Psychology

Why YOMI is always led by psychologists

Regular practice of yoga is, as far as the still quite thin body of research as well as the very thick empirical knowledge show, beneficial to us, both on a psychological and physiological level. It has helped numerous people feel better, get stronger, overcome sadness and grief.  

And yet, we as yoga teachers should be careful with what we make claims about and what problems we address in the yoga room.

A very important thing about being a licensed psychologist is that your license comes with a responsibility: ethical guidelines and a promise to practice in line with empirical knowledge and evidence. This is important because when we’re dealing with people who are suffering in one way or another we need to ensure that they get proper treatment. Therefore, we cannot make claims about the effects of something without having something to fall back on; research, empirical practice, health care guidelines. Even if we have your own experience of being helped by a certain thing or practice, we need to keep in mind that this might not be the case for everyone. This is tedious at times, but it’s also what makes it possible to do a good job and help people who might come from other circumstances than yourself.

One reason we’re not calling YOMI psychological treatment is that we simply don’t have the research to back it up (at least not yet). We can, however, say that YOMI seems to be beneficial both psychologically and physiologically, especially for people dealing with stress and worry.

It has been important to us to build YOMI on a solid theoretical and practical foundation. In order to make sure that we really use the psychological knowledge correctly, ensuring the quality of the YOMI practice, we early on decided that YOMI should be led by psychologists who are also trained yoga teachers. The psychoeducation in YOMI might not seem too advanced at a first glance, but it’s built on principles and theories that people have been researching since the greater part of the last century.

 It might seem like small things, but to us as trained psychologists, there’s a big difference between saying “don’t think about the negative stuff” and “observe your negative thoughts before allowing yourself to let go of them” (In psychological terms: the first one encourages avoidance, the second encourages defusion). There’s also a big difference between saying that we’ve seen in studies that YOMI Yin can lower people’s perceived anxiety and saying that YOMI cures anxiety. And not the least: knowing what we can deal with in the yoga room, and what we should refer to health care facilities.

Yoga and mindfulness are powerful and beneficial tools, but we should be humble towards what we have the competency to deal with and in what context. And as yogis, we should encourage ourselves and each other to stay open minded, but also remain a little critical from time to time in the yoga room.  

 

 

Managing stress: how to identify it and how to know what to let go of.

If you've been following us for a while you know that stress - or rather how to handle stress - is something that we deal with quite a bit. Both in our personal lives and in our YOMI work. 

We've written about how the sympathetic as well as the parasympathetic nervous systems work, and how these are related to stress. We've also written about how we work with emotions in our program YOMI Yin, which focuses on managing stress and worry, as well as a few posts about the practice of acceptance and gratefulness, two important tools in stress management.  

Yet it seems that there are more (endless?) perspectives, questions, tips and tricks when it comes to dealing with stress. On our instagram this month we've dug into a few questions regarding stress: 

What are three early signs of stress for you?
To manage our stress we first need to identify when we start to become stressed. How does it feel in our bodies? How do we act when we start to get stressed? What thoughts and feelings arise when we start to get stressed? Learning to notice these early signs and how they play out in our bodies is a good first step to manage stress in a functional way. For me early signs are usually feeling "messy" in my mind, shorter breath and a general tension in all of my body. These are clear signs that I need to make a few adjustments. 

What's the first thing you let go of when you're stressed? 
We usually get stressed when the demands of life are bigger than our available resources (may they be resources of time, energy, practical help or other). So it's completely in order to prioritise and leave some things for later. It's not uncommon, however, that we in times of stress start letting go of things that would actually serve us well in taking care of ourselves. Physical exercise for example, time on the yoga mat, time with our loved ones. 
In order to know how to prioritise well during stressed times we're helped by knowing which things that usually serve us well (we've written about identifying the function of our actions here ) so that we can remind ourselves what to really hold on to even when we feel like we don't have time - and what is completely fine to let go of when we prioritise. For me, in times of stress, I'm usually better of holding on to my yoga practice than holding on to having a perfectly clean home.  But even knowing this, it takes quite a bit of reminding to hold on to.  

It's a continuous practice as it is a continuous life. Let us practice and be kind and adjust according to what we need right now. 

Wishing you all a happy summer! 
Frida
 

Acting in line with your values, even on the rough days.

This month's text on values, by Maria: 

It’s a rainy Wednesday morning, the weather suited for my current mood. I am on my way to work to meet a handful of patients and I do not feel the slightest bit motivated.
The morning has started in the worst possible way: Before 8 am I have managed to come in conflict with both my partner and my two children. There's been yelling, blaming, nagging, endless discussions that don’t seem to lead anywhere. I have bitter thoughts in my head, and for a while it all seems hopeless. When landing in my seat on the bus, I wish the ride would never end -- but in 20 minutes I need to take on my professional glasses and show my patient, a person in a great deal of suffering, my engagement and empathic concern.

Something in the back of my head keeps nagging me. It says “Maria, this won’t lead to any good, the mistake is already made, settle with how you can repair what is broken and forgive yourself. Do something to distract you, use your time wisely!” I want to tell that annoying voice to shut up, put on sad music and pout. Instead I sigh, resign. By now,I know the voice is right. I pick up my phone, tell my partner I am sorry for acting out my stress on him. Ask him for forgiveness and to kiss the kids for me until I’m home again. I put on my compassion-app and listen to a guided meditation. It brings me calm, remind me of what loving-kindness and compassion can give me.

I come to think about the first patient of the day. A woman my age who is so hard on herself, never gives herself a break. I feel for her, want to help her see the benefit from being compassionate towards herself. I wish she could see what it has done for me. I put my hands up to my chest, try to get in contact with my compassionate voice in my head and tell myself  “What you did this morning was not great, but it was human. You were under a lot of stress and you have a hard time handling stress in the mornings. Choose to forgive yourself and let it not take over the whole day. Let yourself be of great use to your patients and colleagues and take care of yourself so that you can come home feeling content and with a lot of hugs in your back-pack.”

I start to wonder how I just a few moments ago could think about my work as horrible when really it is chosen with great care and is deeply meaningful to me. I wonder how my head could twist into thinking why I have chosen to have a family when there is nothing better in the world than to look into my children's eyes and feel their hands all over my face. I choose to not blame myself for these thoughts, they are merely thoughts, and they are human. This afternoon I will make up for the morning, I promise myself that.

Oh, good, I almost missed my stop sitting here with my head up in the clouds. During those steps to the office in the cold rain my mind has taken a new turn. I look forward to seeing that patient of mine and hopefully give her a way to let go of that self-criticism. I look forward to the meeting where we will plan for the future and I look forward to coming home to my family. The day might be hard, but being in contact with who I want to be and what I find meaningful makes it easier to get through the day even with draining energy. In the meeting with my first patient, I get to talk about compassion. When we do an exercise I remind myself about that this is something I need as well as the patient. In the meeting with my second patient, I get to talk about values and ACT and I get a reminder about who I want to be. After work, the kids are cranky and my partner and I are tired. I manage to remind myself about this morning; that is not who I want to be. After the circus of an everyday evening with two children, I lie next to my son. My mind starts to drift away to work and things that stress me. My son brings me back with his questions and needs. I remember to be thankful for it instead of annoyed like a was yesterday; that is not who I want to be. He gives me a big hug and snuggles into my arms and I just have to wait for him to fall asleep. Another day with disappointments, challenges, compassion and gratefulness has passed. 

Headstuck! A first step to reflect upon your values.

If you're following us on instagram (@yomi_psychology) you know that this month's theme is Values, which we'll dive deeper into as the month progresses. But to give you a first taste, do watch the video below, and reflect on where your own head might be stuck?

 

Exposing yourself to your emotions – how we do it in YOMI  

Unpleasant things are, as the word indicates, mainly unpleasant and unpleasantness is usually something we like to avoid. Which is fine enough, except when we can’t. For example when it comes to our emotions.

There are things in life we have much control over and then there are things we’d like to think that we control, but that we in all honesty don’t. Our emotions fall into the latter category. Or to be more specific; our emotions are something we can regulate and approach in different way, but that they’re hard to avoid altogether.

One of the basis in YOMI is the assumption that we can’t avoid suffering, but we can find ways of dealing with emotional as well as physical pain, and we can gird ourselves with tools to approach the unpleasantness that life offers – potentially reducing the length of our suffering. In behavioral therapy the concept of exposure is one of the most powerful methods we use to help people deal with things they are afraid of. If you're scared of spiders, we expose you to spiders, it you're scared of riding in an elevator we expose you to riding in an elevator. And in the YOMI practice we use the same principle of exposure, but apply it primarily on our inner states, practicing to stay with whatever inner sensations, may it be thoughts, emotions or physical reactions, arise during our practice.

Say for example that I’m in a YOMI class, in a challenging yoga posture (perhaps “Saddle”, which you can see below) and I know that I will be in this posture for at least a few minutes. My first impulses might be to get out, to change the posture or to give up. Thoughts that arise might be “this is so uncomfortable”, “how long will we stay here for?” and “I hate this, I hate myself”. Emotions that show up might be fear (of what’s going on in the body in the position) and anger (at being in the class at all, or at myself for not being as advanced in my practice as I would’ve liked to be).

In our everyday life we often act on our initial impulses in order to avoid the unpleasant emotions and thoughts. “If I get out of the position I won’t have to feel scared or upset”. This will give us a temporary relief, but in the long run it might make us more afraid of feeling unpleasant feelings. Which might make us avoid even more situations where unpleasantness might arise. Which might make our lives more limited. And so on and so on.

And since emotions arise within us they’re hard to avoid, no matter how much we may try.

Life sometimes offer unpleasantness, pain and sadness, we may as well prepare ourselves the best we can. One way of doing this is by practicing exposure to our own emotions. Staying with them, breathing through them and observing them without reacting to them. In this example staying put in the position, letting whatever arises arise, allowing for it to be there, giving it space, reminding ourselves that all emotional states are temporary, that they all change eventually even without our meddling. On the contrary, they usually change quicker if we don’t meddle in too much. This non-meddling, non-reactive, non-judging approach to our emotions is something that intellectually might make sense, but that practically requires continuous practice and courage. And that is exactly why we’re here - to help you practice through it.  

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Why we will never tell you to “just be positive”.

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 Not to ruin the mood for anyone, but we have to be honest about one thing when it comes to YOMI: we’re not preachers of a happy-go-lucky attitude, and certainly not of a ”just think positive” one. To be honest, there is an abundance of various life coaches, mindfulness entrepreneurs and health profiles that try to sell the message that it’s up to you to change your thoughts, and that your life will be amazing once you do.

Here’s why that won’t be the recipe for a large number of people, and why saying that we can control our own thoughts can be both guilt-inducing and counterproductive:

  • Ignoring thoughts don’t make them go away
  • People have spent centuries trying to get rid of unwanted thoughts and emotions, usually with the result of more suffering in the long run.
  • Worrying does in certain cases serve a purpose for us: experienced security, even if this security is imagined more than anything
  • If you’re a worrier thinking positive probably won’t make you feel good, it will probably make you feel terrified

So, do we think that everyone should just let the negativity, catastrophic thoughts flow freely? Not quite, but we do think that we should make space for whatever arises in us, both good and bad stuff – and practice how to take care of ourselves even in hard times.

Shortly here’s what we propose:

  • Accept that your brain will continue to produce thoughts for as long as you live. This is what our brain does and likes doing the most.
  • Just because thoughts are produced doesn’t mean that we need to place any value or emphasis on them.
  • There’s a difference between avoiding thoughts and acknowledging that they are there, but without reacting to them. Doing the latter is usually more beneficial for us.  
  • Sometimes life sucks, a lot of the times life is hard. It would be stranger if this didn’t affect us than if it does. This is perfectly fine – hurtful, but in order. When we allow ourselves to be with what is, even pain, it usually subsides after a while. All emotional states eventually pass and shift.  

When we in hard times intentionally shift our gaze to what’s still working, beautiful, desired, lovely in our lives we help our brains detect the small stuff that usually get hidden when disaster strikes. By helping our brains do just that we also help our minds widen their perspective by allowing positive and negative thoughts and emotions exist side by side. We help our minds become more flexible in seeing that things seldom are black and white, but that there’s always at least a ray of light in the darkest of times, as well as a streak of darkness in the lightest of times. And that this is perfectly well.

 

Acknowledging what you have, even if you’re lacking - on the practice of gratefulness

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That gratefulness is a skill that can be learnt, rather than an inhabitant personality trait, is by now fairly well established in the research literature. More so,

When things get tough, when we’re feeling depressed or highly anxious we have a tendency to view the world more in black and white, than we usually do. This is simply how our brains work when we’re under stress or pressure; it temporarily loses the ability to be flexible. Adding on to this is the tendency our brains are pre wired with to be more susceptible for negative stimuli than neutral or positive.

With that reduced ability to stay flexible we tend to err on the negative side of things, getting so caught up in what’s not working or what we’re doing or have done wrong that we no longer see that there might also be things that are working for us.

Keyword here is also. If things are rough they are rough, and sometimes there’s not much we can do about that. Sometimes sad things happen, sometimes life sucks, as do several aspects of this world. But that doesn’t mean that all is black, lost and meaningless. It does however mean that we need to help ourselves and our brains out a little bit.

Widening our perspectives
By practicing gratefulness; intentionally acknowledging and focus on things, however small, that we are grateful for, we help our brains out. Even if we still have that tendency to automatically detect negative thoughts, emotions or situations, with practice we can help strengthen the parts of our brains that notices what we still have, what we still love, what we still are grateful for. Allowing for glimpses of light and warmth into even the toughest of moments.

How to start practicing gratefulness
Each day set aside 5-10 minutes – preferably at a time when you have time to sit down without interruptions – to remind yourself of three things that you are grateful for. Things that are working for you, things that you have done well, kind things someone has said to you, or that you have said to someone else. May it be that it switched to green just as you came to the intersection or that you got to drink an especially nice cup of coffee this morning. That a friend asked you how you were or that your children gave you a hug.

When you have reminded yourself of these three things allow yourself a moment to sit with the feelings that arise while reengaging with these small memories, breathing in gratefulness, breathing out tension. Slowly strengthening your own gratefulness practice.

 

Inspirational tip: Brené Brown

One of our biggest sources of inspiration is the American researcher Brené Brown, who's spent many years studying what constitutes a meaningful life for people. Which led her to closer examine shame and vulnerability. 

Apart from having written several books that are worthy of reading, she has a few Ted talks that really shifts your perspective. Give yourself a treat and 20 minutes of getting inspired: 

On being good enough

You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.
— Brené Brown

When I went on parental leave I struggled for the first few months with the demands I had on myself to make the most of my time off from work and achieve as much as possible. Behold, seven months of not working! What a glorious opportunity to do all those things I never have time to do: sort through papers, organize the computer, read through all those scientific papers piled up, develop a new YOMI program, hell, develop two new YOMI programs, get back into shape, meditate, read all those books on the reading list, maybe even write a book. Because when will I ever again get the chance to have this many months off work ever again?

You know how plans can seem quite reasonable as long as they are just that: plans for a future you yet haven’t experienced. Enter: reality, everyday life and endless interruptions to the plan. External as well as internal interruptions; baby crying, mind wandering, facebook tempting, news feed upsetting. Sometimes it seems life is nothing more than a long line of interruptions to the plan. Annoying, irritating interruptions we wish to get rid of.

But perhaps the real issue here isn’t how to get rid of the interruptions, but rather how we deal with them. How we act towards ourselves when things don’t go as we had laid them out. And this is where the self observation can get both interesting and painful. How do I react when things don’t go as planned? How do I talk to myself when I lack focus or motivation? How do I talk to others who, perhaps unintentionally, interrupt?

It seems we often tend to blame ourselves, others or even life itself for the things that come in the way of our planned achievements. Like it’s some sort of failure that the plan that is life needs constant revision, rather than the plan being flexible to start with. Like we are failures when we don’t achieve all that we set out to do. Like we are insufficient if we’re not perfect. And with that the struggle goes on.

But if we shift the perspectives and acknowledge that we are imperfect to start with, but that this imperfection doesn’t make us any less worthy, doesn’t make us anything short of being good enough, maybe that’ll make it possible to start viewing the interruptions as a part of the plan, rather than obstacles to it. Perhaps it even enables us to make room for interruptions in the original plan. That it – the plan that is – and we ourselves are good enough without achievements, are good enough whilst just being. That the level of good enough should lie wherever we find ourselves every day. That just where we are, just where life is, is good enough. Wired for struggle but worthy of love and belonging.

Practicing acceptance – what my post partum body taught me

For the better part of my recent pregnancy I continued a regular yoga practice. Modified of course; a growing belly doesn’t allow for deep twists or backbends, prone positions or core engaging asanas. But continuously going into the well known postures, flowing through sun salutations and resting in a deep squat helped my body feel surprisingly strong and flexible, even with the extra weight and bump that naturally comes with carrying an extra person inside of you. That said, the longing for my regular, non-pregnancy, practice grew stronger as the pregnancy approached its final stages. Oh, to be able to lie on ones belly again! To do a proper head stand and wringe out in a deep twist.

Somewhat naively I thought that once the baby was on the outside, my body – and with that my practice – would go back to its normal ways, shape and strength.

Skip forward to two months post partum: where there was once abdominal muscles there’s now something vaguely resembling a core. What once was flexible now stiff from hours of breastfeeding in awkward positions. Post natal practice is something different than a pre pregnancy practice. A post partum body acts differently than a pre pregnancy body.

Discrepancy between expectations and reality offers a great, but often painful, opportunity to observe one’s reactions to obstacles, to not getting what you want. How we react to obstacles and setbacks varies, between individuals, but also between different situations. Some have a tendency to react with anger and irritation (“stupid body, why don’t you do as I tell you to?”), where others tend to react with worry (“what if I never will be able to go back to my old practice”), yet others with shame (“how embarrassing that I can’t perform even these simple asanas”).

While all of these reactions are common, normal and mostly automatic, they seldom serve us well. Serve us well in the sense that they help us continue on our desired path or foster our well-being.

When reality presents us with challenges, one of our most helpful tools is acceptance. Reminding ourselves that it is what it is, even though it may not be what we wished for. Acceptance to help us continue, starting where we actually are, rather than trying to work from where we wish we were.

In my case: accepting that my post partum body is exactly what it is; strong in some areas and weak in others. Changed by having carried and given birth to a child. Affected by not having practiced certain asanas for almost a year. This is what reality looks like right now, whether it seems fair, good or desired.

Because once we reach that acceptance and let go of our perceptions of how we wish things were, we have a better opportunity to start reacting to whatever we encounter with less anger, worry or shame and instead with more curiosity and even appreciation. Curios about the fact that we don’t quite know what awaits us on our path and appreciation for getting to experience what may come.

YOMI research published – on the art of perseverance

 

2017 started off not only with the birth of a child, but also with the news that our article on the first study on the effects of YOMI Yin got accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Anxiety, Stress and Coping and is now available online: Yin yoga and mindfulness: a five week randomized controlled study evaluating the effects of the YOMI program on stress and worry. Not only is this the first article on YOMI, it is also the first scientific study that has evaluated effects of Yin Yoga, which we're both surprised by and proud of.  

It has been a long process pulling this all together over several years, with plenty of little bumps in the road on our way. Many times it has forced us to remind us about our valued direction; what is important to us when it comes to our work with YOMI and why. To keep putting one foot in front of the other, or rather one reference after the other to slowly reach acknowledgment in a peer-reviewed journal. To persevere in order to reach a goal that has importance. To remind ourselves that the satisfaction after a thorough work process is blissful.

Without getting into a rant about how the scientific publishing world works, sufficient to say that the article won’t be available open access (we are very pro open access, firm believers that the results of research should be available for everyone), simply because we don’t have thousands of dollars to pay the fee. For anyone with access through a university or other academic institution, the article is available here.

We also have a few copies available for those who are very interested in our research, in YOMI and in future studies. If so, please contact us on kontakt@yomi.nu

Our mission for YOMI has always been to have it be a method that has some scientific ground, not relying merely on our own personal experiences of the practice, but also on the more objective evaluation of western science. With that in mind, this article is surely something to celebrate!

Nurturing a better self-care: Introducing the concepts of ”topography/form” and ”function”

Most of us know that taking care of ourselves generally is a pretty good thing to do. Feeling well and helping yourself to feel well makes intuitive sense.

In therapy, when we as psychologists bring the issue of self-care up, a lot of clients look at us and burst out: “Oh, you mean I should go to a spa or something?”. Or they quickly say that they have been to the spa several times, but it didn’t make them calmer at all, on the contrary it made them even more stressed.

It seems as if taking care of oneself is not always as easy as it seems, and that taking care of oneself is a concept that has a lot of misconceptions and notions tied to it. Like the one of self-care equaling going to the spa, or getting a facial.

Not surprisingly though, what’s nurturing for one person might not be so for another. While going to the spa might make me calm, going for a run, to a sports game or even watching some TV might do the trick for my friends. So how do we know what works for us, and if we don’t, how can we start to find that out?

In order to nurture a better self-care we can start by getting acquainted with two concepts from the behavioral psychology: form/topography and function.

When we start to look at different behaviors we can describe them in various ways. We can do it by looking at their topography or form, namely what they look like from the outside (for example “watching TV”, “eating an orange”, “taking a bath”). The topography of a behavior is comparable to drawing a map of the behavior, of what we can observe from the outside.

But if we want to get closer to learning about what is a nurturing and self-caring behavior we shouldn’t be too blinded by what we see from the outside, but rather start looking at what functions our behaviors have, what motivates us to do something. If I do something, say, go for a run, it will make a difference whether I do it because I’m scared of gaining weight or because I genuinely love being outside and feeling my body move. Even though the run will look exactly the same from the outside it will in these two examples serve different functions. If I call a friend due to not wanting to feel alone it will serve a different function than if I call him due to wanting to speak to him and hear about his ongoing life. Behaviors that look exactly the same from the outside can serve us in very different ways, varying between people or even between different times for the same person (one time looking at TV might serve the function of distracting me from negative thoughts, whereas the next time my motivation might be that I’m interested in the show that’s broadcasted).

So this is the reason why going to the spa not necessarily equals self-care for everyone (note: to make it a little bit more complex, one behavior can of course serve more than one function, but there is usually a primary motivation behind it). If we want to nurture a better self-care we need to look deeper into our behaviors than their topography, and try to peel away our conceptions of what taking care of oneself should look like. And instead try to get to know what taking care of ourselves feels like, so that we can start looking for behaviors that nurture that self-caring feeling.

We will get back to this subject several times, digging deeper into it with the main purpose of better nurturing our own self-care. But as of today you can start by noticing and observing, not only what you’re doing (the topography), but also what your primary motivation behind doing something is; what function the behavior serves. 

Yoga as part of a psychological treatment - a personal reflection

For this week's blog post, YOMI co-founder Maria shares some personal reflections on bringing yoga into the therapy room:

Working as a clinical psychologist and yoga instructor, I early on realized how easily these two fields can connect to one another. I always use my knowledge from one when I’m working with the other. Not so say that one doesn’t have to be careful with what pieces of the yogic tradition you bring into the therapeutic room and how you use these tools.

As a psychologist, working primarily in the primary care, I meet a lot of people who are feeling stressed, worried or who are more severly affected by anxiety or exhaustion. Many of these people have a hard time slowing down, resting without sleeping and letting go of things that bother them, like thoughts, feelings and destructive behaviors.

 Many of the psychological treatments for these conditions include different ways of learning to relax. I find yin yoga to be a great tool for this! Not only because it in itself is a way to relax the mind and body, but also because it is a way for the mind and body to become more connected. Many people who worry, suffer from anxiety or exhaustion experience troublesome physical sensations and – more troublesome –  often fear these, which makes their suffering even worse. Yoga can be a way to, once again, become friends with your own body; learning how not to react to it and its sensations as if it were an enemy or something disconnected from you. Instead, one might learn, what an incredible tool the body can be, alerting you when you are expanding your own perception of what you thought you were able to handle.

 Even if yoga and breath control is not as easy as pressing a button, it certainly does a good job moving you from a place of arousal, to one of relaxation. Working on becoming aware of the breath, slowing it down, has many times been proven, through experiences and science, to be an effective way to induce certain processes in your body while disconnecting others. And maybe this might be why yin yoga is such a powerful tool in stress and worry reduction; it continuously allows the practitioner to work with the breath and body, connecting the mind to all physical sensations in order   to encourage the relaxation response to start. In our program YOMI yin, we explore the effect of psychoeducation, mindfulness and yin yoga, on people who experience stress and worry. A few scientific studies down the line we’ve just submitted a manuscript the we’re hoping will be ready for publication shortly, and then of course shared here on our web page. Until then we will sit down on our mats, gently fold forward, hold the position for 3 to 5 minutes, and breathe. 

Facilitating behavioral change: establishing a daily practice

If there’s something we psychologists know it’s how hard it can be to make behavioral changes. If it weren’t then this world would look a whole lot different, your life would probably look a whole lot different.

We’re creatures of habit, lovers of the path of least resistance and automatized to the point of in many ways resembling an autopilot that has set out across the ocean, navigating us through our daily lives.

Luckily, something else we psychologists know are a few tips and tricks on how to facilitate the desired changes in our behavior. And, lucky for you, one of our aims with YOMI is to share whatever knowledge we have that might make life easier for just about anyone who’s interested. Hence: this series of blog posts called “Facilitating behavioral change”, fresh with psychological knowledge and research, applied on our yoga and meditation practice, in our regular everyday stressed out lives.

When getting into yoga and meditation, whether it be through a more structured program such as the YOMI program, via a youtube home practice or the occasional yoga class at your gym, most people eventually become more and more intrigued by the thought of establishing a daily practice: a daily sadhana. Which, due to our somewhat habitual and lazy nature, can be easier said than done. Establishing new habits usually requires a bit of effort, but can be facilitated by a number of things:

·      Take small steps: the hard part of creating a daily practice is usually not so much the actual “practice” part as the “daily” part. If we focus too much on the practice being big, advanced or strenuous, chances are it’ll be hard for us to keep up on a daily basis. Rather, when starting out, try to take smaller steps in the beginning, gradually building your practice. Start with a shorter practice, using only poses and exercises you know well. When establishing a daily sadhana five breaths on your mat everyday actually is more beneficial than one and a half hour of advanced asanas once every other week. 

·      Create a good space: It might sound like an obstacle that shouldn’t have much impact on your own willingness to practice, but not having a good space to set up your mat or meditation pillow will decrease the chances of you practicing on a regular basis. People are fairly easily conditioned (as much as your average dog or rat), and our brains love to make associations between activities and certain places (e.g. associating our bed with sleeping, our dining table with eating, and the bathroom with brushing our teeth). So much that it can help us get sleepy when we are nearing our bed in the evening. Creating and condition yourself to a certain place for your practice is a good helper. It doesn’t have to be fancy, you just need to know where to roll out your mat, and that this preferably is a place where you have room to raise your arms, and not be disturbed by too much noise or other people. If you want to cozy it up, go ahead, see that as a bonus, but not as a required.

·      Keep your things handy: When NIKE claims “Just do it” they’re probably not thinking about that in order to do it we need to take a few steps first. Such as getting into the appropriate attire and finding our blocks. The rule usually goes that the more accessible your needed stuff are the likelier that you’ll do it. If you do your practice in the morning, set up your space and lay out your clothes the night before. Keep your mat visible, it’ll remind you of your practice. (Remember the previous step about creating a good space, and about how the brain loves to associate things with each other, such as your mat with you doing your practice).

·      Be humble towards the fact that you have a whole other life to live – but adapt accordingly: Few of us have the luxury of leading lives where time seems to come in abundance. We are usually quite busy, especially the one’s of us who seek out yoga and meditation to help manage our stress levels. And in some ways life is what it is; we won’t get rid of certain daily chores, our kids will need picking up from school at certain times each day, our bosses might keep giving us the evil eye if we slip home early too often from work. So, while you get ready for making that really big life change of downsizing or quitting your job (or if you’re just quite happy with keeping things fairly much as they are, but would like some more time for yoga), stay humble towards the fact that life is there, and it’s requiring quite a bit of you. But learn how to adapt accordingly. What time of day would be the easiest for you to practice? Are you a morning person enough to get up half an hour earlier and roll out your mat? Are you an evening person that would benefit from winding down with a night time practice? Is it possible to come into work later and staying later, giving you some more time in the morning? Are you willing to give up a bit of TV time in the evening to practice?  Do what suits and do what works for you, it’s usually a good guideline to increase your chances of getting on your mat. And that’s really what it’s all about: getting you onto your mat and start breathing. Once you’re there you can gradually build the rest. 

​ Yoga won’t always make you feel good - and that’s exactly as it should be

In most yoga schools establishing and keeping a daily sadhana (daily practice), including both asana and meditation, is highly encouraged. Often this daily practice is talked about as the foundation for one’s yogic development and an essential part of getting closer to the 8th limb of yoga; Samadhi. The quote by famous yogi Sri Pattabhii Jois: “Everyday do your practice and the rest will come”, is something that yogis worldwide believe in and live by.

There is however, in a wide array of yoga circuits (not the least on facebook and instagram), a fairly well established culture of spreading the message that yoga will somehow automatically and every time you do it make you feel great (a quick search on the instagram #yogaeverydamnday offers captions where expressions such as “nothing in the world compares”, “you always have a choice” and “feeling grateful as hell” are amongst the first to pop up.) And while this of course at times is true, it certainly is a bit of a modified truth. Sometimes yoga doesn’t give you that incomparable feeling. Sometimes we don’t have a choice when it comes to the state that things around us are in. And gratitude usually takes quite a bit of hard work, and does not always naturally pop up at the end of our practice.

But – and this is an important but – there is sometimes (note: not always) an important difference between what feels good and what serves us well. There’s also often times an important difference between what feels good short term and what is beneficial for us in the long run. Sometimes yoga doesn’t feel good; not at the beginning of practice, not during and not even after. Sometimes it stirs up emotions, sometimes your body’s sore as hell, sometimes you haven’t slept all night and are exhausted, with your mind occupied by thoughts about the fight you had last night with your partner. In the short run, sometimes, yoga might even make you feel worse – sad, irritated, frustrated and disappointed. This doesn’t however necessarily mean that your practice hasn’t served you well, and that the benefits of it won’t come dripping down into your life later on.

One of the skills we need to develop, as yogis, but also in regular life, is to learn and get to know what it is that actually serves us well – even though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it in the moment. And equally learn what doesn’t serve us well, even though it really feels good in the moment. As psychologists this is something we continuously work with our patients, particularly patients suffering from depression and anxiety: finding out which things are meaningful and beneficial for you, and finding a way of getting them into your daily routine. Sticking with them even when you feel like rolling back into bed and skipping life altogether. Learning to trust that sometimes it’s enough to know what’s good for you, adapt accordingly, and be patient as the benefits might not show up until a while later. Or in other words; Everyday do the practice that serves you well, and the benefits will eventually start pouring into your life, even if it sometimes feels like shit in the moment.

Getting to know your autonomic nervous system: how the body fights and flees.

Since we humans in many ways are a product of evolution, one of the main jobs for our bodies and brains over the past million years or so has been to ensure our survival. Part of this has entailed developing a highly effective system that allows us to, say, run from lions or fight against (less intimidating) enemies. In these attempts we have to hand it to evolution to having been fairly successful; developing the part of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system (also called our fight-or-flight-system), which is backed up by the parasympathetic nervous system that on the other hand is responsible for our recovery, relaxation and basically taking it chill once the danger is gone. With these two being part of the autonomic system, they’re usually systems we don’t control voluntarily, but rather ones that switch on and off, and swing between the one and the other, all adapted to what our internal and external circumstances look like. When in sympathetic activation our heart rate increases, breath becomes shallower and faster, the muscles tense and we become hyper aware of what’s going on around us. And on the contrary, parasympathetic activation allows the muscles to relax, heart rate to slow, breath to become deeper and slower, and the body to attend to its repairing functions such as memory retention, the immune and digestive systems. Basically the things that will get us ready for the next time we may need to fight or flight.

Somewhat simplified it goes something like this: Danger appears, sympathetic activation switches on. Danger subsides, parasympathetic activation switches on. We run when lions are present and we rest when lions are absent. So far so good.

Enter: the evolved human brain. Here comes trouble. In numerous ways:

1.     One thing to remember about the brain is that while being a killer at solving advanced, abstract problems, it’s unfortunately less than perfect when it comes to differing between dangers that are real and dangers that are imagined. Hence, both a real lion running towards us and an imagined lion running towards us will activate the sympathetic nervous system. This causes a bit of problem since we’ve developed a language that allows us to imagine all kinds of hypothetical situations whilst being in a context that from the outside looks perfectly fine and safe (e.g. lying in bed and suddenly go into a string oframbling thoughts such as “what if my boss doesn’t like the work I do”, “what if I don’t fall asleep, I’ll be so tired tomorrow, I won’t be able to work”, “why haven’t my partner called yet, what if he was in a car accident, what if he’s dead?!”). And regardless of your cozy pillows, safe neighbourhood and a bedroom with the perfectly adjusted temperature, these thoughts are very likely to trigger your body into sympathetic activation. The brain just isn’t all that good at knowing when danger is real and when it’s imagined. 

2.     Social exclusion is considered a real danger. Even though it may not be associated with immediate danger of death to be excluded from your social sphere, there probably was a time when being left out in the cold was. Remember, our brains have in many ways far from caught up with our current society, especially when it comes to their initial reactions. Therefore any signs of social exclusion, of being disliked or dismissed are interpreted as potential dangers, triggering the sympathetic nervous system. Our perception of our social belonging fairly directly affects our bodies and our perception of the rest of the world. Researchers Zong and Leonardelli even showed in a study that the mere thought of a memory when people have felt socially excluded will influence their perception of the current room’s temperature. Being liked seems to be so important to us that it’s really hard to relax when we think we’re not. (And since the brain is crap at differing between what’s real and not, you can see how these to things in combination is a real haven for the sympathetic nervous system to run wild in).

3.     It may sound as though having a sympathetic nervous system is all bad. It’s not. Remember the lions running towards you. We should all be happy that we have an efficient system that switches on when we need to focus for an exam, jump away from a full speed car or even do something usually pleasant as, say, get married (that’s right, the sympathetic nervous system switches on just as much when the thing we need to prepare for is perceived as positive). And it’s not bad for us to be in sympathetic activation; we can for shorter periods of time manage just fine with less sleep, less food and even less frequent visits to the bathroom (sleeping, eating and pooping are pretty much all bad things to do when a car is about to hit you). The real trouble begins when we get stuck in sympathetic activation. Our bodies and brains aren’t really wired to cope with that. They’re more adapted to having a lion run towards you, but then disappearing (if you were lucky enough not to get eaten, that is), leaving you some space to relax and recover. It seems though that today we have perceived lions running towards us most all the time. Only today we call them deadlines, to-do-lists, social engagements, life goals in need of being achieved and blog posts needing to get written. The tasks never ends, and neither do our thoughts. When we get stuck in fight or flight, the body and brain will eventually start paying the price of not having the opportunity of attending to highly important functions such as memory retention, the digestive system, immune system and reproductive system. After a while it will start to show up as troubles concentrating, remembering, bowel issues and increased illness.

To sum it up: we do need our sympathetic nervous system, but it’s pretty bad for us to get stuck in it – we do need that parasympathetic part of the nervous system to keep us balanced and restored. Luckily, the concept of the autonomic nervous system being completely autonomic isn’t entirely true. There are ways of consciously switching on the parasympathetic nervous system, tapping into the relaxation response, which we’ll dig deeper into in a future blog post.