Your Brain on Yoga: How to Kick Bad Habits and Foster Better Ones

In this interview, Dr. Timothy McCall discusses why it's so hard to change our habits and shares his insights into that one thing that just might help lay the foundation for a lifetime of better health habits: yoga.
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Trying to lose weight? Wanting to get off the couch and onto your bike? Craving a little more R&R? We all have a nagging voice telling us that we need to eat better, lose those extra pounds, get more exercise, feel less stressed.

But, as most everyone has also experienced, positive resolves often have the life span of fruit flies. Indeed, there's nothing like going on a diet to prompt you to head straight for that pint of ice cream in the freezer and, while you're on the way, pick up that second bag of Oreos.

Like it or not, we are creatures of habit. In this interview, Dr. Timothy McCall, author of Yoga as Medicine and medical editor at Yoga Journal, discusses why it's so hard to change our habits and shares his insights into that one thing that just might help lay the foundation for a lifetime of better health habits: yoga.

Eva Norlyk Smith: We've all heard the statistics: As much as 90 percent of chronic illnesses, including coronary heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, as well as one-third of cancers, can be prevented simply by eating better and getting more exercise. Yet the obesity epidemic is only gaining momentum, and as a society, we're as sedentary as ever. What gives?

Dr. Timothy McCall: It's just not that easy to change habits. Doctors are continually telling patients to change their diets and to start exercising. But when a doctor says, "Don't eat this food, it's bad for you," it's hard for most people to follow that advice. They want to, but, again, habits are stubborn.

Eva Norlyk Smith: You have argued that changing habits is really a matter of rewiring the brain, and that yoga offers a uniquely useful way to replace negative patterns of thinking with positive ones. Could you elaborate on that?

Dr. Timothy McCall: Well, it has to do with a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. Researchers used to think that the architecture of the brain was fixed after a certain state of development. Today, we know that the brain changes structure over time, based on what we do. Each time we do something, neurons forge connections with one another, and the more we repeat certain behaviors, the stronger those neural links become. And that happens at any age, not just in young people. In other words, the brain is constantly reshaping itself, and the more you think, say, or do something, the more likely you are to think, say, or do it again.

This really refers to the same thing as the ancient yogis were teaching. In the yogic tradition there's a concept called samskaras, which are patterns of thought, word, and deed that we tend to repeat over and over. This is very similar to our current understanding from neuroanatomy and neurophysiology -- that the neural networks of the brain are shaped according to our repetitive activity.

The good news is that if you begin to introduce a new pattern of progressive habits, it eventually gets stronger than the old habits -- then you really can change.

This is something that yoga does really well and that modern medicine is really bad at. What we do with yoga is we start a practice, and we repeat it, ideally every day. Essentially, we are building a new, positive samskara. The more we repeat this positive pattern, the deeper those new neural networks become and the more they can eventually out-compete some of our older habits, habits that can tax our health and lead to stress, disease, and dysfunction.

You don't make the old patterns vanish; they're still there. But by strengthening the newer patterns of progressive practice -- say through yoga -- these newer patterns eventually get stronger than the old habits.

Eva Norlyk Smith: Many people who practice yoga regularly say that not only does it get easier to get on to the mat, it also becomes easier to make better lifestyle choices -- eat more healthful foods, get enough rest, engage in more physical activity, and so on. Why is that?

Dr. Timothy McCall: That's the other piece of the puzzle. When yoga is practiced with sensitivity and attention, it gradually increases awareness. It awakens your ability to feel what's happening in your body, heart, and mind. When you become more aware of your body, more aware of your mind, more aware of your breath, you start to notice the consequences of your behavior. So a particular food that might not be so healthy may taste good to you, but you may start to realize that when you eat it, you feel crummy. When you notice that connection, you say, "You know what, I don't think I want to eat this anymore."

That's another way that yoga can help us to change habits. It comes from the inside. What the doctor tells you is one thing. But when you notice the consequences of your actions, it's a very different -- and much more effective -- motivator. This is your body's internal wisdom talking to you, and that advice is a lot easier to follow than that of a doctor.

Eva Norlyk Smith: Yoga has a surprising range of effects: There are more than 400 studies on its health benefits. Are these benefits linked to changes in lifestyle habits?

Dr. Timothy McCall: Well, it goes beyond that. Yoga is a broad-based practice that helps the body to function better. A regular yoga practice improves health and well-being because it helps one breathe better, it soothes the nervous system, it calms the mind, improves immunity, and so on. There's a vast range of positive physical and physiological changes that have been documented in research studies.

In other words, yoga is a holistic healing approach, and I would say that the benefits are often underestimated. In medicine, we tend to look at one problem at a time. Let's say that someone has high blood pressure and that that person is prescribed yoga. What medical research doesn't take into account is that the people who are prescribed yoga to help manage a specific condition such as their blood pressure also end up sleeping better, feeling less stressed and more relaxed, and increasing their mindfulness.

Eva Norlyk Smith: There was quite a debate recently about yoga injuries and whether yoga is safe to practice. What's your take on that?

Dr. Timothy McCall: Well, obviously, in the same way as not all types of exercise are suitable to everyone, not all types of yoga are suitable to everyone. In my opinion, the media debate really exaggerated the risks. In fact, that debate stirred up so much confusion that I've decided to participate in an online telesummit on yoga injuries later this month with a number of well-regarded yoga teachers and medical experts to set the record straight.

With a little bit of common sense, yoga is generally safe. Unfortunately, a lot of people think that yoga equals really vigorous exercise. Of course, that can be a wonderful practice for some people. But yoga can be, and should be, modified to meet the needs of each individual. That's what the emerging field of yoga therapy is all about. So, for example, for someone who is bedridden, you may have them do some simple poses, lifting the arms or bending the knees or gently twisting in bed. You may teach them breathing techniques. You can even teach yoga to people who are in wheelchairs. Matthew Sanford, who is himself wheelchair-bound, is a wonderful yoga teacher who specializes in working with this kind of population. I've had the privilege of working with him and seeing how amazingly helpful yoga adapted for these individuals can be.

Ultimately, it's important to choose a type of yoga that's appropriate for you. The older you are and the more health issues you have, the less likely you are to get what you need if you just pick a random class. You're better off starting out with a private or a semi-private yoga lesson to get a sense of what's going to be good for you, or even get a customized routine suited to your specific needs. But if you're doing an appropriate style of yoga for you and practicing it mindfully -- particularly paying attention as you transition in and out of poses and focusing on the breath -- your chances of being injured are minimal.

Join Dr. Timothy McCall and other leading medical experts and yoga teachers for the upcoming free global telesummit on Yoga Injuries: Facts and Fiction.

To learn more about Dr. Timothy McCall and his books, see

For more by Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D., click here.

For more on yoga, click here.