I started doing yoga in the late 90s because I wanted to look like Madonna. Who didn't want to look like Madonna in the 90s?? It didn't take long for me to realize the mental and emotional benefits that came along with this physical practice. It physically was a cardio and strength workout, but internally felt different than lifting, running, or doing cardio classes.
I continued my yoga practice, but really did not connect it to my study of psychology and relationship well-being until much later.
As I was finishing degrees in psychology and counseling with a focus on couples and family a shift was happening in the field of couples counseling. I'll try to make this short and sweet. Many long-held theories started revising, and even renaming, their theories instead of just putting out a new edition with the same name. For instance, one of the most popular and empirically supported treatments, Cognitive-Behavioral Couples Therapy, became Integrative Behavioral Couples Therapy. Why? [...]
Well, some new research in the field of affective neuroscience (the science of the brain and emotions) found that we couldn't just focus on cognitions (thoughts) and behaviors and expect big change...especially in relationships. Because of the immeasurability of emotion it had largely been ignored in theory and practice within couples counseling. WHAT??? I know. Sounds crazy, right?
Here's the game-changer. Researchers discovered that your emotional state is pretty darned important when it comes to your thoughts and behaviors. In fact, they found that the emotional centers (amygdalae) in your brain get first crack at incoming information and have the ability to OVERRIDE the ability for judgment and behavior. It's called the "amygdalae hijack".
This is why when we're calm we're better able to judge what behavior or thought patterns will be efficacious; but, when we're emotionally charged, that part of our brain is literally turned off. Most can relate to this and it explains why we do and say things in arguments that we "didn't really mean." Or why we can navigate friend's lives better than we do our own; we're not as emotionally attached to the outcome.
With this information it was impossible for relational theories to ignore the role of emotional states and the renaming and revamping of old theories began.
The human brain is a complex 3lb organ wired in ways that are yet to be fully understood. We are not only affected by our brain and its hard-wiring, but it is also affected by our experiences.
Practice makes perfect. We've all heard this expression. What do you do when you want to get better at the piano? or golf? Practice. This is because our brain likes repetition. Synaptic connections are more likely to fire the more they are used. What does this mean? The more you do something the more your brain is WIRED for it. The more you're stressed, the more your brain is wired for it. The more you're relaxed, the more you brain is wired for it.
This is why despite learning new insights or behaviors we often persist in self-defeating behavior or irrational thoughts and actions. Our brains are wired for it.
The habitual ways we emotionally react and respond to relationship stress are wired into our brains too. And this has an impact on everything we think and do within our closest relationships. So lets start re-wiring.
Yoga is practicing calm in the face of intensity. The way the brain is wired can be modified for better or for worse. Consciously creating a practice of calm has been shown to literally change the brain. A study by Aftanas and Golosheykin (2005) examined the brains of people who had practiced mindful yoga long-term with EEG at rest and while watching video clips that induced negative emotions (maybe kitties getting run over? SEE, you had a reaction do that, didn't you?) and compared them to people who didn't have a mindful yoga practice. This study provided the first empirical finding that participants engaging in a mindful yoga practice had different BRAINS. Their brains were better at remaining calm in the midst of negativity and induced emotional arousal.
And who emotionally arouses us more than the people we love the most?
Mindful practice (yoga or meditation), deep nurturing attachments, and effective therapy all modify neural structures in the same way, allowing us to more effectively regulate our emotions and their take overs, creating more balance between emotional and logical parts of the brain.
My study of this research has forever changed the ways I think about and work within relationships. And there's SO much more. People often ask me, "What do I DO?" I could tell them what to do but until we cultivate a certain "yogi-like" perspective and non-attached state of mind I know that these behaviors and thoughts don't stick.
It's a lot more empowering when we can cultivate the state of mind and clients can realize their own solutions and get really clear about their wants and needs. And this is where the relationship yoga begins. It doesn't happen over night...it's a practice. And then big things start to happen. Clients often think I'm magic, but I just clear the space for their magic to happen.
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