When I first started teaching yoga at CTCA in suburban Chicago, it was a challenge to convince people of the benefits of spending time on the mat. Now, a year later, if I don’t hold my regular class, I get several emails with sad face emoticons or comments like, “I miss our yoga time.”
Yoga has taken America by storm in recent years. More than 20 million Americans practice yoga, and even more want to. In 2012, the latest year statistics are available, 8.7 percent of American adults practiced and another 44.4 percent said they wanted to try it.
One of the most beneficial aspects of yoga is its potential to change a person’s neurobiology, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. The chemical composition of our brains and its firing patterns are altered by what we think about and what we do every day, especially our habits. How we choose to react to stressors in our environment directly affects these firing patterns and the efficiency of our brain and body.
Our daily lives are full of stressful situations: a mean email from your boss, the person tailgating you as you drive to work, news that a loved one has cancer, worry that you won’t be able to make your next mortgage payment. The list goes on. These stressors ignite our fight-or-flight system, known as the sympathetic nervous system. Many of us are not actively doing anything to counter or decrease the stress response, which is where yoga comes in.
Yoga works not because the poses are easy but because the poses can be stress-inducing. Yes, stress-inducing. When you’re in a challenging pose, your body may shake, you might sweat and your heart might race. That’s your stress response. At this point, your instructor might say, “Take a few deep breaths. Mindfully notice the sensations in your body. Change your thoughts to, ‘I can do this.’”
The instructor is coaching you to slow down your sympathetic stress response. If you can do this on your mat, you are helping rewire your brain and slow down your stress response when you are off your mat. So the next time you are having a nerve-racking conversation with your boss, you might be more likely to take a deep breath, slow down your thoughts and think more clearly. You’ll make better decisions about what you say during the intense moment.
When the emotional center of your brain is activated, the prefrontal cortex, or decision-making and thinking section of your brain, does not work so well. If you have ever misspoken in a heated conversation, you know what I’m talking about. Who would have thought that yoga could help you think more clearly and make better decisions during a heated conversation with your boss? How amazing is that?
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