June 30, 2020

Scientific Research Finds Yoga is a Catalyst for Transformative Human Development.


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Most of us know what yoga has done for us, and have a deep appreciation for the practice.

As we’ve come to flow from downward dog and into our practice over the years, we have felt the magic sprinkle into our full being. And today, science is starting to put higher purpose in capturing the experience of how exactly yogic magic is felt.

As a research psychologist, I participate in helping to wrap words around just that.

In a recently published qualitative study of mine, yoga was found to be a catalyst for transformative human development.

In this study, eight female yoga teachers (age 37-46) in the United States were interviewed. For privacy and respect, pseudo names were chosen by each woman, keeping their sacred stories safe and free to share with the yoga world.

One common theme that brought them all to the gateway of personal healing was the cultivation of community.

When each of these eight women walked into their first yoga class, there was something mesmerizing that happened to them. There was a safe space that was inviting, yet had no words of invite. No one ushered these women on to their mats or told them that this was a place they could open up their hearts and explore their inner journey of consciousness, but interestingly enough, that is what happened.

This self-discovery is a common thread among the women in this study, as was the sense that their established yoga communities had incited personal growth.

But there is a little more to unpack to help us understand, from a research standpoint, exactly what this yoga community was like for each teacher.

Each shared that they had felt a strong, deep, and emotionally vast connection with their teachers. Could there be past life connections?  Maybe. Each woman described a calling—as if they had felt drawn to pursing yoga at a deeper level when their teachers arrived in their lives.

One participant found a sign on an art gallery window that said there was a yoga class offered in the evenings, two nights a week. New to yoga, the art was the pull that gave her freedom to try something new, in a new city, as a newlywed school teacher. That class was the first day of her yoga life. She attended yoga classes as a practitioner for years before she found a studio and the teacher training program that called to her.

The connection with the teacher, she said, was what gave her the sign she should jump into her own teacher training. She recalled a specific moment in which she’d felt more vulnerable than ever on her mat, and yet also the most secure in that vulnerability.

She had been doing a hip opening exercise, when—boom!—the tears started flowing. Her teacher compassionately and gently came over to her, shared a mudra that she could place over her hips, and offered her guidance to sit and repeat a prayer. She accepted the advice and laid in that position for a while, crying, and feeling immensely safe, repeating the prayer to herself over and over. She had never felt that safe in a group of people before.

Today, she is no longer is a schoolteacher. Instead she teaches Kundalini yoga to women who are focused on a life of sobriety.

For each yoga teacher in this study, the welcoming into a community that accepted them for who they were was priceless.

Within their yoga communities, all women expressed a belief that they became more accountable to their thoughts and started to realize that they had a greater sense of self-power. The observer within themselves, they said, seemed to emerge, and each teacher expressed having discovered deeper wells of beauty within themselves. They found they were more accepting of what they saw within themselves.

My own personal experience was reflected in each of these stories, as well. Although I have not trained for my yoga teaching certification, I have logged thousands of hours on the mat over the years, and have been moved to explore yoga more deeply.

Since meeting my teacher eight years ago, I’ve deepened my practice and found deeper, sacred spaces within myself. What I’ve gained on my journey with my teacher’s guidance has been what motivates me to explore the questions of yoga that I do today, as a researcher.

As a researcher, the message I want to share today is this: community is something that yoga cultivates without effort.

The bond you seal when you step on the mat, take a deep belly breath, and center yourself is the same bond each soul is sealing for themselves when they step onto the mat. That is powerful. That is healing.

In a class together, we move without words or eye contact, we move and breathe in harmony. This is the mechanism that creates the feeling of community, tribe, and kinship. You don’t need to know anyone’s names, but its truly amazing what happens at the end of a yoga class, when the community says good-bye—when namaste is spoken and shared. The smiles begin to appear on faces, and heads begin to bow in respect and gratitude. The community is consciously engaged.

So, roll the mat out today, synchronize your breathing with your movements, and know you are participating in a practice that has catalyzed human development for thousands of years. You are yoga, and yoga is you.

Celebrate that beautiful moment, and remember the next time you go into a yoga studio, or turn on your computer or TV to the next yoga class, quietly send out love to all the other yogis who were joining in that moment because you are creating a community that will mutually harmonize you all.


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