Yoga for Emotional Balance: What Gets in the Way of Change?

There’s no doubt about it—humans are creatures of habit. There’s also no doubt that yoga positively impacts our capacity for change. In this excerpt from her book, Yoga for Emotional Balance, Bo Forbes shows us how.

Do you ever begin a conversation with someone close to you with the best of intentions, knowing where the minefields lie and resolving to take the high road, only to find yourself becoming agitated and angry within minutes? Have you ever vowed to begin a new romantic relationship with good boundaries, and then given so much that you lose all sense of who you are? Changing emotional patterns is a difficult endeavor. It has little to do with motivation, or even insight. It has everything to do with what kind of experiences we have most of the time, and how they influence our wiring.

The conscious mind frequently recognizes that negative patterns hurt us. Often, we even know what we need to do about them. Yet despite this recognition, things can stubbornly stay the same. Many of the wisest, most perceptive people I know work hard to make the changes they desire, yet lasting change often eludes them. The complaints that have sounded most loudly in my ears include:

“Everything’s great when I’m talking to you here in the office, but a few hours later, I’m right back where I started.” “I know what I need to do, but I just can’t seem to do it.” “I’ve got every reason to be happy, but that doesn’t change how I feel,” and “I know I need to relax, but stress gets in my way.”

A Grand Canyon-sized gap exists between knowing what to do and doing it, between mental understanding and the real-life experience of change. As a psychologist and yoga therapist, I’ve spent a good deal of time contemplating this gap. Why does it exist? Why can’t hard-won insight or a good yoga class immediately transform us? The answer is simple: the mind-body network constantly patterns and refines our emotional experiences in a particularly powerful way. Whether we’re aware of it or not, this network uses repetition to strengthen the patterns of anxiety and depression.

Why Do We Get Stuck in a Rut?

Psychology and yoga philosophy each study the formation of habits through repetition. Both seem to agree that we are born with and also develop a menu of exceptionally powerful patterns: mental, emotional, neural (related to the wiring in our brain), physical, and behavioral. In yogic terms, these patterns are known as samskaras. The word samskara comes from the Sanskrit sam (“complete” or “joined together”) and kara (“action,” “cause,” or “doing”). Our samskaras make up our habits, our conditioning. Psychology would call this “repetition compulsion.” Yet both terms indicate that the toughest negative patterns can compel us so strongly that we have almost no choice but to repeat them. Each repetition engraves an anxiety or depression samskara more deeply into our consciousness. Samskaras can be positive: we might make a habit of acknowledging mistakes, accepting accountability for our actions, or honoring our own and others’ needs. They can also be negative: we may mount an offensive attack rather than admit we’re wrong, blame others for our actions, or serve others’ needs to the exclusion of our own.

We are creatures of habit: the mind, body, and other emotional systems all naturally incline toward patterns. This is because our bodies, brains, and nervous systems are designed to maintain homeostasis—to keep things the same—even when we wish they wouldn’t. In an anxiety pattern, for instance, the nervous system incessantly sounds the alarm, even when we know intellectually that there’s nothing to worry about. In a depression samskara, our self- concept might stubbornly gravitate toward self-disgust or shame, despite constant reassurance from people who love us.

Many of my students are quick to see the negative potential in samskaras. They assume them to be bad and resolve to “get rid of” them. Yet there’s no escaping samskaras. Most of us cycle through certain ones over and over again throughout our lives. These become our “signature samskaras.” Yet when we do the hard work of self-study and becoming present, we cultivate different, less destructive, and healthier patterns.

The Body Contributes to Emotional Pain

Like all elements of the mind-body network, the body participates in creating emotional patterns. I recently taught on yoga for anxiety at a national conference where Peter, one of the participants, demonstrated this well. In Downward Dog Pose, Peter drove his shoulders and head aggressively toward the mat. With each breath, he bounced his body farther toward the floor, ignoring the loud signals of neck and upper-back tension that had caused him nearly two years of suffering. He expressed great interest and comprehension when I showed him how this pattern of movement—of forcing an action that his body couldn’t safely do—created chronic neck pain. He really seemed to get how this chronic pain and stiffness increased his anxiety. I showed Peter how to lift his head and shoulders away from the floor, engage his core muscles, release his neck, and allow his entire body to participate equally in the pose. He practiced this new way of doing the pose with relief, and even remarked how great it felt. Yet a few poses later, he was back to his old Downward Dog. As I helped him adjust again, he chuckled. “Why can’t I get that?” he asked. Hours later, in the afternoon session, there he was again: impelling himself toward the mat, contracting his neck and shoulders with such force that he was barely able to breathe.

I encouraged him to use his body awareness to rediscover the brand-new version of Downward Dog that we’d created together. When the afternoon session ended, he remarked how hard it was to remember the changes. “The old way is incredibly easy to slip into,” he said. “It’s automatic.”

Peter’s persistent movement pattern, like all patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, didn’t stem from a lack of desire to change. He knew intellectually that his habitual way of moving caused pain and stress. But just beyond his awareness, his body kept repeating these painful movements. Peter was practicing yoga in a way that reinforced the very patterns he wanted to change. I see this tendency in so many people. It’s important to appreciate how long, and in how many ways, we’ve traced and retraced our mind and body patterns. It’s equally important to recognize that with awareness and attention, we can unlearn them.

Our Capacity for Change

Given their irresistible magnetism and the stealth with which they attract and wire in new experiences, can we really learn to rewire our patterns? The answer is yes. We can rewire the mind and the body. Neuroscientists have a lot to say about this rewiring, which is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s extraordinary capacity to transform with experience. Amazingly, it all goes back to the idea of—you guessed it—repetition. When we commit over time to a pursuit such as yoga, our brains forge new connections, grow new cells, increase cell size, or enhance cell activity, among other things. The brain transforms when we repeatedly practice a skill such as playing the piano or hitting a baseball. It also builds patterns through yoga’s therapeutic tools: in particular, breath, relaxation, meditation, and postures. We can’t avoid repetition; the way we use it, however, is critical. We can take a positive tool (such as deeper breathing) and practice it over and over again to create positive emotional patterns.

© Bo Forbes. Used by permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Bo Forbes, PsyD, E-RYT 500, is a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and integrative yoga therapist whose background includes training in biopsychology,...

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