Three Major Health Benefits of Mindfulness and Mindful-Yoga
You may remember the skit on Saturday Night Live with Will Ferrell as he walks onto the stage “we need more cowbell!”
I am as persistent about “we need more mindfulness!” If I could, without risking looking ridiculous, and counterproductive, I would walk through town with a cowbell shouting; we need more mindfulness.
Mindfulness allows us to become more resilient to emotional adversity, physical pain, more present to joy, and more efficient at work. Mindfulness teaches us to engage with our friends, family, and profession in a way that is more productive and emotionally rewarding. I am not the only one saying this; at the latest count the number of scientific research papers published on mindfulness in 2017 alone is close to 700, and interest in this research field is growing exponentially.
Mindfulness works by increasing our capacity to bear discomfort. This may not sound like a whole lot of fun, but it is, and the reason why is hidden in our neurobiology. Our mind developed in a way that we cannot suppress a specific emotion. We cannot choose to feel only the good and numb the bad. When we try not to feel the “negative” emotion, we repress the joy, the passion, and the fun. Thus, learning to mindfully feel and direct emotion will lead you towards a heightened experience of happiness while you learn to tolerate the adverse moments better.
Yoga is a wonderful way of training the brain to be more mindful. Now, you must be careful, not all yoga is created equal, and with the popularity and commercialization of the art, a lot of yoga is anything but mindful nowadays. Starring in a mirror while judging your waistline, pushing past 110F while keeping up with the 20-year-old Cirque du Soleil graduate is not what I had in mind when I mentioned yoga…
So what do I mean by mindful? Let’s look at mindfulness through its three major benefits.
Benefit 1 – Mindfulness Increases Emotional Well being
Thoughts and emotions are to the brain as weightlifting is to the muscle. When you work, exercise, parent, do anything while being critical, competitive, judgmental and angry, then those are the brain connections that you are strengthening. Mindfulness teaches us how to feel an emotion honestly and direct the mind to constructive thinking and breath; this is a tricky concept to learn. For example; I often hear yoga teachers say, “don’t judge your ability.” Though these teachers mean well, they just made you think of judging yourself. The brain works by a negative feedback loop, therefore inadvertently introducing the concept of judgment to the thinking brain will direct the mind to think about judgment. The mind should always be guided to a healthy focus, not reminded what not to do… It is a subtle difference in teaching and thinking that can create big changes in how we feel.
Benefit 2 – Mindfulness Increases Muscle Strength and Tone
Studies have found that by paying attention to moving a muscle, as in really feeling what it is that you are doing, the muscle fibers became stronger. A recent research at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine indicated a link between brain function and muscle strength; when using mental imagery exercises. They found that simply imagining movement can prevent muscle loss after prolonged lack of activity such as being in a cast.
In other words, next time you go to the gym turn off the television, the loud music and instead pay attention to what you are doing! You will get more out of your workout if you pay attention.
Benefit 3 – Mindfulness as Pain and Addiction Management
Much like how the brain learns emotional habits, the brain can learn to “feel alert, anxious, and painful” towards an experience. This is the culprit of our current opioid epidemic. Yoga can reduce the perception of pain by helping to regulate the pain signaling mechanisms located within the brain while increasing secretion of serotonin and other natural painkillers in the body. Breathing exercises used in yoga can also reduce pain and the associated anxiety by releasing tension and activating the parasympathetic nervous system leading to a reduction in the stress response, and the relaxation and meditation benefits of yoga are an antidote to the stress and depression that often accompany chronic pain.
Bottom line, we can all benefit from doing things more mindfully, and practicing mindfulness-based yoga is a great way to train your brain to provide a more joyful and meaningful life.
This blog was written by Dora; she teaches yoga and mindfulness classes. She owns Spira Power Yoga in Issaquah and West Seattle. Her company M3Bmethod also lectures on resiliency and stress management to healthcare professionals.