Time for new habits? Rewire with yoga!

Today marks the solstice, a turning point in the amount of sunlight that reaches us. The solstice signifies a moment of change, which might be why we take stock of our lives and often set goals for change at this time of year. Behavioral change is a multifaceted process that involves adopting positive routines, fostering a mind-body connection, and transforming habits—and yoga can help.

Think of behavior as a set of patterns we develop in response to our environment—our behavior depends on our resources, past experiences, and, to a certain degree, our genetics. Much of our behavior is learned and practiced, which means we can modify it. Mind-body practices such as yoga are powerful tools for promoting well-being and facilitating behavior change.

Neuroplasticity and behavior change

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself as a result of experience. We have learned a tremendous amount about neuroplasticity (including that it exists!) in the past few decades. 

A simple example of neuroplasticity is learning to use the opposite hand to brush your teeth. At first it feels awkward, and controlling the toothbrush is difficult. With practice, we can not only learn to brush our teeth with the opposite hand, but to have it feel as normal and easy as brushing with our dominant hand. It just takes practice—sometimes lots of practice! 

Other behaviors, such as the ways we habitually respond to stress, are similar in terms of neuroplasticity: We can change them through practice, and yoga therapy offers many ways to help us rewire our brains and change our habits.

Wiring for resilience

Stress can cause us to overestimate the importance of a stressor and underestimate our ability to deal with the issue. This leads to stress reactivity. If we can’t slow down and reset, we may get stuck in a stress-reactivity cycle, which is like practicing being stressed! Just like that non-dominant hand eventually getting good at brushing our teeth, our physiology gets really good at being in stress mode. This state can have a host of negative effects on our physical and mental health.

Yoga has many practices that teach us to slow down and make space for a different response to stressful events, starting with increasing self-awareness and learning how to pay attention to our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. This is one way yoga therapy can promote resilience and improve our ability to cope with stress.

Yoga can also teach us that resilience is not always about having grit and tenacity—sometimes self-compassion, tolerance, and grace are what’s actually needed. Finding this balance allows us to be present with what is, non-reactively, and to connect with our inner wisdom and skillfulness to navigate challenging situations. 

Practice

Changing behavior and rewiring the brain takes practice—going over the same path again and again until it is clear and well-formed, like a new habit. To find a yoga therapist to teach you how to support healthy behavior change, find the resilience in balance, and manage stress more gracefully, search IAYT’s database of certified yoga therapists. You can also try this short movement and meditation practice from IAYT-certified yoga therapist Megan MacCarthy.

This post was adapted from “The Impact of Contemplative Practice on Healthy (and Sustainable) Behavioral Change—Considering Genomics and Biochemistry” by Rahshaana Green, published in the Summer 2023 issue of Yoga Therapy Today. YTT is available to members on IAYT’s website.