We reached out to John Cottrell, Ph.D., because he has a unique perspective from being both a Clinical Psychologist and a Certified Yoga Instructor. John was kind enough to share his insights on how practicing yoga and meditation can change our personalities. We hope you enjoy reading John’s insights as much as we did.
I write this article wearing two hats: as a yoga instructor and as a psychologist. Over the years in my career as both, I have seen how these two disciplines complement each other to produce positive changes in the physical form and the emotional mind. Although they come from two different philosophical foundations, they have a familiar premise: to value and uplift the human condition.
I’d like to take a look at a few things in this article: how yoga and meditation change personality. To better understand that causation, I’ll share some insights on the five personality traits that are generally studied in the field of psychology. The intention is to show how the aspects of yoga and meditation affect and shift these essential personality traits.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is not only an exercise we see practiced today in studios, gyms, and community centers. It is an ancient philosophy studied by individuals to gain a greater awareness of self, others, and all things. Yoga provides a pathway to healthy living through mental clarity, emotional balance, and physical development.
Originating in India more than 5,000 years ago, yoga was based on ancient texts and traditions broadly centered in Hinduism and Buddhism. First studied by Vedic priests, the intention was to create a direct connection to the Divine; to teach and live an enlightened life.
Today, we know yoga as a form of physical practice stemming from these ancient traditions. In the modern forms of yoga, one can encounter yoga postures, breathwork, and meditation in a wide variety of exercises. Even in these newer interpretations of yoga, the roots of the ancient traditions can still be seen.
Healing Through Movement
We widely know yoga today as a moving practice, engaging in yoga poses and moving through coordinated sequences. It is viewed that the best way to access the subtle understandings of the mind is through the body. When one practices yoga, attention is drawn to the body: how it moves, how it feels, what sensations arise, what parts feel strong, and what parts need release.
With an established practice that is consistent, the yogi not only gains a better understanding of their physical body but also learns more about their emotions and mental functioning. Yoga is a holistic practice; its goal is for one to grow into a well-rounded human being.
Some popular yoga styles that are practiced today include Hot Yoga, Power Yoga, Anusara Yoga, and Yin Yoga. This is not an exhaustive list, but the ones listed have a specific focus on the body in motion. Within these practices, the yogi holds specific postures or flow from one yoga pose to the other.
The yoga instructor has the vital role of guiding her students through these poses with integrity and safety. The yoga teacher is there to assist her attendees in tuning into their bodies, to pay attention to the subtleties of the human condition, and to make shifts that lead to a healthier well-being.
Moving the physical body is the complete access to the emotional mind. Having worked as a psychotherapist, I learned that not all of my clients responded well to classic “talk-therapy.” This form of treatment is very cognitive and intellectual. If one learns well through verbal communication, then this can be a very effective treatment leading to positive results.
If, though, an individual learns better through visual cues and movement, “talk-therapy” may be a challenge. When I discovered yoga, my practice helped me to see that the intellectual mind can be accessed through bodily movement. I noticed a change in mood, attitude, and mental state all through the physical practice.
Yoga and Clinical Psychology Can Work Synergistically 🧘
I later had the revelation that these two disciplines can work in tandem with each other. For those that do not respond quite as well to traditional therapy situations, perhaps adding movement, like yoga, could be a better avenue toward recovery.
I was able to combine the two approaches when I formally became a Certified Yoga Therapist. Now in my treatment, I can include yoga postures, knowledge, and Eastern philosophy with the traditional Western therapeutic approach.
Conditions like anxiety, depression, and addiction can all be managed with some yoga. Even personality disorders can be balanced and monitored with a yoga practice. Accompanying the physical practice of yoga is another dimension of the philosophy: meditation.
What is Meditation?
Part of the in-depth study of yoga involves meditation. The physical practice actually prepares the yoga student for proper and effective meditation. Meditation teaches one to sit with a sense of calm, stillness, and mental clarity. Typically, though, one is distracted by wandering thoughts and tension in the body.
Practicing yoga poses helps to release tightness in areas of the body like your hips, establish strength in your core, and teach breathing for better focus. When the body is free from physical distractions, one can sit for mindful meditation practice.
Mindfulness Meditation is a standard style of practice today; it, too, derives from ancient traditions and observances. The main element in a meditative practice is the breath. It provides a focal point for the yogi, and it also has a direct effect on the physiological system.
The efforts of breathing have a specific name in yoga; it is called Pranayama. It is a Sanskrit word meaning “breath work” or “breathing exercises.” When the term is split into two, one gets a better understanding of it. “Prana” means “life force” or “life energy.” Represented by breath, it is what gives you life; it is the energetic flow throughout the body. “Yama” is the action one gives the breath.
Meditation Benefits the Whole Body
For example, breathing slowly or deeply would be intentional actions assigned to the breathing effort. Partaking in these breathing exercises helps the proper flow of energy throughout the body. It opens passages in the body that are energetically blocked, so it remains fluid. When there are obstacles in the body, stress is a good example, and Prana cannot flow as well.
This, for some, can lead to illness and a weakened physical mind and body. Focused breathing caters to the release of these blocked internal paths so that health can be restored.
Breathing with intention has also been shown to positively affect your body, particularly your heart and your brain. As you know, the body endures a lot of stress. However, this can have adverse effects on the body. The heart is a crucial organ to consider when too much stress and anxiety are experienced. Stress raises one’s risk of heart disease and stroke.
Stress leads to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and an increase in plaque in the arteries that is directly related to heart attacks and stroke. These conditions, though, can be treated and often times prevented with proper exercise and diet.
Having a yoga practice can be one source of training that will reduce the symptoms of stress and heart-related issues. Mindfulness Meditation as a yoga practice is a healthy choice for heart health. Meditation lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. It reduces the release of cortisol, the hormone attributed to stress, and improves your oxygen levels.
Incorporating a regular meditative practice can be quite beneficial to your overall health. Not only does yoga and meditation affect the heart, but it can also have a positive influence on your brain.
Yoga Strengthens the Mind
The cerebral cortex of the brain is associated with high functioning attributes like attention, memory, language, and thinking. Studies have shown that meditation stimulates this region of the brain, creating more neural connections.
An increase in brain cell connections is related to improved mind control and emotional regulation. Having a regular meditation practice can enhance cell growth in the cerebral cortex, thereby improving brain functions like memory and mood.
Yoga and the Big 5 Personality Traits 🧘
Since yoga and meditation can positively influence one’s health and mood; these two practices should also affect human personality. In psychology, there are five essential personality traits that are studied:
- Openness to Experience
Based on what is known about yoga and meditation, the aspects of these disciplines can make shifts in one’s personality as well as the physical body.
A detailed explanation of these personality traits are available from the psychology lecture from the University of Toronto below.
Yoga and Openness
Openness to Experience refers to having a curiosity about things. There is a sense of wonder, imagination, and creativity in individuals who are open to experiences. They are generally not too afraid to take risks or step into the unknown. They are eager to learn and discover new things. If, however, one is close-minded, they are less likely to be adventurous.
Yoga is about expansiveness. It influences an individual to broaden one’s perspective on self, others, and the world around them. Yoga opens up the body. If one is tight or stiff in some regions of the physical body, yoga postures are designed to release and open these spaces.
This results in a more limber and agile body; one can move more fluidly. The same goes for meditation; the conscious and subconscious mind can expand with mindfulness meditation. It allows the practitioner to be more aware of the subtleties of the body and the working mind.
In a backbend yoga pose, for example, several actions are taking place. Physically, one is strengthening the back muscles, finding greater flexibility in an immobile back. Backbends, like Wheel Pose or Bridge Pose, release tension in the chest. If the pectoral muscles are tight from a hunched bodily posture, for example, backbends can counteract that condition.
On a more emotional level, backbends have another benefit. In yoga, backbends are called “heart openers.” If one has experienced emotional heartache, loss, or deep sadness, practicing a yoga heart-opening posture can help with the emotional processing of these emotions.
Heartbreak and despair can undoubtedly affect one’s personality. It may lead to isolation and a lack of creativity. One is less likely to explore and discover new things for fear of further heartache.
With consistent yoga practice and one that involves heart-opening postures like backbends, it can guide an individual past those fears. Over time, they may feel more open to trying new things and ponder new experiences to expand their views. This can be quite healing for a person.
Yoga and Conscientiousness
Conscientiousness is another personality trait that is related to being responsible, aware, productive, and organized. Being busy with work schedules, caring for family needs, and practicing self-wellness can be overwhelming for some.
One must maintain a sense of organization, continuity, and motivation to stay committed to busy schedules. Others may feel the lack of ability to remain productive. This can lead to procrastination or even a negative view of self.
Yoga can help develop a more conscientious mind. Yoga is considered a philosophical discipline. It was designed and taught to be a pathway to lead healthy and productive lives. In this modern era of yoga, the access point to this productive living is through the body. Practicing postures and yoga sequences get the student to be more aware of their bodies.
As one practice, a sense of appreciation emerges for the care and well-being of self. Over time, this evolves into the continued desire to take care of self due to the positive results yoga provides on a physical and mental level. This can be reinforcing for the practitioner; the more they feel good, the more they will come back to yoga.
Adding a yoga practice into an already busy schedule is a good step toward being more organized and responsible. That focus is on the self, but it eventually extends outward to other people and activities.
Yoga and Extroversion
Extroversion is a personality trait that describes an individual who is outgoing and shows a sense of social assertiveness. They enjoy the company of groups and even feel energized and motivated in groups. The opposite trait is introversion, but neither are negative expressions of self.
The introvert feels more at ease in smaller groups or even alone. Social settings may not be the preferred place for an introverted person, but having some connections with others can be a good aspect of a well-balanced personality.
Yoga offers the practitioner an opportunity to look inside the self to discover any hindrances and obstacles that may hold them back from certain situations. If being uncomfortable in social situations is more of fear rather than a personality trait, yoga can help one be more aware of the core reason for that fear.
Through breathwork, movement, and mindful meditation, the practitioner can bring those perceived fears to the conscious level, evaluate them, and if not useful or productive, they can be removed. A shift in thinking leads to a new perspective, a different belief system that equates with healthy social interactions.
Yoga and Agreeableness
Agreeableness pertains to having trust in others. It is the expression of compassion and respect for self and others. It is quite natural for someone to have a negative perspective on certain things. There is a lot of negativity in the news, poor relationships, and other stressful life conditions. This can lead to a poor sense of the world around them and even low self-esteem.
A shift in personality can come, though, with a steady yoga and meditative practice. As mentioned, yoga helps the practitioner to draw their focus inward. Through movement and intentional breathwork, they start to see themselves in a new way. They generate greater respect for themselves. One begins to value their self-worth and place in the world with more compassion.
There is a traditional meditation practice called Vipassana Meditation. It is a silent meditation in which the yogi observes the thoughts that are stored in the conscious mind. By merely becoming a witness to these thoughts rather than attaching to them, these reoccurring thoughts begin to leave the mind. For the practitioner, the truth of all things is revealed. That is, instead of viewing the negative aspects of the things around them, they begin to see the love and beauty that lies within.
Vipassana can be translated to mean “to see things as they really are.” Joy, love, gratitude, and appreciation are the true essence of all things. This is an intrinsic yoga value. When practiced and lived, one is more compassionate and respectful to other living beings. Even amid negativity around us, a person can detach from that viewpoint. Instead, they witness the positivity in people and things, which leads to being more agreeable and trusting of the world.
Yoga and Neuroticism
The fifth essential personality trait that is studied in psychology is Neuroticism. With this trait, one tends to experience more anxiety or depression. Both of these conditions are commonly known, and many live with these psychological attributes.
Some symptoms related to anxiety include restlessness, excessive worry, fatigue, agitation, and several others. Depressive symptoms are composed of feelings of sadness, loss of interest in moral activities, sleep disturbances, agitation, feelings, worthlessness, and more. The two have very similar symptoms, and both can be quite debilitating on one’s livelihood.
For some, treatment of these mental conditions may require professional intervention with therapy and medications. Supplemental treatments may include support groups, a healthy diet, and even yoga practice.
Meditation has been shown to make changes in the brain that affect higher functioning like memory and mood. Evidence indicates that long-term meditative practices are associated with brain growth, practical an increase in gray matter density.
Yoga Can Build a Calmer and More Resilient Mind 🧘
The gray matter of the brain is related to the critical functioning of the central nervous system. When gray matter increases in the frontal portions of the brain, this results in more positive emotions, better retention of memory, greater emotional stability, and heightened focus. One can see the vital relationship between meditation and treating conditions like anxiety and depression due to the changes located in the cerebral cortex.
It has now been shown that scientific studies have tapped into how the ancient practices of yoga and meditation change the brain. Since the brain monitors human behavior, it only makes sense that essential personality traits can also be influenced by yoga and meditation.
What started as an intellectual study and later integrated into the movement of the body, yoga proves to stimulate physical changes. Beyond the physicality of yoga, its benefits have clearly broadened. With consistent yoga practice, one develops a greater awareness of self and others, compassion towards others increases, and less stress is experienced.
Regular and consistent practice of mindfulness meditation is key to influencing these potential changes. When you take the time to be in stillness, practice mindful Pranayama, you grow into the habit of calming your mind and body. The results will be quite beneficial to you: a better mood and an overall positive sense of self.
John Cottrell, Ph.D., is a yoga instructor and certified yoga therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. He has been teaching yoga since 2000. John is originally from Oakland, California, earning his Master of Science and Ph.D. from Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in Palo Alto, California. His clinical practice led him to child and adolescent psychotherapy, drug and alcohol treatment, psychological and neuropsychological testing, and group/couples therapy. John continues his devotion to sharing health and well-being through his business, mbody. He offers private and group yoga classes, yoga therapy, workshops, retreats, written yoga articles, and a men’s yoga clothing line.