Despite that yoga is an age-old tradition, one that began primarily for self-under- standing and spiritual growth, only recently have the interrelations of behavior and yoga begun to emerge in scientific research studies, these often being focused on specific areas such as addictive behavior, weight loss, lifestyle, stress, and anxiety. One commonality across studies is that the body-mind-spirit practices of yoga enhance awareness, cultivate commitment and discipline, and increase self-acceptance, all of which are vital components to life-long behavior change.
Addiction specialists in private practice, rehabilitation programs, and 12-step recovery programs recognize that the mind-body-spirit approach of yoga is a great adjunct therapy to conventional treatments for drug, alcohol, and food abuse as well as addictive behaviors like gambling and shopping. Yoga treats the biology and the psychology of an addict.1 Yoga also helps with the many reasons people relapse while in recovery (stress, anxiety, depression, boredom, inadequate coping strategies), while preliminary findings from studies regarding yoga and psychiatry indicate changes in neurophysiological and neuroimmunological measures.2 Further, yoga targets unmanaged stress, a main component of chronic dis- orders such as anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes, and insomnia. The practice enhances resilience and improves mind- body awareness, which can help people adjust their behaviors based on the feelings they’re experiencing in their bodies.3
As articulated through various yoga and behavior research studies, changing one’s behavior is much more than willpower; change is a dynamic process that requires not just preparation for the journey ahead, but a deep understanding of one’s thought patterns, beliefs, and how those patterns and beliefs are actualized.
As we explore the ways in which our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are habituated, we move away from the victim mentality of “Why is this happening to me?”and evolve to more penetrating questions, such as, “What does this pattern have to teach me?”
This largely explains why my own experience of weight loss did not lead to an automatic 10 on the self-evaluation scale: my body had changed, but only through the deeper practices of yoga did my psyche change. Aside from the fact that exercise such as running or lifting weights is generally a competitive, goal-oriented activity and yoga is an inward, process-oriented activity, yoga offers psychological benefits including an increase in subjective wellbeing, greater self-acceptance, improved self-actualization, and a decrease in hostility (in other words, an increase in the practice of ahimsa).4 Sustainable change requires that we continually evaluate ourselves to uncover the subtle attitudes and beliefs that drive our behaviors.
The body-mind-spirit practices of yoga enhance awareness, cultivate commitment and discipline, and increase self-acceptance, all of which are vital components to life-long behavior change.
In Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward, the authors reveal that one weakness of generalized therapies is their reliance on select techniques without many individualized alternatives. Changing for Good notes that change is a fluid process and moves through six consistent stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination.5 While the stages and processes identified in this book delineate a roadmap for successful change, they simultaneously offer malleability for people to individualize their processes for greatest effective-ness and growth. The personalized process is analogous to yoga therapy, which empowers individuals through the teachings and practices of yoga to maintain a consistent practice that increases self-awareness, engages their energy in the direction of desired goals, and changes their relationship with their condition.6
Yoga’s Path to Truth
Similarly, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras offer a roadmap for change with a comprehensive analysis of how the workings of thought trap us in misconceptions about ourselves and the world as well as a scientific yoga system of observances and disciplines to clear the mind of accumulated experiences and memories that bind us to pain and suffering. The eight limbs of yoga provide tangible, predictable methods that build awareness about how we treat ourselves and create clarity around the impact of our thoughts and behaviors. In the model of yoga therapy, the physical body is the vessel with which we experience the world around us. More often than not, we become so preoccupied with the body that our ability to look inward is diverted. Yoga therapy intimately links the body to personality and emotion, often paralleling various methods of behavior therapy where therapeutic sessions begin with a process of relaxation so that one can become more clearly aware of internal states.7
Through yoga therapy, we move beyond our stories and into a space of expansiveness and truth. At its foundation, the eight-limbed path of yoga cultivates discernment and expands our ability to witness our experiences. The practice challenges our beliefs, guides us gently to our edges, and then expands the boundaries of self. In this way, yoga is the doorway to the contemplation and consciousness raising required for any person to embark upon change and sustain new behaviors. In correlation with the behavior model’s pre-contemplation and contemplation stages, yoga helps us create a sacred, nonjudgmental space and cultivate a discerning mind to observe the potential causes of suffering. Patanjali states that, “when impurity is destroyed by practicing the limbs of yoga, the light of knowledge shines in focused discrimination.”8
The discerning mind is imperative to understand the grooves of our conditioning, also referred to as samskara. Samskara is the unseen force that paralyzes us just when we are ready to forge ahead.In terms of behavior change, without recognizing samskara, we are apt to become chronic contemplators or cycle through the contemplation, preparation, and action stages over and over and wonder why we are not reaching our goal. Repeating samskara reinforces them, creating a groove that is difficult to resist, which is why we cling to habits, remaining in patterns of unhappiness and lacking fulfillment.
Strong similarities exist between theyoga path and the behavior-change modelused by successful self-changers. Eachmodel represents a change frameworkthat begins on the inside: our ability to lis-ten deeply and cultivate self-awarenessallows us to learn about our own personal-ities and patterns so that transformation isinitiated from a sense of true self ratherthan at the behest of a voice that shamesus into change; the latter only works todeepen the grooves of our samskara. Themodels teach us how to communicatefrom that place of depth, receptivity, andhonor, increasing our ability to listendeeply; ask inquisitive, thoughtful ques-tions; and see where we hinder our ownability to listen/receive and perceive thatwhich blocks our ability to see truth.Responsible freedom arises when wechoose to change our attitudes or behav-ior for the best reason(s), regardless ofconditioning, belief systems, gratification,or pleasure. Our fullest freedom emergesfrom choosing that which enhances ourlives, cultivates a deep and true sense ofself, and enhances our relationship to theworld at large. From a place of truth,transformation begins.Intellectual insight that does not travelbeyond the mind and backfill the groovesof conditioning seldom translates intochange. Transformation happens onlywhen we acknowledge the energeticunderpinnings of all experience and shiftthe energy in a way that elicits evolution.The day I began training for that halfmarathon, my body had already signifi-cantly changed with the loss of nearly 100pounds and greater strength. Yet my self-image and sense of self-worth still carriedmuch of the weight of my story. It wasn’tuntil that fateful silent run that I began tomore fully understand that the burden Icontinued to shoulder came from the pat-terns of my samskara. That story of worth-lessness had become my sacred wound,enshrouding any sensibility and sense ofreal self-worth. Yoga therapy is not a one-size-fits-allproposition, and it took twenty years of adedicated yoga practice to unveil the sam-skara that for so long kept me bound tomy low self-worth. “Revolution doesn’thave to do with smashing something; ithas to do with bringing something forth. If you spend all your time thinking about thatwhich you are attacking, then you arenegatively bound to it. You have to findthe zeal in yourself and bring that out.”9To evolve into our greatest selves is notabout simply exchanging one thing foranother, like getting a dress in a smallersize. Yoga therapy has the potential toreveal all layers of experience without dis-missing or discounting that which we findunappealing; specifically, Patanjali’s pathgrounds us in a greater truth thatreshapes an image of unworthiness to areflection of liberation and freedom.