If you’ve been practicing yoga and meditation for a while, you may have noticed your habits and choices gradually changed during that period. For example, perhaps before, you ate a processed fast-food diet, but now you choose fresh, nutritious meals instead. Or maybe you were struggling to break an addictive behavior, but somehow yoga and meditation helped you replace it with a healthier alternative.
It is scientifically proven that yoga and meditation positively influence the Prefrontal Cortex and the Hippocampus, the parts that govern decision-making and forming habits. Therefore, yoga and meditation can help to break bad habits and create healthier ones.
But just how does this work? Is it the yoga asanas, the meditative aspect, or something else? Let’s find out.
Why are habits so hard to break?
Before exploring how yoga and meditation can impact habits and behaviors, let’s look at why we find it so challenging to break habits we know do not serve us.
Habits form through repetitively thinking, feeling, or acting a certain way. Our behaviors result from our subconscious programming and our emotional and mental conditioning. These patterns get stronger over time, so breaking a habit you have had since childhood is never easy.
When a habit is first established, neurons begin to fire together in a particular way. However, the more times a behavior is repeated, the stronger these neurons become, which is what makes it so tough to break a behavior once it has become a habit. To break the habit or set a new one, you have to rewire the programming in your mind.
Our habits also form our identity and the labels we give ourselves. As a result, we subconsciously seek out experiences that reaffirm our identity labels. So, if you have a negative self-image, with beliefs like you will never lose weight, you’ll be more likely to experience negative emotions like guilt and shame. These feelings are often the root of destructive behavior and unhealthy habits.
Another reason we struggle to break bad habits is because we lack the discipline and determination to do so. Sure, we may intend to stop smoking, but once the cravings hit, our willpower is not strong enough to resist them. Thus, we give in and end up back at square one.
How can yoga and meditation change your habits?
So now we’ve established that breaking a habit is a difficult task; how is it that mindful practices like yoga and meditation can make habit-changing easier? There are several reasons behind this.
Neuroplasticity and brain chemistry
Neuroplasticity is the ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function in the brain. Breaking habits involves modifying the brain’s neural pathways, so increasing your neuroplasticity is vital to breaking destructive behavioral patterns.
Yoga and meditation are a form of ‘self-directed neuroplasticity”, as the practices train specific areas of the brain and thus, expand and strengthen them.
Studies that have used electroencephalogram (EEG) to record brain activity have shown that meditation and yoga can strengthen the Prefrontal Cortex, Hippocampus, and Amygdala. These three parts of the brain play an essential role in changing our behaviors and habits by breaking old patterns.
The Prefrontal Cortex and habit control
The Prefrontal Cortex is the hub of higher cognitive functions, such as planning, decision making, abstract thinking, personality, and behavior. Research shows that a small part of the Prefrontal Cortex is responsible for moment-by-moment control of habits.
If the Prefrontal Cortex is well-toned, it can shut off bad habits by influencing where your attention goes and inhibiting your impulses. So, the fact that yoga and meditation change the neural pathways in this region of the brain shows that the practices literally have the power to break bad habits.
The Hippocampus and memory
The Hippocampus is another area of the brain that determines our habits. As it is responsible for learning and memory, a strengthened Hippocampus can help us break habits by replacing them with healthier ones, which many people believe to be the best way to do it.
As we know, habits are based on past memories, and the more memories we have of a particular behavior, the more likely we will perform it without effort or thought. A toned Hippocampus can transition short-term memory to long-term memory quicker, helping to consolidate new habits in a shorter time.
The Amygdala and emotional response
The Amygdala processes fearful and threatening stimuli and prompts an emotional response to them. It governs fear, aggression, pleasure, and contentment. Toning the Amygdala reduces fear-based responses, allowing you to think through decisions thoroughly before making a decision.
Therefore, as yoga and meditation lower the activity in the Amygdala, you’ll have less trouble saying no to temptation. Studies have shown toning the Amygdala significantly reduces anxiety, too, which is the root of bad habits for many people.
Mindfulness and presence
Aside from the changes to the brain chemistry during yoga and meditation, both practices promote presence and mindfulness. In this fast-paced society, we spend most of our time in our heads. We are often too busy thinking about the past and anticipating the future to be in the present moment. As a result, we do not allow ourselves the time to be still and notice what is going on around us.
However, in yoga and meditation, we practice being present by getting out of our minds and into our bodies. We focus on our breathing and observe what sensations we feel within the body. Some forms of meditation also involve connecting to the senses, which creates additional awareness.
As we calm our minds and become more present, we gain more self-awareness. For the first time, we may examine our lives and our behaviors. Changing bad habits starts with awareness, and yoga and meditation push us to become more aware. As a result, we uncover unhealthy habits and the problems we have been neglecting and gain the power to make positive changes to break unhealthy thought patterns or beliefs.
In addition, yoga and meditation help us respond better to stressors. As we have the tools to deal with stressful situations, we become less likely to give in to our impulses and resort to our bad habits. Instead of looking for an escape in food, alcohol, or Netflix, we are present enough to sit with our feelings and let them pass rather than resorting to destructive behaviors.
Discipline and willpower
Discipline and willpower are two essential qualities to break habits and create new ones. If someone lacks these qualities, they will find it extremely challenging to stop a negative behavior or follow through on building a new habit or routine.
Yoga and meditation make it easier to break bad habits because both practices strengthen your discipline and willpower. You do not feel the benefits of yoga and meditation after just one session; instead, it requires discipline to keep it up. The more regularly you do it, the better you feel, which inspires you to keep going. Then as you start to see the results, your willpower increases.
You might wake up one day and not feel like meditating, but you remind yourself of how you feel calmer throughout the day when you meditate in the morning. This self-discipline pushes you to do what you know is good for you.
Or, someone might invite you to a party one evening when you have a yoga class booked. But, you know yoga will make you feel better than a night of heavy drinking. Therefore, you find the willpower to turn down the invitation.
Naturally, the discipline and willpower you develop through yoga and meditation spill over into other areas of your life. By building a regular practice, you’ve already created new, healthy habits, making it easier to build other ones and simultaneously break negative behavioral patterns.
Movement of energy
Yoga (and dynamic meditations) moves energy through the body and releases physical and emotional blocks. Emotions are closely linked to many habits and addictions, so breaking up stagnating energy can help ease negative feelings. When an emotion loses influence, it becomes easier to say no and not give in to an impulse.
Some yoga postures are better at releasing emotional blockages than others. For example, hip openers like pigeon pose are associated with the sacral chakra and the water element, which are strongly linked to emotions.
Practicing hip-opening poses can bring up pent-up emotions and unconscious tension that could be keeping you stuck in your bad habits. This may feel overwhelming at first; however, it is part of the cleansing and releasing process.
The link between yogic principles and making healthier choices
A personal story
I was 21 when I first found yoga and meditation. At the time, I had an array of bad habits, from binge drinking to an unhealthy addiction to chocolate! However, it wasn’t long after starting yoga and meditation that I felt things change in my mind.
I gradually became conscious of the bad habits that, up until that point, had control of me, but now, were starting to feel less appealing. Without knowing how it was happening, I could feel the changes in my brain chemistry. What’s more, I always felt amazing after a yoga class or meditation session, and that feeling inspired me to implement healthier habits to feel that way more often.
Even before I delved deep into the practices, I had already made many positive changes in my life. I ate much healthier, prioritized sleep more, and even began choosing an evening yoga class over after-work drinks. However, most of my habit-changing can after I began studying the philosophy behind yoga. I started to reflect on the impact of my choices on myself, others, and the environment.
8 Limbs of Yoga
One of the powers of yoga and meditation is that it can positively change our personality. We become aware of how our lifestyle impacts the world around us and we seek to live more mindfully by making better decisions.
The Yamas and Niyamas (part of the 8 limbs of yoga) are guidelines on how to live in harmony with yourself and others in the world. When you live by the yogic principles, you naturally replace any negative habits with ones that positively impact the health and wellbeing of you and others.
For example, the first Yama, Ahimsa teaches to cause no harm to other living beings. This Yama is one of the main reasons many modern-day yogis become vegetarian or vegan, changing their unhealthy and harmful eating habits to better serve themselves, the animals, and the planet. Another example is the Niyama, known as Tapas. Tapas relates to self-discipline, an essential component of breaking bad habits and addictions.
Then there is the Yama Aparigraha, which can be translated as ‘non-greed.’ The teaching does not say that you have to entirely refrain from something you like, but that you should not consume more than is healthy or necessary. So, applying this to modern life, the Yama teaches that it’s OK to watch one episode of your favorite Netflix series, but perhaps you should binge-watch the entire series in one night!
How to use yoga and meditation to break bad habits
If you have identified a bad habit that bothers you, for example, laziness, and you are ready to break it, here are a few tips on how to do so using yoga and meditation:
- Identify your bad habit: Be honest with yourself about how your current bad habit negatively impacts your life. Then, envision the improvement you would see if you could get rid of this habit. This will help to stay motivated.
- Start with small steps: Set yourself small and attainable goals. This could be to meditate for 5 minutes after each yoga practice or to practice yoga Nidra before going to bed each night.
- Be regular: For example, schedule 30 minutes of yoga 3 times per week. Start with 5-10 minutes and slowly build it up if this is too much. You may find it helps to “block out” time for yoga and/or meditation in your calendar. Treat this “appointment” as if it is a meeting you can’t miss.
- Try different styles of yoga: There are many kinds of yoga and meditation. Luckily, all are available online, so you can start small and go at your own pace from the comfort of your home. When you feel ready (or simply curious), find a yoga studio close to your home and sign up for some classes. Meeting new people might motivate you to stick at it and replace the bad habit of lounging on the couch with a healthier one of moving your body and connecting to your breath.
- Be kind if you fail: While self-discipline is essential when changing habits, don’t beat yourself up if one day you don’t feel like doing anything. Forcing yourself is counterproductive as you will subconsciously create a negative association around the new habit you are trying to build. Rest is vital, and breaking a healthy practice for one day is not the end of the world. Even many athletes have “cheat days.”
- Start a diary or journaling: Journaling can help you track your progress and notice improvement, which will make you feel good and increase your desire to continue. Record the moments when you feel frustrated that you can’t do an asana or when your mind was too busy during meditation. When you read back in the future, you’ll notice how much you have advanced, which will make you feel proud.
The changes that happen in your brain when you practice yoga and meditation significantly influence how you see things and your decisions. While before, you may have been unconscious of an unhealthy habit, as your brain rewires itself, this comes to the surface, and you see the error of your ways.
Then, with the practice of becoming present and aware and the yogic principles of living in a harmonious, non-harmful, and non-greedy way, it’s no surprise that many yoga and meditation practitioners feel compelled to break their bad habits. As a result, they not only improve their health, happiness, and wellbeing, but they contribute to making the world a better place too!