Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Yoga and "Willpower"


"Ego depletion" and "effort."

Anyone who's tried to keep a yoga practice knows that sometimes it takes "willpower." Interestingly, recent studies are validating the yogic perspective that "willpower" is more complicated than just "making yourself do it" and secondly, that it's a muscle that we can strengthen.

"Will power" or "active ego," as psychologists call it, is a limited physical resource that draws on blood sugar or glucose. When you perform a task that requires "will power," it can use up your reserves and leave them empty when the desert menu arrives at the table.

One of the foremost researchers on willpower has been Dr. Roy Baumeister at Case Western University. According to one of his studies, (link to .pdf) participants who used will power to not laugh at a funny video had lower blood glucose levels and had less ability to exert willpower (subjects in a test group were allowed to laugh and their glucose level was unaffected.) When they ate a simple carbohydrate that returned their glucose levels to normal their willpower returned as well.

But at the same time, research by Baumeister and others has found that successful small efforts, such as removing "um" and "like" from your speech, can strengthen your um, ability to exert willpower in, like, other areas, such as diet.

So staying that extra breath in Warrior 2 might help you fend off that delicious, mouth-watering chocolate cake. And keeping a simple daily yoga practice could help you accomplish other goals.

Interestingly, this research seems to validate a yogic, holistic approach to effort such as that found in pantanjali's yoga sutras, the Buddha's "right effort" or Daoisms teachings on "wu wei."

Firstly, in the context of this research, it's not surprising that Pantanjali and the Buddha make a connection between effort and diet. I remembered that this after noon after I ate white bread and jam and tea with honey, making me feel really sluggish. Those simple carbohydrates convert to glucose rapidly (in around 30 minutes--maybe less with our modern ultra-refined sugars.) Too much sugar can cause an insulin spike, keeping your body from using the glucose, willpower food (not to mention brain and muscle food.)

Secondly, the research backs the philosophy of regular, daily small steps. Not only is it a good way to accomplish a goal but it builds willpower in the process.

Finally, this research might suggest a back-door approach to willpower. Research subjects experienced a willpower drain when they needed to exert "active ego" over habitual, automatic activities. That suggests this:

Why not work to make desirable activities habitual and automatic?

Indeed, that's the approach favored by the Daoist classics as well as Buddhist traditions like zen. Again, that takes a daily, small steps and an attitude of working with your intrinsic nature, not exerting willpower over it.

Additional articles:

Glycemic Index Diets:

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