New Year’s Resolutions, Neuroscience and Yoga

What do New Years resolutions, modern neuroscience and Yoga have in common? Quite a lot actually. This is the time of year when many of us make our list of changes or resolutions that we hope to adopt for the New Year.Often the list includes things that will make us feel better, such as exercise routines, diets, better sleep habits, less alcohol, more green tea, etc.

All of this is indicative of the realization that we are not feeling or performing at our best, and we wish to do something to change our state of being and our state of health.

As past experience has proven to most of us, New Years resolutions do not usually make it past January. This is usually because we have tried to change too many things at one time and we do not stick to the behavior we wish to adapt, or change, for long enough. Research has shown that it takes a minimum of 30 days and optimally 66 days to change a habit. Once the habit is firmly rooted in our behavior pattern, it will effortlessly become part of our routine.  For the very best success in making a change it is advisable to pick just one cornerstone behavior, that will in turn effect other parts of one’s life in positive ways.

Yoga can be a catalyst for change. My approach to teaching and practicing Yoga is very different than other types of exercise, such as running, fitness classes, pumping iron or using circuit equipment. General exercise benefits our cardiovascular systems and will make us stronger. Yoga will do this as well, while also activating the parasympathetic nervous system to bring the body back to equilibrium while decreasing cortisol, decreasing blood pressure, increasing musculoskeletal flexibility and joint range of motion, and improving sleep and immunity. In other words a breath-centric yoga practice is one of the best ways to counter our hectic, faster- is- better culture.

Yoga that is practiced and taught with “mindfulness”, while engaging in a deep pranayama (breath work practice) in order to prepare for meditative deep relaxation is one of the best ways I know of to make lasting changes in how we feel at a very deep level. This is where neuroscience comes in. Science originally thought that once our brains and behavior were formed that it was fixed and would never change. Modern neuroscience has shown that our brain is organized in neural pathways and that mental traffic likes to follow existing available routes, regardless of whether it is appropriate or beneficial. The more we use a route the more available it becomes. Neuroscientists estimate that it takes approximately thirty seconds to firmly root a new neural pathway and the more that pathway is used it becomes readily available and easily accessed.

Yoga, which actually means link or yoke in Sanskrit, is a means to link breath, motion and mind to engage us in a unified way. When we are truly engaged in this way we cannot worry about work or what we have to do at home. Our engagement is such that only that moment exists, and then the next and so on. I like to call this mindfulness because we are paying attention on purpose, without judging or reacting, simply being present to what is in this moment. Through engaging in a “mindful” practice of Yoga over an extended period of time we can change our mental patterns and our ways of being in the world, while decreasing our reactivity and reaping the many physical health benefits I have mentioned. Quite often this spills over into other parts of an individuals life with very positive results.

This could be the one important change or resolution you will choose to make for the coming New Year.