People with higher heart rate variability and vagus nerve activity tend to be kinder and more compassionate, qualities that make for a happier life.
Yoga also shifts our brain chemistry. In one study, Chantal Villemure and colleagues from the National Institutes of Health used yoga teacher training magnetic resonance imaging to examine gray matter in the brain, which naturally declines with age. They found that yoga practitioners had less grey matter decline in regions of the cortex involved in the experience of positive states such as joy and happiness.
Finally, yoga has been found to increase activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, brain areas that are associated with empathy, gratitude, and kindness. In other words, practicing yoga may help us experience more positive emotions and be more oriented toward others, both of which can create lasting happiness over time.
Eight years ago, I (Jaylissa Zheng) moved to New York. It was a move that left me suffering from many of the struggles that are rampant today: anxiety, sleeplessness, poor appetite, and a sense of despair. Medication did little, if anything, for my suffering. So I turned to yoga; I became a yoga teacher. And in performing and teaching this ancient happiness practice, I have found an embodied source of ever-richer resilience. Perhaps you, too, can find new meaning in one of the human race’s oldest happiness practices.