Boost Willpower with Yoga

Daily Health Solutions, Fitness, News and Advice
on January 2, 2012

You’ve dutifully made your list of resolutions, but deep down you’re thinking that you’ve never kept them for long before. How can you make this New Year different?

“Whenever you try to make a change or a New Year’s resolution, one of the reasons it fails is that it doesn’t have the juice or energy behind it to make a change,” says Kelly McGonigal, author of the new book The Willpower Instinct, and a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. But you can strengthen your resolve by cultivating mindfulness through a practice like yoga.

McGonigal says it may be helpful to think of willpower not as “rigid self-control,” but instead as the ability to do what matters to you even when it’s difficult. You can improve that ability with practice, and yoga often offers that opportunity. By coming into poses that are challenging, then finding your breath and tuning into the sensations within your body, you learn how to “stay put” when you feel a bit of discomfort.

Similarly, when you face a craving or a temptation you’d like to pass up, notice the discomfort in your body. Then pause to breathe into it. When you tune in to your body this way, you give yourself the space to make a decision using your “willpower response,” rather than from a “stress response,” McGonigal says.

Often taking just a moment of reflection is all you need to resist falling into an old pattern. “It’s about remembering what you really want, remembering to align yourself with those things, then finding the energy and the willingness to do it,” she says. “Really, that’s what yoga is giving us tools for.”

If you’re new to yoga, you don’t need to throw yourself wholeheartedly into the practice to reap some of the mindfulness benefits. McGonigal suggests a simple, daily practice of lying on your back with your legs straight up against a wall, while breathing through your belly for 5-15 minutes.

If you would prefer a class, try a few different styles, whether it’s sweating during Bikram (or hot yoga) or slowing down for restorative yoga. Notice which class leaves you feeling best at the end—that’s the best practice for you.

“We’re so burnt out dealing with everyday stress that we don’t have the energy to develop willpower for what matters,” McGonigal says. “The best way to get willpower is to rest, to stop running around all the time, and to reset yourself so you can pursue what matters most to you.”