The Minded Institute | October 4, 2017
Takeaway: Yoga helps improve flexibility, both physically and — perhaps more importantly — psychologically.
While our world has always experienced change, it’s fair to say that the rate of change has sped up dramatically in recent times. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the rate of human progress has been increasing exponentially.
Over the past 25 years, we’ve seen the birth of the Internet, driver-less cars and the emergence of artificial intelligence. The way we live has fundamentally changed, and we’ve had to adapt to entirely new concepts and social interaction. But as humans, are we designed to adapt to such rapid change, especially since we’ve also seen the number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety rise by almost 50 percent (according to the World Health Organization)? It’s a staggering figure and raises important questions around why this has happened.
To be sure, these are complicated questions, but one contributing factor is how adaptable we are to change, particularly in a world where there is so much uncertainty. Often referred to as psychological flexibility, how we perceive and manage change is an interesting concept, and how yoga can help is arguably even more intriguing.
Here we’ll share more background information on the concept of psychological flexibility and the ways in which yoga can help build this imperative mental pliability.
Psychological Flexibility Defined
In a 2010 research paper titled, “Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health,” Todd B. Kashdan came up with one of the simplest definitions of what psychological flexibility entails. The four main principles are:
- How a person adapts to fluctuating situational demands
- How a person reconfigures mental resources
- How a person can shift perspectives
- How a person balances competing perspectives and values
This ability to adapt to a particular situation, to shift our perspective and to choose the best course of action, is the foundation of psychological flexibility. Similar to the principles of Charles Darwin, those with the most resilience and adaptability are often the ones that can grow the most – and this is where yoga can help.
Letting Go With Yoga
Through yoga, we can learn the art of letting go, learning to live with the consequences and challenges that life can often throw at us. By embracing the unknown, and understanding that we can’t have the “ups” without the “downs,” managing or accepting change can be viewed from a different perspective – a perspective of understanding and acceptance that can make the concept of change much less daunting.
(Read more about The Freedom in Letting Go.)
This ability to shift mental states and develop our psychological flexibility turns out to be a fundamental aspect of our overall well-being. Columbia University psychologist George Bonanno found that in the aftermath of 9/11, the most flexible people living in New York City recovered quicker, and enjoyed greater psychological and physical health than their less adaptable counterparts.
The simple premise is that by acknowledging that life is full of change, it can become easier to confront things head on, learning from life’s lessons as you go and using any negativity to either motivate or adjust your own behavior. This mindfulnessapproach of accepting things as they are and then selecting the best course of action can move us toward the things that we value most in life. But it’s not always easy: change, it would seem, is a challenge.
(More on our aversion to change in Exploring Aversion.)
The Challenge of Change
While we’re designed to handle a certain amount of change, problems often occur when we’re overloaded with more change than we can handle. Whether it’s a shift in global politics, our personal life, or challenges in our careers, when the various pressures of modern life are added together, it can create uncertainty. All too often, it can become too much to bare and too much to process.
When faced with a change in our life, whatever it may be, the ability to use yoga to tune in to how our body is responding can give us valuable time to adjust. By focusing on the breath, we can increase the flow of oxygen, which in turn calms our nervous system and reduces our levels of stress almost immediately. Once settled, focused and with a calm mind, we can respond in a more positive manner in the light of uncertainty.
(Learn how to put these points to practice in How to Release Anxiety Using Breath.)
And it’s not just the nervous system where yoga has its benefits. Research by psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz from the UCLA School of Medicine reveals what actually happens in our brains when we experience change. When faced with a new challenge, an area of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex is activated. It’s the area of the brain that deals with planning, complex cognition and decision-making. Essentially, all the tools we need to deal with change.
However, using our pre-frontal cortex uses a lot of energy and when we get tired, our brain would much rather run off its hard drive, the basal ganglia. It’s a much more efficient part of the brain, uses less energy and it’s primary function is to store all of our saved memories and the repetitive tasks we frequently perform. Put simply, doing what we know is physically easier; it’s the path of least resistance and means that we can be less adaptable when faced with new challenges.
Training the Mind With Yoga
The beauty of yoga is that it can be used to train both the mind and body to adapt to new circumstances and new challenges. As you go through a workout, the prefrontal cortex is working hard to maintain your concentration and stillness. As you hold a posture, your mind is countering any response to stress, helping to keep it under control. As you practice, you get better at doing this even outside of the yoga room, and we physically can start to re-wire the brain, altering how we react, think and behave.
The key to flourishing in today’s environment, to be happy and content, is that we must learn how to embrace change. Thriving in a state of perpetual chaos isn’t easy, but yoga has been shown to positively affect ingrained behavioral patterns that are often difficult to shift, ensuring that the concept of psychological flexibility is an important tool that we can all learn and develop through yoga.
Embracing the Change
It’s likely that we’ve all been there before – the embarrassing “trip” as we stumble over an uneven floor, or even our own two feet. Aside from being somewhat embracing, the good news is that our physical dexterity can help us rebalance and recover our poise, hopefully before our “moment” ends up on YouTube.
How effectively we do this is, in part, down to how fit, healthy, strong, supple and agile we are. Through the virtue of physical exercise, we can become better at regaining our balance. And it’s the same with our mental health. By training, practicing and developing our mental health, we can bounce back from the adversities in life much more quickly.
Rising Above Change With Yoga
Through yoga, we can train the mind to be composed, rational and open to different ideas or ways of thinking. Psychological flexibility is all about looking at ideas in new ways or coming up with new solutions; and by using the yogic technique of mindfulness, we confront our thoughts, thereby gaining the ability to change automatic and ingrained responses to those thoughts instead. It inevitably becomes easier to take positive actions toward achieving our goals, even when we experience change in the modern world.