illions are practicing yoga these days, and as a result, legions are living happier, healthier lives all around the globe.
But as good as this news seems, it could be a whole lot better.
That’s because the yoga that is so often being practiced in today’s world turns out to be but a faint shadow of the full and mature science of mind that yoga truly is. That is to say, people could be getting five, ten, or a hundred times more out of their yoga, if only they were being taught about some of the things the ancient yogis taught thousands of years ago.
We hope the insight below provides some understanding into how yoga can offer us much more possibility than we ever imagined.
You're always practicing something.
Twenty-four years ago, I was a young Zen student at the San Francisco Zen Center and found myself four days into a grueling seven-day intensive meditation retreat involving rising each morning at 4:30 and spending sixteen and a half hours in various forms of meditation, ritual, and service. Then, rinse and repeat.
One day just after morning service, a lapse in my practice had me forgetting a bit of basic Zen protocol, something my Zen teacher immediately called me on.
“You know the practice invites us to engage mindfully as we move around the monastery grounds.” He gently corrected.
Reflexively, ego wanted to cover my tracks, so I replied “Of course, I do. It’s just that I was taking a little break from practicing.”
My teacher smiled…and was having none of it. “You know, Eric, it may feel that way, but in truth, we are always practicing something. There is no time off.”
Of course, my teacher was pointing to an important, but infrequently mentioned fact.
It’s that Zen (and yoga and meditation and mindfulness) are so powerful because they actually alter our nervous systems.
You see, thousands of years ago, the ancient yogis realized something that modern science has only recently come to know: the brain and, in fact, the entire nervous system, is an incredibly moldable thing. Its habits, its thoughts, its reactions, even its physical structure can be changed.
This phenomenon, called neuroplasticity by scientists, opens the door to each of us being able to dramatically influence the quality of the lives we lead—quite independent from our external circumstances.
This is why our yoga can literally transform our entire lives.
Yoga’s repetitive practices influence the programming in our nervous systems and uproot the sabotaging habits of mind that are the source of so much unnecessary agitation, frustration, and worry in our lives.
But there’s good news and bad news here.
Because of neuroplasticity, the brain is a lot like a sponge: it’s always soaking up its experience; it’s always being programmed. That means in any given moment, one of two things is occurring.
We are either…
1. Reinforcing the positive habits that provide more ease and happiness.
Or we are…
2. Reinforcing the sabotaging habits that derail our best lives.
Like my Zen teacher said: “There is no time off.”
So, when I was mindlessly blundering about the Zen monastery under the guise of “not practicing,” rather than saying that I was not practicing mindfulness, it would have been much more accurate to say that I was practicing mind-less-ness.
I was literally programming my nervous system to be more distracted, agitated, and unsatisfied.
So, what does all of this have to do with portability—and our yoga practices? Well, it’s this.
Even the most enthusiastic among us, those who practice for, say, two hours every day, are fighting a losing battle. It’s simple math.
While we may practice yoga and meditation for a couple of hours a day, each one of those days also contains twenty-two other hours during which we too often fall back into sabotaging habits of judgment, distraction, worry, and such.
Because of this, we spend much of our time undoing what our yoga practices are designed to do. We are unwittingly reinforcing the very habits that poison our lives.
So, what to do? Surely, we can’t be expected to practice yoga and meditation for hours and hours every day?
Our answer is lies in portability. We need to take our yoga practices with us into the world.
Here’s the thing that too many of us forget:
We don’t have to be in a yoga posture to forge a more mindful way of connecting to the beauty of this moment. We can do it by choosing to focus on our breath rather than our phones while wait in line.
We don’t have to be faced with a wobbly balance posture to develop acceptance of ourselves and our world. We can do it by pausing, taking a breath, and making space for others who express conflicting points of view.
We don’t have to be in the yoga studio to reinforce a habit of kindness. We can make a point of smiling and making eye contact with the checkout clerk, , saying good on the hiking trail, or allowing that car trying to get into our lane to pull in front of us.
All of these actions have the effect of altering the way our nervous systems respond to the world—and how we feel physically, mentally, and emotionally.
That’s why, as I move through my day, I often ask myself, “What am I reinforcing now?”
Am I programming my nervous system to create more calm, joy, and fulfillment in my life, or am I programming it to feel more distracted, anxious, and dissatisfied?
When we connect with the reality that our every thought, our every perception, or every word and action is literally reshaping our brains, we’ve taken our first step to forging the kind of life we’ve always dreamed of.
Eric Walrabenstein is a best-selling author, the founder of Yoga Pura in Phoenix, Arizona, bestselling author, and the creator of the BrightLife yoga program for craving & addiction. Learn more at www.ericwal.com.