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  • Nancy Boudreau, RYT, CHHC

Three Ways Yoga Can Help Manage Negative Self-Talk

What is Negative Self-Talk?

Negative self-talk, sometimes referred to as the inner critic or mean girl, is negative thoughts and feelings directed at yourself. The thoughts are mean, hostile, unsupportive, and sometimes relentless.

This inner voice says things that you’d never say to a friend, family member, or stranger for that matter.

The mean girl who says you’re not enough—not good enough, smart enough, young enough, rich enough, strong enough, pretty enough, etc.

The inner critic will find a million reasons why you can’t do something because “It will never work” or “It’s too hard.”

We all beat ourselves up from time to time, but when it’s persistent, it can become a problem.

Ahimsa and Negative Self-Talk

Ahimsa is Sanskrit for non-violence and is part of the Yamas. The Yamas are an ethical code of conduct and one of the eight limbs of yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutras.

You may be thinking “What does non-violence have to do with negative self-talk?” Well, negative self-talk is violence against yourself.

Let that sink in.

Every time you engage in negative self-talk, you’re committing violence against yourself which has negative consequences for your mind and body.

What Are The Effects of Negative Self-Talk?

Constant negative self-talk can affect your self-esteem, motivation, outlook on life, perception of others, and decision-making. It can also lead to depression and anxiety.

Negative self-talk is not only psychologically harmful but also physically stressful. When you’re feeling stressed out, your sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight or flight response, is on constant high alert. This can result in headaches, fatigue, muscle aches, or more serious issues like heart disease, digestive disorders, and short-term memory loss.

Samskaras and Negativity Bias

So what causes all this negative thinking? In yogic philosophy, the term Samskaras means the emotional imprints left by our experiences. Samskaras are often compared to grooves in the road—The more traveled the road, the deeper the grooves. These impressions, or grooves in your memory, cause you to get stuck in patterns of thinking and acting.

Samskaras can be as simple as the habit of driving the same way to work every day, something relaxing like taking regular walks in nature, to something negative like always expecting the worst in people.

While yoga philosophy attributes negative self-talk to the accumulated impressions left on us by our life experiences, neuroscientists attribute negative thinking to negativity bias. Negativity bias is our brain’s tendency to feel and remember negative events more strongly than positive ones.

For example, you can get a dozen compliments on your new haircut, but the one offhand comment you receive is what you’ll fixate on and remember for the rest of the day.

Negative thinking isn't your fault. Negativity bias is one of the ways your brain tries to keep you safe. It’s part of our DNA resulting from our early ancestors’ need to always be on high alert to survive.

While your brain is predisposed to negative thinking, there is hope. The brain has the ability to evolve, adapt, and change—known as Neuroplasticity—and create new pathways or grooves. Using some of the tools of Yoga can help with this process.

Three Ways to Use Yoga to Manage Negative Self-Talk

#1 - Asana: The Physical Practice of Yoga

Asana, the third limb of yoga, is the physical practice and poses that people typically associate with yoga. Poses such as downward-facing dog and vinyasa flow like sun salutations prepare the body for seated meditation.

I know—When you’re tired, sad, angry, or downright crabby, the last thing you want to do is exercise. But I promise you, when you practice yoga consistently, you’ll begin to quiet those negative thoughts. By coordinating breath with movement and focusing on alignment, you’ll move those negative thoughts and emotions out of your body.

And you don’t need to do a vigorous 75-minute yoga practice—unless you want to. Just grab your yoga mat and find a 15-minute gentle yoga class on YouTube. You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel afterward.

#2 - Pranayama: Breath Control Pranayama, the fourth limb of yoga, has to do with breath control. Breathing is a function of the respiratory system which takes fresh air in and moves waste gases out of the body.

Just like the circulatory system which moves blood throughout the body, the respiratory system is an autonomic system, which means it functions on its own without our even thinking about it. But unlike the circulatory system, we can also control our breathing.

Practicing breath control can help calm the mind, reduce stress, improve sleep, and lower blood pressure. It can be done by itself or combined with movement.

The great thing about pranayama or controlled breathing is that it can be done anywhere, anytime.

One of the simplest ways to practice pranayama is to sit for a few minutes, close your eyes if that feels safe for you, breathe, and notice how you feel. Notice the chest and belly rising and falling with each breath. If your mind is racing, silently say to yourself “inhale, exhale” with each breath. Allow each inhale to become a little bit deeper and extend each exhale a little bit longer.

That’s it!

No matter where you are or what you’re doing, you can always stop and just breathe.

#3 – Meditation

Meditation is part of the Niyamas, the second limb of yoga that has to do with self-discipline practices and spiritual observances.

Meditation is a great way to quiet the mind and calm the nervous system. Our brains are constantly processing incoming information from our surroundings, other people, news, and social media. Experts say we process 60,000 – 80,000 thoughts per day or 2,500 – 3,300 thoughts an hour—that’s a whole lot of thinking! All this outside noise keeps us distracted and unable to focus.

Most people think of mediation as sitting quietly and serenely, with a clear mind and no thoughts—an impossible, unattainable state of being. Well, I’m here to tell you that mediation is rarely like that.

Meditation isn’t about shutting everything out and not thinking. Mediation is about learning to calm your mind and to co-exist with what is. It also helps you realize that just because you think something doesn’t make it true. Instead of getting caught up in your thoughts or stories, you can use mediation to become the observer.

How to mediate

To meditate simply find a quiet place where you can comfortably sit or lie down. Close your eyes and focus on your breath or repeat a positive affirmation like “I feel peaceful and calm.”

As thoughts go through your mind—and trust me they will—simply acknowledge them and let them go. If you find yourself getting caught up in the “This is bad” story, reframe the thought with “Isn’t that interesting?” and become the curious observer. Notice how that thought affects your mind and your body. Where do you feel it—In your belly, chest, head?

For example, you called a friend, and she hasn’t called you back yet. You start thinking she’s mad at you and doesn’t want to be friends anymore. Notice how that makes you feel. Do you feel anxious? Where do you feel it in your body — your chest or belly? Ask yourself: Is this thought true or am I making up a story? Is there any evidence to support this thought?

When you take the time to observe your thoughts, you begin to realize there are many reasons why she hasn’t called you back yet—Maybe she’s been in a meeting all day or left her cellphone at home. By using this practice, you can begin to break the negative thought loop.

If you catch yourself in negative self-talk such as “I never/I always,” reframe the thought with “I can sometimes be.” Notice the difference? We’re rarely always or never anything so the reframe of “I can sometimes be” helps remove the negative charge from the thought.

If you’re new to meditation, it might be easier to start with a guided mediation. You can find free guided meditations online or on meditation apps like Calm and Insight Timer. To start, search for a five or ten-minute mediation with positive affirmations.

Keep it simple and don’t worry about whether you’re doing it right. The more your practice, the easier and more natural meditation will feel.

What You Believe About Yourself, You Become

The first step to overcoming chronic negative self-talk is to recognize it.

One of my teachers says, “Where thought goes, energy flows.” Negative self-talk focuses on perceived shortcomings or problems. Because of the brain's negativity bias, negative thoughts can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because the brain will always find evidence to support it.

Negative self-talk drains energy that could be better used to find solutions. Isn’t it more exciting to think about reasons why you should try something new instead of why you can’t? How much more productive could you be if you spent more time thinking about potential solutions to problems rather than focusing on the impossibility of the situation?

Banishing negative self-talk is a process. Some days will be easier than others, but if you consistently use the tools of yoga—asana, pranayama, and meditation--you’ll find the process of managing negative thoughts becomes easier.

Give one of these tools a try and let me know how it goes.

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