Yoga and Willpower

Studies show that regular yoga practice makes the "willpower" systems of the brain bigger, better connected, and more efficient.

For those of us that are surrounded by unhealthy options on a daily basis (from junk food to sedentary evenings in front of the TV), it can take enormous willpower to make more healthful choices. The good news for yogis is that your practice can help.

“Yoga’s combination of slow, focused breathing, moderate physical effort and heart rate, and balanced autonomic nervous system, shifting the brain and body into this ‘willpower’ state,'” explains Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a psychologist, yoga teacher, and author of the new book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. “Yoga teaches you how to embody willpower, so we’re less likely to respond to every challenge with a stress response.”

How does it work? Stress puts your body and mind into “fight-or-flight” mode, which causes you to respond to challenges impulsively and seek immediate gratification (think food, alcohol, online spending sprees). Yoga, on the other hand, helps you manage stress, which lets you reflect and plan before you make a decision.

Over time, yoga practices—especially mediation—actually train the brain for better focus and self control. Studies show that regular practice makes the “willpower” systems of the brain bigger, better connected, and more efficient, McGonigal says.

So people who practice yoga regularly over time find it easier to make more calculated decisions that can help them in all areas of their lives, including making healthier choices.

Have you noticed any difference in your willpower or decision-making skills since you began practicing yoga?