If your mind wanders away from your mat as much as it does from your computer screen, yoga isn’t exactly happening. Rediscover true mind-body union by forgoing the familiar in favor of the fresh. The best part? All of these fringe benefits to trying new things—share your yoga experiments on social with #newyearnewyoga.
You finally get to your sticky mat. You start flowing through Sun Salutations, but there’s that email you didn’t return and the meeting you’re still reliving. You land in Warrior I with a half-baked grocery list. What happened to Down Dog? You’re in a yoga rut.
Yoga can be defined as the yoking of body, mind, and consciousness—a full-on present moment experience. When we’re in our body and breath, we taste the unity yogis live for. So how do we get out of the grind and into the present moment? Trying something new is a pretty sure-fire strategy. It could be as bold as boxing, acro or aqua yoga or as inward as yin or yoga nidra. Doctors, neuroscientists, and yoga teachers say even a few new poses can work wonders for your brain, body, and mood. Let’s look at some of the big benefits of branching out beyond your tried-and-true yoga practice.
You’ve probably heard that learning a new language or musical instrument forms new connections in the brain. No need to go further than your mat to boost your memory, concentration, and creativity, though. Figuring out how to stand on your head or move in a new way creates new neural pathways, or thought patterns, in the brain, giving us more brainpower to draw from and a more flexible mindset.
Psychotherapist and vinyasa teacher Coral Brown likens neural pathways to samskaras, or the impressions of our past actions, positive or negative, as described in yoga philosophy. The actions we repeat form our habits and the way we perceive the world. Our perceptions literally form grooves, or neuropathways, in the brain. She suggests keeping the brain plastic and creating positive samskaras by trying new poses, sequences, teachers, or styles.
Longtime Iyengar practitioner and Manhattan-based physician Dr. Loren Fishman seconds that, saying besides improving hand-eye coordination and thickening the cerebral cortex—the higher brain that governs language, perception, creativity, and planning—learning yoga changes the way we observe the world. Each new pose requires us to coordinate muscles differently, and our brain has to adapt in kind.
It’s our perception of the new that truly transports us. “You have that sense of what everyone is trying to capture all the time—liberation, enlightenment, a new world, a rebirth,” Fishman says. “A new yoga pose almost inevitably opens another door. It takes you to a place you’ve never been.”
A demanding boss, unhappy client, or screaming child can all cause your heart rate, stress hormones, and anxiety to surge. While that kind of stress response doesn’t help you cope, sometimes you just don’t know how to stop the rush of emotion. This is where learning novel kinds of yoga come in handy. Neuroscientists say you can train your brain to better handle stress by putting yourself in a controlled setting—like a yoga studio—and expanding your comfort zone.
“Say you’re balancing in an uncomfortable and new posture,” says Dr. Mithu Storoni, a physician, brain researcher and yoga teacher living in Hong Kong. “Your mind is racing and you think ‘oh, I’m going to fall out’ or ‘I can’t hold this anymore.’ You’re forcing yourself to use your pre-frontal cortex to suppress your emotional reactivity.”
Dr. Storoni says early yoga described in the Samkhya around 400 BCE emphasized ridding the mind of emotions as a way to experience transcendence. When you encounter stress outside your yoga practice, you’re better equipped to handle it without overreacting.
Brown says learning new poses or styles of yoga can be a form of modern biofeedback. If we’re consistently doing the same thing, new things are seen as stressful. Our world shrinks and so too does our brain. “The more adept we are at experiencing new practices, people and places, the better we can handle stress,” Brown says. “The less likely we are to have adrenal overdoses and the more likely we are to get a serotonin boost.”
3. You may discover (or rediscover) something you love.
We can’t know we like something until we try it. With a little trepidation, I recently ventured out for a rooftop aerial yoga class with an ocean view. We dangled from strips of silk suspended from a futuristic-looking metal frame reaching into the sky. New synapses must have been firing like crazy as I struggled to maneuver around the hammock. But I felt like a kid learning to cartwheel for the first time! Swaddled in the airborne cocoon for Savasana, I experienced a combination of relief (I’d made it through!) and gentle euphoria as I bobbed above the seascape.
Brown says rediscovering something can have a similar effect. Having first trained in Iyengar Yoga, before moving to Jivamukti and now vinyasa, she loves returning to Iyengar now and again to refresh her alignment. Mainly, Brown suggests letting your own inner guide take you to unexplored places. “A lot of teachers and students suffer from being-in-the-rut syndrome,” Brown says. “We turn to inspiration outside ourselves, like Instagram or social media, and we try to do that. Instead of using an external locus of control, use your own internal wisdom and memory. Be the yoga detective by studying different yoga asana and reading different styles of yoga philosophies.”
She dove into the still, silent aspects of yoga during her recent pregnancy when morning sickness made asana impossible. Getting back on the mat now, the vinyasa teacher has a postpartum body and a beginner’s mind. But you don’t have to wait for a life-altering event, like pregnancy or injury, to renew your practice!
Whether you’re cooking dinner, solving a problem, or balancing in Ardha Chandrasana, when time ceases, your mind goes blank, and you’re awash in energy, you’re in the zone. That’s the peak performance state psychologists call “flow.” It’s a form of yoga, or union, and studies show it boosts creativity, productivity, and happiness. But flow doesn’t happen when we’re bored.
“We need challenge,” Storoni says. “Most of us are guilty of stagnating. Novelty gives us an opportunity for challenge. It mustn’t be so great that it’s unpalatable. It should be sparkling and inviting and exciting so you want to reach for the carrot.”
Growing up in India, Storoni learned asana as a serious discipline. “My uncles were strict yogis. You’d wake up and find people upside down!” she recalls. Her father trained in the same gym as Bikram Choudhury, and she later became certified as a Bikram instructor. When you’re practicing the same sequence, the challenge must be self-generated. “With Triangle Pose, there’s a way of improving that step even further,” Storoni says. “Am I really bringing my hips down low enough? Can I go further or am I reaching too quickly for the end?”
Trying new things necessitates that we shift out of autopilot and focus, which facilitates finding that flow state.
Remember that bliss boost you got from balancing in Bakasana for the first time or flowing through a fun, new sequence with your favorite teacher? It turns out, learning stimulates brain connections that make us happy. Storoni says acquiring a new skill strengthens neural pathways that release feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. This can lead to surges of joy, even euphoria—further enhanced by the endorphins that spike during exercise. On the other side of the spectrum, with depression or early dementia, the prefrontal cortex stops growing in complexity, which means it also releases less feel-good chemicals.
“The brain is a plastic organ,” Storoni says. “It’s almost like a living animal. It’s always growing. It’s always changing. Learning stimulates the connections and networks within so it will thrive and feel happy.”