Given up on resolutions?

We react to changes in our environment through our nervous system. When we perceive something as a threat, our “fight or flight” or stress response kicks in – a corresponding increase in heart rate, breathing, muscle tension and stress hormones.

How the body responds to stimuli is learned and habitual. The first time you meet a tiger in the jungle, you’re terrified to death. I suspect that feeling never really goes away, but animal researchers and those cameramen on Attenborough seem to cope well enough. They’ve been exposed to the threat again and again, and instead of allowing themselves to dissolve into messy, traumatized tears, they’ve trained themselves to respond differently to how you and I might.

A yoga practice is exactly that – a practice in which you, well, practise switching on the appropriate response. Instead of going into stress-overdrive, you trick the physiological response by taking slow, measured breaths and focusing on kicking in the appropriate response. Staying calm and collected is of course not just useful in the jungle – road rage is never a good look, and losing your cool in front of co-workers or boss is always regrettable!

Here’s the good news. You can train the brain to produce the calming response even though the stimuli itself was threatening or stressful.

One of my favourite explanations as to why yoga works comes from Alex Korb, Ph.D. a neuroscience researcher at UCLA: “Yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurological benefit.”

So what’s this got to do with New Year resolutions?

Maybe you’ve become a bit jaded over the years, having fallen victim to temptation, having failed spectacularly at trying to stick with it despite your best January intentions – you now scoff at the idea.

Despite this, there’s the undeniable urge for renewal, for change, to improve, to gain some better mastery of our lives and our selves with each new year. And it’s those patterns that are the most deeply ingrained, entrenched, most difficult to shift, that seem to be the most damaging (or at least annoying) to us.

So how does yoga help with these negative patterns?

As mentioned, yoga is a practice in training the mind to switch on the appropriate response in a given situation. This training develops deep focus and concentration, noticing when you’re feeling stress and tension creeping up, and how to respond accordingly.

And it’s this mechanism of heightened awareness of the self, the body, the mind, that allows you a deeper realization of your behaviour and its consequences.

The problem with sticking to our resolution not to eat junk food is one of motivators and how we experience them. We are more readily aware of the gratification of having a scrummy plate of thick cut fries than we are of the purely mental idea of being fitter and healthier. It’s when we deepen our awareness, and can actually physically feel how clean and wholesome we already are without the fries – that’s when we’re able to make better decisions easily and stick to them!

Wishing you all the best, may you achieve all you desire and more in this coming year.