For those who know me, either personally or professionally, it’s no surprise that I am an avid and whole-hearted cheerleader for yoga and meditation. Over and over, I sing praise for (but try not to preach about) all of the benefits of a mind-body practice. My yoga classes sometimes sound like therapy sessions, and my work in individual and group sessions certainly resonate with tones of Eastern medicine, holisitic psychology, and integrated healing.
…but I never push. (As it turns out, attempting to push, force, control, insist, or fix people just doesn’t work – and it wastes a lot of energy).
However, I have noticed that almost all of my clients that have sustained any semblance of longer-term recovery, balanced living and wellness have one thing in common: a mindfulness practice. They do something, consistently, that involves A) being in their bodies and B) being in the present moment. Yoga just happens to be one of the easiest and most accessible ways to accomplish this, but is – by no means –the only option.
So why does it work?
Okay, first we have to go back. Way back. As lovely as it is to run around in our designer heels and fancy cars, we have to remember that our ancestors were cave people. We developed, biologically, from these very primitive and less sophisticated ancestors. Parts of our brain are primitive, and as sophisticated as our thinking can be, we still have our limbic system, firing away, in a similar fashion to our ancient relatives.
Imagine that you are a cave person and your survival depends on your ability to A) eat and B) not get eaten by a saber-tooth tiger. Imagine that you are out in the sunshine on a beautiful day, with the sun shining on your face, and feeling the soft breeze blowing in your cave person hair – and then BAM!!!!!!!! You hear a rustling in the bush. Immediately, you are prepared for danger because that sound may be a predator. You’re ready to run, or to fight – sending your parasympthatic nervous system into fight or flight response. Adrenaline pumps, and stress hormones are shot into your bloodstream so that you can survive.
Okay, so what?? We’re not cave people any more, so how does this apply to me and my life today?
Science has shown that our brains continue to demonstrate this negativity bias. In a split second, even when there is an infinite amount of positive stimuli to attend to, our brains with naturally, automatically, and because of evolution, zero in on the perceived threat, the “negative” experience, the rustling in the bushes.
And at one time, this saved our lives.
As the psychologist, Donald Hebb, put it: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Our thoughts, feelings, memories and behaviors leave behind lasting impressions on the brain – a lot like the grooves created by a stream flowing down a hill. These grooves are pathways, of sorts, that create the lens in which we perceive reality – both ourselves and the world. So very simply, our brain grooves set us up with a lens to perceive our reality in one of two ways: views that make us suffer, or views that lead us to happiness. Your experience matters.
As the intersection of science and Eastern philosophies continues to develop, the exciting news is this: there is a scientifically supported rationale for being nice to yourself. If your experience matters, this creates a substantiated argument that creating and experiencing more wholesome, calm, joyful, pleasant, and satisfying experiences will change your brain.
This is where yoga comes in. While there are many ways to access the elusive and healing “present moment”, we typically don’t learn them. We are top-heavy learners, relying on our rational minds, our intellect, and our reasoning to develop. We sit in desks and eat at scheduled times instead of moving our bodies and learning to trust our hunger cues. We learn to trust “what we are told” instead of our own intuitive sensations, essentially leaving the present moment behind over and over again to examine the past or to predict the future.
As Tara Brach points out, “the only place that is ever REALLY safe is this present moment.” And as for as our neurobiology is concerned, that is true. Whatever type of yoga class you sign up for, there is one unifying characteristic – breath. All yoga is (or at least should be) an exercise in finding the breath, yoking the breath to movement, and –alas- using the breath as a vehicle to come back to the present moment. That’s why yoga works. Eventually, the brain starts to change, and the cumulative effect of our nervous system registering the safety of this moment right now takes effect. I could sing praise for all the physical benefits of a regular yoga practice: joint health, muscle recovery, flexibility, and appetite regulation – but for me, the mental and emotional benefits have been profound.