Yoga in the Digital Age – State or Trait Changes?
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | September 9, 2022
In the past 20 years or so yoga has been incorporated into everything from self-improvement and psychotherapy to McDonald’s commercials and reality shows. Lately I’m seeing a lot of health influencers (who are not necessarily yoga professionals) talk about simple breathing techniques, meditations, or yoga postures for anxiety, focus, sleep, sex, and just about everything else.
What I rarely see; however, is advice about how regular yoga practice, over time, can affect actual trait changes.
So first let’s unpack state versus trait.
In psychology, a “state” is a temporary condition that you experience for a short period. A state change means that you’ve done something to change your state of mind. “Trait” means a quality of your personality. A trait change means that you’ve changed something significant about who you are.
Say you’re asked to give a talk to a respected group of peers. Many of us would get nervous about that. You might get sweaty palms, or feel like your mind’s going blank, or notice your voice beginning to crack. If you’re a particularly anxious person (as in having that trait), you may consider CDB, Xanax, or vodka to get you through.
Fortunately, as a yoga professional, you probably have tools to help. For example, your go-to may be slowly increasing the length of your exhale for 10 breaths. Or using Chandra Bhedana in the car before you enter the venue. Or you run to the bathroom and do a Mountain Pose with your arms extended up over your head for 5 breaths, or you sit and stealthily repeat a mantra in the moments before you have to speak.
Whatever your specific technique, you do it to affect a state change. You use it to get yourself back to homeostasis so that you can overcome the stressor and attend to the task at hand.
It’s important to understand how to affect state change because we all have moments where we need to self-regulate. But a positive trait change is more desirable – because now feeing chill has become part of your personality and you don’t have to scramble to find self-regulating tools.
Tips and tricks for affecting state changes are perfect bite-size, small commitment material for social media. Influencers promise that in just 15 seconds you can take this breath with me, or do this handstand, or follow my cool meditation gif, or massage your ears and you’ll feel better. And there’s nothing wrong with these videos (I’ve made plenty of them!)
But state change is temporary.
And there’s an underbelly to the social media beast – which is that it often, surreptitiously, breeds trait change towards greater anxiety and stress.
There’s a massive social experiment happening – social media is creating trait changes in people all over the world – which means brains and nervous systems are changing too.
When someone on social media says, “For anxiety, just take a physiological sigh – 2 short inhales followed by a long exhale” they are providing state change advice. But you can’t expect to be able to cultivate positive mental health (with all the presence, freedom, creativity, and self-actualization it affords) in 15 second TikTok videos.
Trait changes take time. And the more time you spend on social media, the more time you may need away from the screen doing yoga.
Some of the most foundational research about neuroplasticity (the capacity of the brain to change) was done on meditators by Richard Davidson and his lab at the University of Wisconsin as well as Sara Lazar and her lab at Harvard in the late 90s, early 2000s. They showed that long term meditators have significantly different brains than non-meditators – specifically in the left anterior cortex. This structural difference correlates with a more positive affect – positive personality traits.
Catherine Bushnell and Chantal Villemure’s work at the National Institute of Health showed that long term yoga practitioners make similar brain changes.
What these researchers demonstrated is that people who engage in regular practice have different brains than controls and tend to have a more positive affect. They are more chill, happier, and less reactive.
But changing the brain takes time. It won’t happen quickly and easily by scrolling – even if you stop and do every single state change technique.
We’re living in a time of great change and great speed, and we may not be fully aware of the changes that are happening to our brains and nervous systems because of the technology that we interact with.
A regular meditative practice may be exactly what folks need to create balance in the digital age. Patanjali wrote:
sa tu dīrghakāla nairantarya satkāra-ādara-āsevito dṛḍhabhūmiḥ
“When that practice is done for a long time, without a break, and with sincere devotion, then the practice becomes a firmly rooted, stable and solid foundation [and the mind becomes steady].” Y.S. 1.14 (trans. Swami J)
We live in a just-add-water instant everything culture – even enlightenment. But it’s a ruse. There’s no pill or quick trick for achieving a positive trait change – that takes time. Which is okay – because anything worthwhile always does.