How Yoga Improves Self-Regulation
Self-regulation is the ability to intentionally adjust one’s behavior. This requires overriding automatic or impulsive reactions.
Mindful yoga practice has been shown to increase self-regulation abilities across all ages - from adults to children as young as 3 years old. Following mindful-yoga interventions, participants tend to show increased focused attention, greater awareness of their own emotions, and increased emotional and behavioral regulation.
Just like any other skill, self-regulation abilities improve with practice. While you can build self-regulatory skills in many ways, yoga is a popular choice because it uses multiple systems across the body and brain. The idea is that strategic activation and inhibition across these systems helps to improve communication between them.
The more we intentionally engage brain and bodily systems, the more these systems will automatically communicate and regulate each other. Overtime, it becomes easier and quicker to engage in self-regulatory processes.
The Systems Involved
Most research on yoga, mindfulness, and the brain emphasizes two main networks in the brain. The Central Executive Network is involved in deliberate, focused attention. The Default Mode Network is heavily involved in mind wandering. This isn't necessarily negative - there are other functions of the Default Mode Network that are beneficial. However, high activity in the Default Mode Network is closely linked to a lack of awareness, which can increase impulsivity.
Self-control requires activation of the Central Executive Network as well. Emerging research has cited an additional network - the Salience Network - as a crucial player involved in switching between the Central Executive Network and Default Mode Network. Increased activation of the Salience Network is specifically linked to the moment we become aware that our mind has wandered from our intended focus point.
Self-regulation starts with the ability to notice what is happening in our minds and bodies. We cannot regulate our impulses until we are aware of them.
Researchers propose that yoga affects the Salience Network by facilitating the switch between the Central Executive Network and Default Mode Network, as well as by bringing together the two parts of the body's nervous system - the Central Nervous System (in the brain) and Peripheral Nervous System (throughout the body). The more you activate across these systems, the more synchronized they become.The popular hypothesis is that with continued practice of switching between networks, the process becomes more efficient and natural.
When holding a sustained pose, you may start to feel an ache in your muscles, or an itch. Rather than impulsively moving to alleviate the sensation, yoga guides participants to attend to the feeling. By acknowledging and becoming aware of it, your ability to engage your higher-order processes and inhibit an impulsive reaction gets stronger.
Intentionally utilizing all these different brain and body systems over time leads to more efficient and automatic communication across networks.
What This Means For Schools
While it is difficult to study the effects of yoga over time on children due to time and money constraints on research, many strong hypotheses have been posed by researchers to explain how yoga benefits elementary students' self-regulation. During elementary school, children's body and brain systems grow and change in many ways. Facilitating efficient communication between brain and body systems while they are still developing provides children with significant advantages in self-regulation abilities. Though self-regulation can be learned at any point in life, it is most beneficial to develop early. Self-regulation is a key component of academic success and building social skills. Furthermore, schools that adopt mindful yoga programs often show a significant decrease in behavioral problems, due to students' increased abilities to inhibit aggressive, inappropriate, or disruptive behaviors. Developing effective self-regulatory skills early in life is a step toward long-term success.
To read the research this summary is based on, click