Spending quality time with family, friends, and community—while also staying open to new relationships—is the secret to a happy, healthy life. One of the most powerful ways to forge more vital, lasting connections: yoga.
Take a walk through any public space, and you’ll spot more than a few people moving about as if they’re in a trance, staring down at their smartphones while weaving through the crowd, or mind-melding with their digital tablets as they shop, dine, or ride the train. All too often, contact with others is taking place over text, Skype, or email—not face-to-face. It’s a dramatic shift from the way things were just a few decades ago. For example, a 1987 University of California, Los Angeles survey found that almost 40 percent of the school’s freshmen spent 16 hours or more per week socializing with others in person; today, just 18 percent of UCLA’s freshmen devote the same amount of time to doing so. Digital communication has, for many, become a default mode, while hanging out “IRL” seems like a throwback—a trend that’s a bit worrisome when you consider that getting together with pals has significant benefits for our health and well-being.
Strong, broad-based social support (the kind you tend to develop via in-person interactions) increases your odds of living longer by 91 percent, according to a review of 148 studies conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University. Close connections also have a proven impact on survival or quality of life for people facing health issues like cancer, stroke, dementia, depression, and diabetes. Being embedded in a community is biologically reassuring, experts theorize; it confers a protective effect that actually seems to boost immunity and fights stress and inflammation.
“Intimacy is healing,” agrees Dean Ornish, MD, president and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute (PMRI) in Sausalito, California. He adds that there’s “something really powerful” in being able to share your authentic self with others, instead of just a carefully curated Facebook profile or Instagram snapshot. In his work at PMRI, Ornish helps facilitate social intimacy for people with heart disease using “love-based interventions”—sessions that combine support-group meetings and yoga and meditation classes with healthy meals and workouts. He typically has patients practice yoga before they get together in their support groups, which encourages more meaningful conversation during the meetings. “At the end of a yoga and meditation class, you’re feeling more peaceful, which helps you access your feelings and express them without fear of being judged,” Ornish explains.
Forging significant connections without such guidance can be a little tougher, but it’s absolutely possible. Harvard University’s Study of Adult Development, which tracked the lives of 724 men for up to 76 years, offers insight into what can happen to an individual’s personal habits over time. Encouragingly, the study reveals, it’s never too late to change course. People can and do rewrite their life scripts midstream, intensifying ties with family, friends, and acquaintances—and that can bring physical and emotional rewards. You don’t need a whole village around you to reap the benefits, either: “Any community can be healing, whether it’s one other person or 1oo,” notes Ornish. “It’s really about sharing your experiences with others.”
For yoga lovers, your mat may be the easiest, most natural place to start. Whether you practice alone or in a group setting, yoga can help you meet and bond with people who share your aspirations, interests, and perspective on life. As you embrace your passion, you also open up to connecting with those in your life, acknowledging your common humanity and intensifying your capacity for joy. Why not use this great tool to create the relationships you crave? Whether you want to begin new friendships, strengthen existing ties with loved ones, or serve strangers through seva (selfless service), yoga can provide an assist. Here, four powerful ways yoga can help us all connect.
Yoga primes you to make new friends.
It’s surprising how often we unconsciously prevent ourselves from meeting people who might be important to us. We get caught up in our own personal dramas, memories of past slights, and lingering worries, which clouds our ability to see that others are yearning for connection. Yoga helps clear away the cobwebs of past experience; it opens our eyes to the present and transforms our point of view. “Yoga positively impacts your mood, psychological functioning, and focus,” says Angela Wilson, a faculty member at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, who’s long studied yoga’s salutary effects. “You feel better mentally, more ready to go out into the world and make friends.”
In 2014, Wilson joined a team of researchers convened by Kripalu to examine exactly how this happens. In the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, they explained that yoga operates on multiple levels—through asana, pranayama, meditation, and philosophy—to keep our minds and bodies in peak condition, which can make engaging with those around us easier. Some studies, they added, suggest that yoga further optimizes the workings of the vagus nerve, a bundle of fibers that extends from the top of the spine through the respiratory system and GI tract and that affects your heart rate, breathing, and other physical processes. As your yoga practice grows, you may see improvements in sleep and digestion and find that you’re more adept at regulating stress, controlling emotion, and directing attention.
“We see self-regulation as really key to social functioning,” says Wilson. “People who feel imbalanced or anxious may deliberately isolate themselves because it’s unpleasant for them to be social; they feel their interactions won’t be as successful. But if you’re able to regulate yourself, you’re more likely to reach out.”
When stress mounts, taking a moment to breathe and tune in to what you’re feeling, as you would in yoga class, can prevent irritability, stave off conflict, and promote harmony. In fact, mindful breathing may be your best tool in tough situations, since it activates areas in the brain’s frontal lobes that heighten calm and concentration. “It’s like putting on an emotional sling,” offers neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, MD, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia and co-author of How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain. And practicing yoga and pranayama regularly over time can make you more responsive to your environment and the people in it. You may not only feel more alive and enthusiastic, but also be better able to go with the flow, which will buoy you in social situations.
Scientific studies indicate that to keep your nervous system balanced, short, frequent bursts of yoga are better than longer but less-frequent sessions. To fight anxiety and better connect with others, aim for 10 to 30 minutes per day of yoga, experts suggest. And to put yourself in a more relaxed frame of mind before a first date or any big social event, at least 60 minutes prior try to fit in a restorative yoga class—or any class emphasizing slow, deep, conscious breathing.
Yoga strengthens your existing ties with friends and family.
One of the most awe-inspiring aspects of yoga is the way in which it nudges you toward greater discovery—not only by making visible previously hidden aspects of your own character, but also by illuminating areas of your relationships that could be explored and further strengthened.
Yoga starts by asking you to be fully present, a skill that’s a boon for relationships, says Kate Feldman, co-director of the Conscious Relationships Institute in Hesperus, Colorado. “Most people are so busy that to simply be, to look at each other, to listen carefully, takes focus they don’t normally have,” she says. “We ask our clients to put their phones away, to stretch, to breathe. The natural effect of the practice leads your heart to open and makes you more available to connection.” \
Your body also divulges a wisdom when you’re doing yoga, which can come in handy when dealing with challenges later on, says James Murphy, director of the Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York. “The next time you’re in a yoga class, consider: What happens when you bend your leg this way, or that? Are you being too aggressive? Are you creating resistance? Are you giving enough?” In your daily life, ask yourself similar questions when a conversation becomes difficult or heated. Checking in with yourself like this can help you navigate conflict and reset conversations. It makes you more thoughtful, less reactive.
Inviting loved ones to practice yoga with you could trigger further breakthroughs. In her counseling work, Feldman asks clients to perform tandem poses. “They always laugh and say: ‘Oh, my knees!’ or, ‘Oh, my hamstrings!’ But their heart rates go down—and afterward they hug on impulse,” she says.
Promote the flow of positive energy in your relationships with this exercise from Elysabeth Williamson, founder of Principle-Based Partner Yoga in Santa Barbara, California. Sit in a quiet place and rub your hands together in front of your heart. Feel the heart energy growing in your hands, and then slowly draw them apart—they should be tingly and magnetic. Tune in to the sensation, basking in its healing power. (To practice as a couple, sit facing each other and turn your warmed palms toward one another.)
Yoga provides you with an instant community of fellow yogis.
There’s a beautiful moment that frequently occurs at the heart of a big yoga class, when everyone’s listening to the teacher and transitioning through poses in unison. Sinking into that wonderful group energy amplifies feelings of safety and trust; it seems like you’re in a sacred circle, taking part in a great communion. “There’s a sense of, ‘We’re all here doing this together. I’m not an outlier in this world,’” says Robert Jon Waldinger, MD, director of Harvard’s Study of Adult Development.
At yoga festivals, retreats, teacher trainings, and even in local classes, there’s a real bond that spreads among a group of yogis who’ve chosen the same type of experience. Murphy sees it happen all the time in his Iyengar classes: “People forge communities. They become friends for life.”
You can definitely feel that vibe at Bhakti Fest, a yoga and music festival launched in 2oo9 that hosts massive yoga classes, around-the-clock kirtan chanting sessions, and wisdom workshops daily. “We’re building a spiritual community—thousands of people gathered under the same roof, with one intention,” says founder Sridhar Silberfein. “People come out talking about how many friends they’ve made.”
University of Oxford researchers have found another reason yoga in a group may help us connect: When we exercise en masse, they suggest, we feel safer and more supported than when we do so alone. As a result, there may be less pain and fatigue—two biological signifiers of a potential threat. In fact, we actually release higher quantities of endorphins and endocannibinoids, nature’s chemical pain relievers and mood enhancers, into our nervous systems. As a result, we feel better, which rewards our cooperation as a group. “Experiencing this ‘social high’ may bring us closer together,” offers Arran Davis, a cognitive and evolutionary anthropologist at Oxford.
When we engage in a group chant or meditation that induces a feeling of mutual transcendence, the brain literally shrinks its perception of distance between ourselves and others. “In deep spiritual moments, we’ve observed decreased activity in the parietal lobe, which regulates the boundaries between the self and the world,” says neuroscientist Andrew Newberg. “When that activity reduces, people feel a connectedness, an intermingling between their selves and everyone else’s.”
Communities used to form naturally, via the companies at which we worked or the religious institutions we attended, Ornish says. These days, we have to be more purposeful about building them. To find a community of your own, strike out and shake things up: Join a yoga circle in your area, check out Yoga Meetups (meetup.com), or make this your year to try a new yoga festival or retreat.
Yoga facilitates exchanges between people of different backgrounds.
PMRI’s Ornish, who’s studied yoga for 40 years, likes to tell a story about his late friend Sri Swami Satchidananda, the influential founder of Integral Yoga. When Satchidananda opened his New York City studio, the guru asked his students to answer the phone by saying, “Hello—how may I serve you?” “Some of the students said, ‘That sounds so debasing,’” Ornish remembers. “But [Satchidananda] would say, ‘No! When someone gives you the opportunity to serve them, it helps you.’”
Yoga’s call to seva, or service, can nurture a sense of humility, gratitude, and respect that positively impacts relationships. “When we do the work of seva together, we see that we’re interdependent, interconnected,” says Suzanne Sterling, co-founder of the nonprofit Off the Mat Into the World and director of its Global Seva Challenge. Over the past decade, Sterling has led teams that built birthing centers in Uganda, installed water- filtration systems in Ecuador, and created micro-loan programs in Haiti. “We share rituals; we build communities,” she says.
As with any good relationship, you must set aside your ego to be effective in seva. “You must forgo making assumptions about other people,” Sterling explains. “Someone who’s poor and living and farming on the side of a field may be happier than a person who’s isolated in a mansion.”
Acknowledging others’ truth is critical, agrees Angel Lucia, owner of Bindu Yoga Studio in West Palm Beach, Florida, who has worked on seva projects for 18 years. “People just need to be heard.” she says. “You have to interact with them like a friend.”
In an important way, seva teaches you to trust yourself—your curiosity, your abilities, your innate positivity. “I have seen people blossom through seva,” says Lucia. “First, they grow comfortable with themselves, then they grow comfortable with others who are different from them.”
Identify a cause you feel passionate about, and amass a solid team first; it can include yogis and studios leading similar efforts, or interested friends and family. “You get more done together,” Sterling attests. “When you share power and responsibility, you build real community—and that helps create something sustainable.” Leadership intensives and Yoga in Action groups developed by Off the Mat can connect you with others interested in seva efforts (offthematintotheworld.org).
When to go solo
So what if you want to be alone on occasion? That’s OK, says Robert Jon Waldinger, MD, director of Harvard’s Study of Adult Development. “Some people need a lot of solitude, and it’s good for them,” he says. “One size does not fit all.” While it’s true that the subjective experience of loneliness hastens cognitive and physical decline as you age, that’s only if you feel the absence of others keenly, rather than take pleasure in solitude.
“There’s a difference between loneliness and solitude, scientifically speaking,” adds Alan Teo, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University. “If you feel lonely when you’re alone, it’s not healthy. But for people who find it restorative, it can be beneficial.” In a 10-year study of 4,672 adults, Teo and his team discovered that if your interactions with a partner are hurtful or negative, it’s actually better for your mental health to be alone. “It’s the quality of relationships that matters,” he says.
Teo’s advice? Try to fit some alone time into every day. Even if you like to be around others, there may be diminished benefits to overdoing it. Socializing with any single individual (aside from the ones you live with) more than three times a week isn’t proven to have positive health effects.
Encourage family members to join you in a home practice. It can be a great way to embrace, laugh, and bond with each other.
Log on to connect
The jury’s still out on whether social media aids or diminishes authentic connection, but it has been shown to benefit those who may be less outgoing in real life, enhancing self-esteem and reducing depression. Here, three ways to connect more effectively online:
Make the most of Facebook.
At least 58 percent of adult Facebook users have more than 100 friends, finds the Pew Research Center—and that’s fine. But remember, quality trumps quantity, so instead of accepting friend requests from strangers (as up to half of us do), maximize your time online by sending personal messages, posting invites to events, and making offline plans.
Be a blog star.
Share your thoughts on yoga, meditation, or spirituality by writing blog posts (try sites like yoganonymous.com), or post comments on yoga boards (like doyouyoga.com). Being able to speak about what matters to you, if only in written form, is good for your health.
Use hashtags to find IRL community.
Discover local happenings and meet like-minded yogis by searching word combos that reflect your interests (#yogamusic, #hotyoga, #yogachallenge). You’ll quickly find the accounts that follow the activities and people you need to know.