helping the mind reach its full potential.
Countless yoga practitioners understand this idea on a cellular level, but for those who have yet to experience this transformation directly, scientific research is to the rescue!
Amy Cuddy, a professor at the Harvard Business School, has conducted extensive research around the ways in which body language affects not only how others view us, but also how our posture and gestures affect how we regard ourselves. Cuddy proposes that “power posing” (standing or sitting in a manner that exudes confidence even when that confidence is not internalized) affects testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain.
The research has shown that by posturing the body in a more open and expansive manner, testosterone (the power hormone) levels in the body increase and cortisol (the stress hormone) levels decrease in the span of just two minutes! These shifts in posture not only make us more appealing to those around us, but also actually have the potential to increase our own positive perceptions of ourselves by enhancing confidence and decreasing feelings of anxiety.
Cuddy’s research suggests that “power posing” for a mere two minutes prior to a perceived stressful event can change brain chemistry, which has the potential to affect our performance in the given situation. In short, by posturing in such a way that opens the body in a confident and relaxed manner, the brain changes so as to bring such feelings to fruition.
While the argument has been made that the results of such posturing are superficial in nature, Cuddy proposes, “Don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it”. This suggests, as has much literature before it, that with time we grow into the self-fulfilling prophecies we construct for ourselves. By arranging the body in these expansive and robust poses we reveal our true Self to our self. We open and allow buried stores of enthusiasm, passion and wisdom to surface. The trick is to continue to act as though we have innate goodness and greatness until the moment arrives in which we find we are not longer acting, but are simply being our authentic Self.
Yoga serves as both a road map and a mirror for its students.
This idea has clear and beautiful relevance to the way in which yoga works in our lives. When we develop perspective, physical strength and flexibility and the ability to balance on one leg, hands or head, the skills that underlie the actions suffuse our entire being and saturate not only our physical but our mental and emotional selves as well. It meets each individual where they are in life, providing tools and suggestions for optimal well-being while at the same time showing him the vastness and worthiness that is his true nature.
Undoubtedly, there may be skepticism concerning the applicability of this concept. Indeed, it may not work for you. But what if yoga did have the potential to allow you to live a little easier, to feel a little happier, or to feel less nervous at that upcoming job interview? And worst-case scenario, if none of the promised results materialize, you will likely at least come out with less back pain and better lung capacity!
So whether or not you implement chair backbends at your desk before your next presentation, consideration of this idea might still be worth cogitation. If there was something unquestionably good for you that you could do in a relatively short amount of time that could potentially enhance the quality of your life and how you feel about yourself, wouldn’t you want to at least give it a two minutes?
Miriah Wall is a yogi who enjoys cooking, running, biking, reading, snowboarding, travel, friends, family, and fun. She believes in the importance of cultivating a holistic approach to health and consequently, as she works on her Masters in Clinical Psychology, she is also continuing her yoga teacher training, as well as exploring the effects of nutrition and meditation on well being. Miriah feels strongly that physical, mental, and spiritual health must be fostered in individuals in order to see positive change in society. She looks forward to having a practice in which yoga, meditation, nutrition, relationships, laughter, and love all play central roles in creating healthy and happy individuals and community.
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