Fitness Magazine

Positive Psychology and Yoga, Part 3: Growth and Change

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Sandy

Positive Psychology and Yoga, Part 3: Growth and Change

New Growth by Jamie Wyeth

Positive psychology is built on the promise that we can increase our own happiness. A leading theory suggests that forty percent of our happiness is based on our own choices and behavior, with another forty percent biologically determined by the brain chemistry that we inherited and the remaining twenty percent based on our life circumstances. This theory points to the very appealing possibility that we can intentionally boost our own happiness by as much as forty percent! Two key concepts of positive psychology, positive interventions and growth mindset, give us methods and tools for doing just that. Positive Interventions and Yoga

Positive interventions are intentional actions and practices, such as gratitude practices and mindful savoring of positive experiences, aimed at increasing our own well-being, either in the moment or overall. Positive psychologists have studied which of these practices accomplish this most effectively, and there are currently a dozen research-backed positive interventions, with more being studied. The idea that intentional practice can offer us some control over our own emotional state—that it might help us ride emotional waves more skillfully rather than simply reacting to the ups and downs of ordinary life—is nothing new to yogis. Even newcomers to yoga are frequently amazed by how much better they feel after just one class, and this is often their primary motivation to continue practicing. This was certainly true for me and I’ve heard the same from many of my students. And if we have learned anything from regular practice, it is that we can positively affect our own well-being on our yoga mats. Each of us is our own laboratory in this regard, continually experimenting with and testing, over time, a set of tools called asana, pranayama, and meditation to find what works for us as individuals. This, for me, has been one of the greatest benefits of developing my own practice, rather than relying on classes for my yoga fix. This is also why one of my central interests in positive psychology is the connections now being made between the science of happiness and mind-body science. Although traditionally mental and physical health have been treated separately, treating them synergistically has proven to have many benefits. For example, studies have shown that for many people exercise can be as or more effective as medication for preventing or treating depression, and that for those who do need pharmaceutical anti-depressants, the medication is significantly more effective in conjunction with an exercise program. My work in this field largely centers around my belief that mind-body dualism (the long-held view of mind and body as separate) is an entirely false construct. In fact, there is no actual discernible boundary between mind and body. As animals, we evolved to be able to move, and our minds are fundamentally movement based. Put simply, what is good for our bodies is also good for our minds, and there is a growing push in positive psychology to add the physical dimension to the definition of flourishing. We yogis experience this profound connection for ourselves through our practice, as the complete integration of mind and body. The majority of practitioners recognize that the sense of well-being we feel after practicing goes far beyond the physical and that feeling better in our bodies boosts our overall mood and brightens our days. Science increasingly backs this up with research that shows significant cognitive, emotional, and mental health benefits result from exercise, improved nutrition, and time spent outdoors. Happiness may be many things, but one thing it definitely is, like all emotions, is a biochemical state. Looking back, I realize that even before I found my way to yoga and long before I discovered positive psychology, I instinctively used the mind-body connection as a positive intervention for myself. As a tween and teenager, I would often escape my somewhat chaotic, difficult home life to go for bike rides and long meandering walks through the Berkeley Hills and Tilden Park. These were opportunities for me to be in my body as well as peacefully alone with my own thoughts (ah, the 1970s, when kids were still allowed to have unsupervised time). It is clear to me from this vantage point that I was self-medicating with exercise, the very definition of a positive intervention! Discovering yoga in my twenties gave me a wonderful avenue to continue with that throughout my life. Positive Intervention ExerciseA mini vinyasa (moving in and out of two poses with your breath) can be a simple and refreshing two-minute mood-boosting break and an opportunity to tune into your own mind-body connection as a positive intervention. Try raising your arms overhead with an inhalation and lowering them again with the exhalation. Or, try moving from Tadasana (Mountain pose) into Uttansana (Standing Forward Bend) on your exhalation and returning to Tadasana on your inhalation. Repeat either of these movements five or ten times in a row, really focusing on your breath as you do. Growth Mindset and YogaGrowth mindset is another key positive psychology concept that yogis will recognize. The basic idea of growth mindset is that rather than being fixed, intelligence and aptitudes can be grown through conscious effort. I think this is also something yoga practitioners learn organically when encountering a challenging pose. When we persevere and continue to work on it, we transition from thinking “I can’t do this” to “oh, wow, I’m getting better at this!” to “this once impossible thing has become comfortable for me!!!” I personally found the standing poses extremely daunting in my early years of practice, and honestly hated Parsvakonsana (Side Angle pose) for a long time. I remember being astonished when I realized it had become much easier for me, and that I no longer dreaded it. And after having this experience a few times, the initial “I can’t do this” changes to “I can’t do this yet.” Over time this teaches that the benefits, learning, and growth we get from taking on new challenges are worthwhile in and of themselves, even if we never reach a sense of ease in a particular pose. The journey, process, and exploration are indeed the point, or fruits, of the practice, rather than achieving a desired pose or collecting new asanas. This is growth mindset in action. For me, learning to apply the growth mindset I’ve learned on the mat to other areas of my life is another way I’ve felt empowered by practice. A recent example that I’m very proud of is getting an A in my grad school statistics class. I always identified as a “bad at math, good at humanities” type of person, and stopped taking math in high school as soon as I could. I was pretty intimidated at the prospect of having to face that statistics requirement after having left math behind over 40 years before. But the statistics requirement was unavoidable for my degree, and succeeding was deeply important to me, so I buckled down. I don’t know that I could have approached it with the same fortitude had I not learned the value of persevering through lived experience on my mat. Applying Growth Mindset Perhaps you, too, have yoga poses you once found challenging, or even hated, that you made friends with over time. It can be very affirming to remind yourself of these, and even more so to recall times in your life when you rose to an occasion or accomplished something you didn’t think you could do, especially when you encounter a new challenge. Is there something you are facing in your life now that would benefit from applying this same growth mindset? Maybe there is a new habit you would like to implement or something related to the many challenges of the pandemic? The Science of HappinessPositive interventions and growth mindset are concepts are just a couple of many connections I see between yoga practice and the science of happiness, and they are tools that I hope will be useful to you. I’m continually grateful that I found my way to both yoga and then positive psychology, and hope that drawing on the two disciplines, I can help us continue to answer the questions of what we can do to be happier and how we can learn and grow throughout our lives. For information about Sandy’s classes, writing, and positive psychology journey see to Yoga for Healthy Aging by Email ° Follow Yoga for Healthy Aging on Facebook ° To order Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being, go to AmazonShambhalaIndie Boundor your local bookstore.

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