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the impact of words on our yoga practice
Photography by tessa mannonen

the impact of words on our yoga practice

by Sarah Smyth sarah smyth
Practice Yoga | Hatha Yoga | | Tips | | Personal Story | | Tips for Beginners |


what can your mind say to help you develop?

“Words have a magical power. They can bring either the greatest happiness or deepest despair; they can transfer knowledge from teacher to student; words enable the orator to sway his audience and dictate its decisions. Words are capable of arousing the strongest emotions and prompting all men’s actions.” (Sigmund Freud 1856-1939)

The power of words can be traced far back in recorded history with prayers, mantras, spells and curses. Words can be subtle, yet effective and produce even more results than physical power. They can leave a trace in people’s minds forever having either a positive or negative lifelong impact.

Copious amounts of research studies have shown that exposure to parental verbal abuse is associated with higher rates of psychopathology (Tomoda et al 2011). Additionally a study by Teicher (2010) found that experiencing peer verbal abuse can cause emotional harm, as it results in meaningful alterations in the brains structure.

When I started yoga back in 2010 my yoga teacher could tell by the looks on our faces whether we were talking positively or negatively to ourselves whilst in a particular posture. He asked us to be mindful of what words we were saying to ourselves and how we were saying them. He also advised us to be cautious when using particular words, as these could condition us to have an aversion to the asana rather than learning why we were struggling with it in the first place.

Interestingly different words are processed in different areas of our brain. For example everyday language is processed in: Broca's area (motor speech area) which aids the movements required to produce speech. Wernicke's area handles the recognition of and processing of spoken words, thus assisting in understanding speech.

However emotional language such as swear words are processed by more primal regions of the brain such as the limbic system which is associated with emotion, memory and behaviour, as well as the basal ganglia which oversees impulse control.

When neuroscientists used neuroimaging techniques e.g. PET (positron emission tomography) they found that the amygdala (part of the limbic system) is highly active when exposed to aggressive words (Isenberg, 1999) and can produce panic attacks and aggressive behaviours (Zald, 2003).

This may be because the amygdala makes several connections to memory and association centres in the brain, which could also be responsible for the increased memory skills that might be triggered when subjects are presented with swear words (Davis, 2001).


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Negative self-talk has long been a factor for and associated with a range of psychological disorders such as: mood disorder (Gilbert and Irons 2005), social anxiety (Cox et al., 2000), self-harm (Babiker and Arnold, 1997), anger and aggression (Tangney and Dearing, 2002) and post-traumatic stress disorder (Lee, 2005).

Our yoga teacher taught us the importance of using positive words and self-statements to counteract negative self-talk during our yoga practice. He taught us the importance of using expressions and words such as “I can”, “breathe” etc.

In the first yoga class I attended he told me I would be practicing handstands and headstands, I replied in a panic saying “I think I’m in the wrong class!” he replied “You’re not. Go over to the wall and practice”. I was so scared of falling and hurting myself, however I kept telling myself to “keep trying”. By the end of the class I was able to hold a headstand against the wall. It was then I realised that handstands and headstands were not beyond my reach.

Numerous studies in sports psychology have looked at the effects of positive and negative self-talk on athletes’ performance in various sports (e.g. darts, swimming, tennis).

One such study by Lofti, Rabavi and Jafarzadeh (2016) looked at the effects of positive and negative motivation self-talk of novice soccer players kick accuracy. They found that positive motivational self-talk led to significantly improved performance in soccer kick accuracy thus indicating the positive impact of self-talk on performance. And the reason for these results is because positive motivational self-talk significantly decreased players’ anxiety and increased the players’ self-efficacy.

Yoga practitioners can use the same technique to develop their practice. We can use the power of positive words of encouragement to our advantage when we are having difficulty rather than beating ourselves up with negative self-statements. I found that the more I counteracted the negative self-talk during my practice the greater I improved, e.g. asanas started to become easier and require less effort. I stopped comparing my practise to others and focussing on the tension. I learned to breathe through it and relax into it rather than running away from it. I also found that I was better able to meditate. All of which has had a positive impact on my life off the mat as well as on the mat.

And this according to B.K.S Iyengar (2005) is where the magic happens when “disturbances of the mind and emotions fade away, and we are able to see true reality” (Iyengar, 2005 p. 215). By learning to let go of all the negative self-talk and memories associated with these self-defeating statements that may be holding us back, we can transcend our ego and get to a higher state of consciousness where we will see the true reality, that anything is possible.



Resources :

Babiker, G., Arnold, L., 1997. The Language of Injure: Comprehending Self-mutilation. Leicester. British psychological Society.

Cox, B.J., Rector, N.A., Bagby, R.M, Swinson, R.P., Levitt, A.J., Joffe, R.T., 2000. Is self criticism unique for depression: a comparison with social phobia. Journal of Affective Disorders. 57, 223–228.

Davis, M. and Whalen, P.J. (2001). The amygdala: vigilance and emotion. Molecular Psychiatry. 6: 13-34.

Gilbert, P., and Irons, C. (2005). Focused therapies and compassionate mind training for shame and self-attacking. In P. Gilbert (Ed.), Compassion. Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy (pp. 263–325). London: Routledge.

Isenberg, N., Silbersweig, D., Engelien, A., Emmerich, K., Malavade, K., Beati, B., et al. (1999). Linguistic threat activates the human amygdala. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 96: 10456-10459.

Iyengar, B.K.S (2005). Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom. Rodale Books. P.215.

Lee, D.A. 2005. The perfect nurturer: a model to develop a compassionate mind within the context of cognitive therapy. In: Gilbert, P. (Ed.), Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy. Brunner Routledge, London, pp. 326–351.

Lotfi, G., Rabavi, A., Jafarzadeh, M (2016). Positive and negative motivational self- talk affect learning of soccer kick in novice players, mediated by anxiety. International Journal of Humanities and Cultural Studies. 6 (2), 1945-1952

Tangney, J.P., Dearing, R.L., 2002. Shame and Guilt. Guilford Press, New York.

Teicher, M.H., Samson, J.A., Sheu, Y.S., Polcari, A and McGreenery, C.E. (2010) Hurtful words: association of exposure to peer verbal abuse with elevated psychiatric symptom scores and corpus callosum abnormalities. American Journal of Psychiatry 167: 1464–1471.

Tomoda A, Sheu YS, Rabi K, Suzuki H, Navalta CP, et al. (2011) Exposure to parental verbal abuse is associated with increased gray matter volume in superior temporal gyrus. Neuroimage 54 Suppl 1S280–286.

Zald, D.H. (2003). The human amygdala and the emotional evaluation of sensory stimuli. Brain Research Reviews. 41(1): 88-123.

Zope, S. A. and Zope, R.A (2013) Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health. International Journal of Yoga. Jan-Jun; 6(1): 4–10.



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