Self-improvement is at the top of everyone's New Year's resolution list. An estimated 45% of Americans resolve to make some form of personal change each year. And though intentions start out strong, research suggests that merely 8% of people successfully achieve their resolutions. This number may not sound reassuring, but if you're serious about setting goals and sticking to them this year, studies show that yoga and meditation provide the tools needed for lasting change.
Yoga is a practice that unifies the body and mind. The yogic concept of samskara refers to our habitual patterns of action and thought. Every time we act or think, we are more likely to repeat the same behavior. These repetitions, whether positive or negative, cause us to behave instinctively. Transforming these habits, or samskaras, means creating new positive patterns that are stronger than our older, negative ones.
Contemporary neuroscience supports this approach. Until the last few decades, scientists believed that the neural pathways in our brains, created by repeated thoughts and actions, were hard-wired after a certain childhood age. But modern research reveals that the brain has neuroplasticity, meaning it can be changed, or rewired. This evidence backs what yogis have been practicing for centuries; that we can retrain the brain to create and reinforce new neural pathways that otherwise wouldn't exist.
The first step toward successful transformation lies in noticing our existing habits before we can overwrite them with new ones. Meditative tools, such as mindfulness, are central to this cognizance. Mindfulness is essentially observation without judgment. It means having an awareness of our present thoughts, feelings, and surroundings without categorizing them as 'good' or 'bad'. When we aren't mindful, we tend to rely on familiar routines, moving without thought, as if on auto-pilot. Mindfulness allows us to notice our patterned behavior so that we can modify the actions and thoughts behind them.
The mind-body connection plays an important role in transformation. It's been shown in numerous studies that cognitive function (the intellectual process that includes awareness, thinking, reasoning, comprehension and remembering) is improved with physical activity. When we exercise, BDNF, the protein that encourages the growth of new neurons, is released. In essence, we can rewire the brain while we are physically active, such as in a yoga asana (posture) practice. This means that our thoughts, attitudes, and intentions are just as important as our poses, alignment, and breath. When we commit to our intentions during practice, we are reprogramming our bodies to respond to new thought patterns. We are creating new samskaras, or neural pathways, to replace the old ones.
Because yoga strengthens the mind-body connection, it's a highly effective tool for long-term change. Attention and observation through mindfulness makes us aware of our automatic patterns, while intention and practice reinforce new desired behavior. Whether it's a New Year's resolution or something you want to improve any time of the year, yoga and meditation provide the means to make change and stick with it.