New research suggests that yoga directly influences our nervous systems, making us happier and healthier.
When I (Dacher Keltner) was 18, I wandered into a yoga class in my first year of college, hosted on a basketball court in the school’s gym. At the time, some 40 years ago, yoga had mystical, somewhat cult-like connotations. While a handful of students waited on mats, the teacher arrived dressed in white clothes, looking like Jesus. After playing a song on a wooden flute, and reading a few Haiku poems, he led the class through a series of yoga postures. Yoga, just getting off the ground in the West, would prove to be a salve for my anxious tendencies.
Yoga may very well be one of our oldest happiness practices. Archeologists have discovered figurines in India that date from 5,000 years ago that represent what appear to be people in yoga postures. More certain is that yoga emerged some 2,500 years ago in Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India as part of Hinduism.
Many in the West are familiar with one vein of yoga practices: the asanas, a Sanskrit that translates to “postures.” The full tradition is much broader, and encompasses pranayama (mindful breathing), meditations, chanting, sutras (yoga philosophy by the sage Patanjali), kriya (internal cleansing movements), and ethical principles related to kindness, selflessness, non-materialism, and nonviolence. Over its history, yoga has evolved into many forms, from Tai Chi and Qi Gong to hot yoga and core power yoga.
Today in the U.S., more than 36 million people practice yoga on a regular basis. They likely practice one of a couple kinds of yoga that derive from Vedic yoga and involve 12 basic postures, with names like plow, fish, cobra, locust, and bow pose. In addition to these metaphorical descriptions that add significance to the body’s movements, this kind of yoga also involves the teaching of deep breathing patterns and a focus on being present and mindful.
Does this practice work? Indeed, in the past decade, an emerging science of yoga has been uncovering the significant health and happiness benefits of this ancient practice. And it suggests that we should all think about hitting the mat more often.
Finally, yoga has been found to increase activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, brain areas that are associated with empathy, gratitude, and kindness. In other words, practicing yoga may help us experience more positive emotions and be more oriented toward others, both of which can create lasting happiness over time.