Karma Yoga: The Brain Science of Yoga for Happiness
So when most people think about yoga, they think about sweating it out in short shorts in an urban yoga studio. But the traditional system of yoga that was created in Ancient India was an entire system of living designed to keep people mentally and physically fit and prevent illness of the brain and the body because this was the best way to live a long healthy life, before there were things like emergency medicine, antibiotics and anti-depressant pills!
Karma yoga is the term yogi’s developed for selfless service. Of course you don’t have to be a yogi to get the benefits: helping a friend, caring for your pet, making soup for your loved one when they are sick, giving a massage or just lending an ear to a friend in need, all count—you don’t have to volunteer in a formal setting hours each week to get the benefits.
The reason Karma yoga works to help bust anxiety, blue moods and stop worry loops in the brain is that it actually changes what areas of your brain are turned on when you are helping others. When we have time to ruminate about our own problems and worries, specific brain areas get turned on, specifically the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex. These brain areas are part of the Anterior Default mode network of the brain. The job of these parts of your brain is self-referential and emotional processing related to yourself and thinking about yourself. These parts of the brain are lit up more than normal in people who have high anxiety and depression traits. Because modern city life is quite self focused and “individual-achievement” focused, it can predispose your brain to overusing these self-referential networks in the brain, leading to more unhappiness.
I find that sometimes when I feel stressed and really busy, it can be easy to think that I don’t have time to help out a friend or spend the extra mental effort to do something thoughtful and spontaneous for my hubby or my mum… BUT the amazing thing is that when I push myself to carve out a few extra minutes to do something nice for them, it always makes me feel happier and able to put my own worries into perspective, especially after a bad day or when I’ve just got disappointing news. It’s something I am constantly working on because it really makes a difference to how I feel day to day.