Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Yoga and emotion
How can yoga be used to improve your life?
There is a pretty high chance that you are reading this page either sitting down at a desk, craning your neck at a laptop, or peering at a phone or tablet screen. Take a moment to stop and really feel all the tension in your neck, shoulders and back, its probably not putting you in a great mood thinking about it. You would be surprised to find out how much impact on your emotions your physical condition can have. When you're body feels good, your mind feels good! When most people think of yoga; spirituality, zen, meditation, and other "new age" or "hippy" things come to mind and they think that yoga probably isn't for them. But actually, yoga is one of the most powerful tools that anybody can use to improve many aspects of their life. Regular yoga practice can have amazing benefits for your emotional well-being. In this chapter of Motivation and Emotion: Improve your Life, you will learn about yoga, how it affects your body and your mind, and how you can use this knowledge to improve your life!
What is Yoga?
Yoga is a traditional part of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and has been practiced for hundreds of years (Carmody & Carmody, 1996). In the late 19th century some of the many different yoga practices were brought to western societies from India, however they were not well received as they were seen to be closely associated with non-western religions. In the 1980s the branch of yoga known as Hatha Yoga that involves the practice of a system of physical exercises and poses, was separated from its religious origins and became popular in Western societies. Hatha yoga is now what is in the West commonly associated with the term "yoga" (Carmody & Carmody, 1996).
Yoga is the practice of spiritual, mental and physical exercises aimed at the attainment of permanent enlightenment and tranquility. The practice of Hatha yoga that is by far the most common in the west involves the completion of a series of low impact poses and breathing exercises that are aimed at building physical strength, balance and flexibility. These exercises are completed with an emphasis on relaxation, focus and mindfulness, and are often used as an accompaniment to meditation. Yoga can be practiced alone or in a group and for as short or as long periods as desired, however longer and more intensive sessions are generally considered to be most beneficial (Kuttner et al., 2006). In addition to physical benefits, yoga aims to improve general well-being by teaching self-regulation and discipline (Walsh, 1983)
Countless variations on the traditional poses and exercises have been developed, perhaps the most notable of which is what is known as yoga therapy. Yoga therapy is a type of Hatha yoga that is modified for people who are particularly stiff, ill, injured, under extreme stress or in any other situation that makes standard practice difficult (Culos-Reed, Carlson, Darous & Hately-Aldous 2006). Yoga therapy emphasizes safety and a slower and more monitored assisted progression through the exercises.
Now you know a little bit more about yoga! Before we can properly understand the relationship between the practice of yoga and emotion, there are a few psychological constructs and theories that should be understood. A few of the most important and relevant of which are briefly outlined below.
It has long been believed that the quality of one's consciousness can have great impacts on the quality of one's well-being (Gerrig, Zimbardo, Campbell, Cumming & Wilkes, 2009). Mindfulness is an attribute of consciousness that emphasizes the improvement of awareness and attention. Awareness is a continually updating perception of one's environment and attention is the process of focusing conscious efforts on a particular aspect of one's environment. While these abilities are present in varying degrees in all people, the pursuit of mindfulness requires a directed conscious effort to improve these skills. The aim of mindfulness is to develop an enhanced, open and receptive awareness of and attention to ones environment at all times (Martin, 1997). Stronger mindfulness has been associated with greater self-regulation skills and more positive emotional states, among other emotional benefits (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Mindfulness is heavily emphasized in yoga practice and is often thought to be an important contributing factor to yoga's health benefits.
For more information on how mindfulness can help improve your life, see: Motivation and Emotion: Improve your Life - Mindfulness
Biofeedback is a process which involves the presentation of visual representations of a person's bodily functions, in hope that cognitive awareness of these functions can allow for better control over them. Biofeedback research has seen some success in the past with improvements in stress control and emotional states in children (Carter & Russell, 1980). As biofeedback requires extensive training, equipment and intensive effort with assistants, it cannot be realistically combined in everyday yoga practice (Zipkin, 1985). However the basic principals of an increased cognitive awareness of ones bodily functions and emotions allowing for greater control over them is quite applicable to yoga practice.
Life is becoming more fast paced than ever, and as peoples lives become increasingly stressful, stress related health problems are increasing in frequency. This indicates an increasing importance for people to be able to manage their stress levels in order to remain healthy (Granath, Ingvarsson, Von Thiele & Lundberg, 2006). There are many techniques that can help people control their stress levels, most of which involve focused relaxation and often mindfulness. The regular practice of these techniques has been shown to have great positive impacts on health and emotional well-being. Yoga is highly associated with stress reduction, and this aspect is thought to be greatly influential in the health and emotional benefits associated with regular yoga practice (Panjwani, Gupta, Singh, Selvamurthy & Raj, 1994)
For more information on ways to cope with stress, see: Motivation and Emotion: Improve your Life - Transactional model of stress and coping
Exercise and health improvement
The link between regular physical exercise, positive mental health and general well-being has long been seen. Generally, people who participate in some form of exercise regularly have been seen to experience better mental health, vocational success and general quality of life than those who don't (Dugmore et al., 1999). These relationships have been found reasonably consistently, however what remains to be completely understood is whether people who exercise feel better because they are in better physical condition, or simply thanks to the positive frame of mind about future well-being the exercise often engenders, rather than physical improvements in health. In either case, regular physical exercise and a health focused lifestyle, seem to have positive effects on mental health and general well-being.
How does yoga influence emotion
With an understanding of the theories behind it, lets explore how yoga actually influences emotion. It does so in two main ways, through its physical effects, and its emotional effects.
The practice of yoga can have positive effects on emotions through changes in physical condition. The most important physical influence of yoga on emotion is simply that yoga, like most forms of exercise, makes your body feel better afterwards. In this way yoga can remove physical pains that are causing negative emotions. The more regular and consistent yoga practice is, the larger these effects become and eventually, yoga practice will become associated with the positive emotions associated with good physical health, increasing positive emotions and compounding these effects. The physical changes that yoga can facilitate are numerous and beneficial. Long term regular practice has been shown to lower resting heart rate, blood pressure, lactic acid release, and breathing volume and pace (Kochupillai et al., 2005; Raju et al., 1994). Also seen among long term yoga practitioners is lowered arousal levels as shown in reductions in baseline cortisol and catecholamine secretions as well as a lower metabolic rate (Khalsa, 2007). These physical changes are very important in the stress and anxiety reduction properties yoga possesses. Along with a more relaxed general physical state, people who begin regular yoga practice have noticed increased strength, flexibility and balance (Kochupillai et al., 2005). This greatly helps facilitate the well known influence of a relaxed body on a relaxed mind.
Yoga has also been shown to have many emotional benefits. Regular yoga practitioners have been found to be more emotionally stable and have a generally more positive affect (Froeliger, Garland, Modlin & McClernon, 2012). They are also often seen to experience less negative emotions after being presented with stimuli designed to produce negative emotions. This indicates that people who practice yoga are better at controlling how much emotion they experience after events. While some of these effects take years of yoga practice and training to achieve, some can be seen much more rapidly. A 2011 study (Hartfiel, Havenhand, Khalsa, Clarke & Krayer) found that after only 6 weeks of once weekly yoga sessions, participants reported significantly higher feelings of confidence, elation, clear-mindedness, composure and energy than those in a control group. The yoga group also reported increased feelings of life-purpose, satisfaction and greater self confidence in stressful situations. Yoga is proven to help develop mindfulness, which is thought to be a key contributor to its emotional benefits (Salmon, Lush, Jablonski & Sephton, 2009). Regular yoga practice is also helpful in developing mindfulness abilities into trait-mindfulness, a characteristic in which mindfulness is constantly practiced throughout life without effort (Shelov, Suchday & Friedberg, 2009)
Different types of yoga
Yoga is a very broad term and refers to many different exercises and relaxation techniques, that are often combined in unique ways. Hatha is by far the most commonly practiced of the 4 main styles practiced in western yoga. Each of these styles vary in their emphasis on relaxation and meditative like exercises, and physical intensity. Satyananda focuses almost entirely on relaxation and guided mediation with some basic gentle exercises incorporated. Hatha has a similar focus on relaxation as Satyananda does, however it uses moderately more intensive exercises and places more importance on physical improvement. Lyengar yoga focuses on the development of balance and precision, while making use of straps and blocks. Finally Ashtanga aims to improve physical strength, stamina and speed through vigorous aerobic exercises (Smith, Hancock & Eckert, 2007). Both concentrated relaxation and physical exercise can have benefits for emotional functioning and mental health, although it has been suggested that yoga combining both is more beneficial than either in isolation, however more research is needed to fully understand why (Ross & Thomas, 2010). This could be simply due to individual differences, indicating that different types of yoga may provide optimal benefit to different people.
Yoga can also have other indirect effects on emotion. It has been found that yoga can improve cognitive abilities through its practice (Manjunath & Telles, 2004). Increased cognitive abilities work well with increased mindfulness and a relaxed physical state to produce positive emotions. Another significant influence of yoga is less obvious and is more of a side effect. Yoga can help people realise that effort towards a healthier lifestyle and be both fruitful and enjoyable, which can lead to other behaviours that are beneficial to mental health and well-being (Sharma, Gupta & Bijlani, 2008). In these ways yoga can become a big factor in increasing positive emotions without people even realising.
One of the great advantages of yoga is that it is relatively cheap, easy to perform and can be practiced almost anywhere. This means that it is a very practical way improve the emotions and lives of people in many different situations. Lets look at some of the many ways that yoga can help people improve their lives.
One of the most negative influences on the health and well-being of average people is stress. Most of the time the problems that excessive stress can cause are simply ignored, or thought of as a part of life. When these problems get bad enough to impair normal functioning, there is a wealth of medical assistance to help ease these stress caused problems. However quite little is done to encourage the development of personal skills that increase positive psychological functioning and prevent these problems occurring in the first place (Hamilton, Kitzman & Guyotte, 2006). Along with the reduction of stress and anxiety that yoga can provide, some it's most useful functions in everyday life are the benefits to emotional stability and integrity that it seems to provide. The relaxation and mindfulness techniques that people can learn from yoga practice can be used almost every day to improve practitioner's lives (Granath, Ingvarsson, Von Thiele & Lundberg, 2006). The ability to control emotional arousal in times of stress can greatly improve performance in stressful situations. Mindfulness allows for the monitoring and understanding of ones emotions, which helps to known when you need time relax, rather than just letting it build (Uebelacker et al., 2010). Stress is also an important contributor to damaging behaviors for people who are trying to fight addictions. The stress reducing aspects of yoga have been shown to help people who are trying to beat addictions (Kochupillai et al., 2005). The physical and mental relaxation that people experience thanks to yoga practice can make an extraordinary difference in their lives.
Along with the personal skills that it teaches, yoga reduces stress and anxiety through improving the physical health of practitioners. The regular practice of balancing, stretching and flexing your body provides the many physical benefits mentioned previously. These physical benefits can be used to improve performance in and recovery from almost every type of physical activity (Telles, Reddy & Nagendra, 2000). This can greatly improve the lives of people who are heavily physically active. However it can also be of great benefit to those of us who find it hard to get motivated to exercise, and are then left with negative emotions after failing to do so. In this way, yoga is a very effective alternative to strenuous exercise for those who would often find themselves not exercising at all. In doing so it can often provide the basic physical strength and energy that can encourage the move into more intensive physical exercise.
If you have trouble finding the motivation to exercise, check out: Motivation and Emotion: Improve your Life - Self Control in Health Behaviours
Something you might not expect is that yoga has been found to be extremely beneficial in the treatment of and recovery from many different types of illness. Physical exercise in general is well known to be a positive influence in the treatment of many diseases, however often sufferers lack the physical energy or motivation to engage in physically active activities (Hamilton, Kitzman & Guyotte, 2006; Lavey et al., 2005). As yoga is a relatively un-strenuous exercise, it is an excellent option for sufferers of many debilitating diseases (Culos-Reed, Carlson, Darous & Hately-Aldous, 2006). Regular yoga practice has shown to result in improvements in the physical condition of sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart conditions and arthritis (Dash and Telles, 2001; Garfinkle, Schumacher, Hussain, Levey & Reshetar, 1994; Kuttner et al., 2006; Sharma, Gupta & Bijlani, 2008). Sufferers of cancer, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), epilepsy, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia have all reported that yoga has improved their lives by giving them more emotional stability and perceived control over their situations (Behere et al., 2011; Brown & Ryan, 2003; Culos-Reed, Carlson, Darous & Hately-Aldous, 2006; Harriosn, Manocha & Rubia, 2004; Jensen & Kenny, 2004; Lavey et al., 2005; Panjwani, Gupta, Singh, Selvamurthy & Rai, 1994; Uebelacker et al., 2010).
Yoga and you
Let's have a look at an example of how starting regular yoga practice could improve your life.
You might get invited to a yoga class by a friend and think you will try it out, although you assume you probably wont like it. Turns out it wasn't that bad, just some stretching and relaxing, maybe you will go again next week, it was a nice way to de-stress after all. You go to the class a few more times and after the first few sessions you feel nice and relaxed, if perhaps a little sore. After a little more practice you start noticing that you are feeling more flexible and those you haven't noticed some of those old aches and pains in a while. A few weeks after starting you are stuck in traffic, but instead of getting frustrated and stressed like you have in the past, you find yourself able to relax and just let the emotions pass by. You are starting to really enjoy the feeling of a healthy lifestyle and you might actually go for a bike ride to relax rather than just plonking yourself in front of the TV. Simply practicing yoga for an hour or two a week has slowly made a big change in your life, and you are much happier for it.
Obviously this is hypothetical and optimistic, but it is not unlikely, and there is almost nothing negative that can come from trying!
Try out this great 20 minute yoga session for beginners! Focus on being mindful, relaxed, breathe slowly and deeply, and see if you can notice some of yoga's relaxing and rejuvenating effects!
In this chapter we have learnt about yoga, and the amazing ways that it can improve your life. Lets quickly review the main points of the chapter.
- Modern day yoga is a low impact exercise that is derived from ancient religious practices.
- Yoga practice involves slowly moving through poses and exercises that are aimed at improving strength balance and flexibility, while relaxing the body and mind through breathing and relaxation exercises.
- Regular yoga practice can lower heart rate and blood pressure, and have other relaxing effects on the body.
- Yoga can help development of emotional skills that help to deal with stress and anxiety such as mindfulness and self efficacy.
- Yoga has many benefits in the treatment of both medical and psychological diseases.
- People who regularly practice yoga often experience improvements in many areas of physical health and emotional well-being, however this is likely in part due to the other healthy lifestyle choices and practices that yoga is often associated with.
Hopefully after reading this chapter you now know a lot about how yoga can improve your life, and perhaps you might want to give it a shot!
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