Yoga for Healthy Aging: How Yoga Helps You Change Habits

By: 
Baxter Bell, MD

Not a day seems to go by that I don’t realize there is some habit I have that I’d love to change. I’m sure that happens to you, too. Fortunately, we have yoga as a great tool for when we want to get serious about really changing old, dysfunctional habits. So, what kind of patterns or habits are we talking about? Some examples are:

Physical Habits: Perhaps you discover that the way you hold your posture habitually is resulting in pain, stiffness in your body, or difficulty in doing activities you need or want to do.

Time Management: Perhaps you find your self habitually late for meetings or gatherings, putting your work and relationships at risk.

Cognitive Ability: Perhaps you are becoming more aware of how your recall of names is worsening as you get busier in your daily life, and then notice while on vacation that name recall seems subtly but noticeably better.

Stress and Emotions: Perhaps you are told by your best friend that he or she is noticing you becoming more emotionally labile and more socially withdrawn as you grapple with some unexpected family crisis.

Spiritual: Perhaps you become aware of a nagging existential crisis as you grapple with the relentless negative news cycles that you are exposed to and see it tied into your new insomnia.

But in order to change a habit, you first need to start by personally recognizing an undesirable pattern. This may happen to you while the habit is occurring, upon reflection after the fact, or after an outside observer (friend, family member, coworker, etc.) informs you about it. Meditation and yoga practice can help you observe such habits and understand the harm they are doing to you, and come to the realization that you are ready to change. This desire to change is the first step in enlisting the tools of yoga towards that goal.

Your practice can also support you while you are changing your habit. The yogic concept of samskaras points to unconscious habits that are particularly embedded in our way of dealing with a whole plethora of situations we encounter both regularly and infrequently. Because of their apparent intractability, changing these kinds of reactive habits seems almost impossible. And yet the experience of many regular yoga practitioners has proven otherwise, and modern research into yoga and meditation has begun to explain how the tools of these traditions can do just that.

On a structural level, we have learned that the human brain has “plasticity,” which allows for new learning and brain growth up until our deaths, replacing the early 20th-century belief that the brain did not change much after our early adult years. The establishment of new samskaras, or habits that yoga can create, takes advantage of this fact. But how?

Yoga practices can affect the balance of the autonomic nervous system, gradually shifting us from the more reactive sympathetic branch (fight, flight or freeze) to the calmer parasympathetic branch (rest and digest) of our background operating system. This shift can give us a much-needed pause in our tendency to react quickly with fear and anxiety in stressful moments, so that we can choose our newer habit over our old habitual reactions. A great deal of recent brain research is giving us more and more clues as to how yoga may be doing this.

On the level of form and function, it has been shown that a variety of structural and functional changes occur in the brain as a result of regular yoga and meditation practices that support changing your habits. Certain areas of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, become thicker, other areas, such as the insula, develop deeper depressions in the folds of the brain. The brain’s stem cells are stimulated to differentiate into supportive types of glial cells that increase the insulation of neurons, allowing them to process information more quickly and efficiently. If we just look at the first example of the thickened prefrontal cortex of the brain, the implication is that having more front brain equals a better capacity to inhibit your unwanted behavior, thoughts, actions.

In other studies, it has been shown that while people are meditating, the brain wave patterns shift to more alpha waves, which assist in filtering out distracting information coming into your brain, thereby improving focus on your task at hand and maybe your memory. Follow-up studies showed long-term retention of these effects. It has also been demonstrated that an area of the brain that is involved in fear and anxiety, the amygdala, can be down-regulated with regular practice of yoga and meditation.

A recent paper, Potential self-regulatory mechanisms of yoga for psychological health, developed a fairly comprehensive theory as to how yoga affects the neurobiology of depression, anxiety, trauma and addiction, and concluded that it improves “self-regulation” in several ways. There is a top-down mechanism of the brain affecting the body, and a bottom-up mechanism of the body affecting the brain. The authors concluded that yoga promotes self-regulation (which supports changing habits) on the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral levels we introduced above. The changes to the brain I discussed above would seem to support these theories. And yoga improves vagal tone, which supports the bottom-up regulation.

Finally, evidence is mounting that your yoga confers both immediate benefits of self-regulatory effects on cognition, emotions and behavior, and that there is sustained change even when you are not on the mat practicing. In other words, you get the goods in real life situations as a benefit of your regular yoga practice. 

B Grace Bullock PhD and YogaUOnline with new reasearch on how Yoga Improves Memory and Brain Function in Older Adults.

Another article from YogauOnline and writer, Leo Baubata - Supercharge Your Health - 4 Tips for Forming Healthy Habits.

Study with YogaUOnline and Dr. Baxter Bell - Yoga for Healthy Aging: Your Brain on Yoga Part 1.

Reprinted with permission from yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com
 

Baxter BellBaxter Bell, MD, is a yoga teacher and educator, physician and medical acupuncturist. These days he focuses on teaching yoga full time, both to ordinary students of all ages and physical conditions, and to the next generation of yoga teachers, to whom he teaches anatomy and yoga therapy along with his accessible, skillful style of yoga. Baxter brings a unique perspective to his teaching, combining his understanding of anatomy and medicine with his skill at instructing people from all walks of life and all levels of ability. Baxter is the co-founder and writer for the popular Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, where he shares his knowledge of medical conditions, anatomy, and yoga with practitioners and teachers across the world. In addition to being a frequent presenter at Yoga Journal Alive events and yoga conferences such as IAYT’s SYTAR, he is often quoted as an expert on yoga and health by major national news outlets such as The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. To learn more, visit www.baxterbell.com, www.yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com, and his YouTube channel Baxter Bell Yoga.