Yoga, Self Care & The Dalai Lama: Q & A with Kelly McGonigal, PhD

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Kelly McGonigal PhD is not your typical college professor. (She's actually the kind of professor I wish I had.) She is a leading expert on the mind-body relationship and the psychology of yoga and teaches yoga, meditation, and psychology at Stanford University. Kelly's writing has been published in Yoga Journal and she has been featured as a mind-body expert for many publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and Body + Soul.

We talked to Kelly about yoga as "self-care," her collaboration with Tibetan monks including His Holiness, and her upcoming book The Science of Willpower.

MindBodyGreen: It seems like you've found your calling with your work on yoga, meditation, and wellness... how did you arrive here? Did you have an "a-ha" moment or was it a slow process?

Kelly McGonigal, PhD: My life has been the opposite of a dramatic "a-ha" moment. My experience has been that the universe, and my own gut, are both loud and clear at every step of the way about exactly what I should be doing. The only tricky part has been figuring out how to listen to that message when it doesn’t follow the usual path—like figuring out my first year in graduate school that I wanted to be a yoga teacher informed by science, but not a full-time research scientist or professor. And also learning how not to let fear or doubt keep me from showing up to something. 

For example, at my very first audition to teach yoga, part of me wanted to just go home before it started and pretend like the whole thing never happened! A few years ago, I received very useful encouragement from a meditation teacher about that urge to run. She said that when something is important to you, and you feel that instinct to flee, that’s when you know you’re on exactly the right path.

MBG: How and when did you begin meditating and how has your practice evolved?

KM: I was first introduced to meditation as a very young child. I went to a private Quaker school, and we sat silently in morning "meeting." I was a shy kid, what they’d call now a "sensitive" or "inhibited" temperament. I really liked meeting. The pressure was off! Nothing to do, nothing to say. They told us that if we were patient and still, God might talk to us. 

I don’t recall any great spiritual awakenings from grade school, but when I found Zen meditation in college, it felt like coming home. And now I still sit silently, and find that centered place where nothing needs to happen. I was fortunate to find a Zen teacher 10 years ago who offers compassion as the heart of practice. That has been the missing piece—silence and peace of mind, yes, but also the recognition that a vulnerable, open heart is strength.

MBG: What role does yoga play in your life? What type of yoga do you practice?

KM: Call me old-fashioned, but I’m an eight limbs kind of gal! The foundation of my practice is trying to be conscious about my thoughts and actions, using the yoga ethics (yamas and niyamas) for self-reflection. Doing my best with things like non-harming and non-grasping, knowing that it is a practice, not a "perfect." Using postures and breathwork primarily to support meditation and health, and practicing meditation to cultivate qualities like compassion and courage. So if you were a fly on the wall of my practice, you’d see as much sitting as sun salutations. 

I’ve recently had the opportunity to help develop and teach a Compassion Cultivation Protocol through the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, which is a collaboration between psychologists, scientists, and Tibetan scholars and monks, including His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. This kind of work feels like the fullest expression of yoga in my life right now. Strengthening myself through my own practice to share these compassion practices with others.

MBG: Your latest book is Yoga for Pain Relief -- how do we get to the point as a society where "yoga for pain relief" is as common as "aspirin for pain relief" or going to the doctor? 

KM: Maybe when we find a way to pay someone to "do" yoga for us, instead of having to "do" yoga yourself, which is of course the only way it works. So that’s not going to happen.

I think here’s the real moment: When people realize that yoga is not about headstands and crazy poses. Yoga for pain relief is so much more than poses; it’s about making peace with your body, self-compassion, and all the yoga practices—like breathing, meditation, and relaxation—that make you more resilient to both physical and emotional pain. Of course people aren’t going to turn to yoga for pain relief if they think they need to put on sexy yoga pants and push their bodies until they break. So we, the yoga community, need to do a better job letting people know that yoga is a whole system of self-care, not just about stretching.

Also, doctors aren’t going to recommend yoga for pain relief without an evidence base. But that evidence already exists if you know where to look – it’s in studies that use yoga practices but call it something else, like mindfulness-based stress reduction or relaxation. We need to do a better job pointing healthcare professionals to the scientific evidence that supports yoga’s healing benefits. Another kind of evidence base is even easier – get the healthcare providers to try yoga themselves.

MBG: What can you tell us about your book that's coming out, The Science of Willpower? 

KM: The Science of Willpower (Penguin, forthcoming) is based on a psychology class I teach at Stanford. Its starts with one premise: willpower is not about being the "right" kind of person and forcing yourself to do what you don’t really want to do. Willpower is about finding the energy and courage to do what really matters to you, even when it’s difficult, and even when a part of you is afraid or unwilling. The book will explore the latest research on self-control and motivation, explain why guilt, stress, and self-hate only get in the way of willpower, and offer practical strategies rooted in science, mindfulness, and self-compassion. 

MBG: Do you have any favorite quotes? 

KM: "When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it's bottomless, that it doesn't have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space." -- Pema Chodron

MBG: Favorite books?

KM: Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg and anything by Zen teacher Cheri Huber. Suffering Is Optional is a good place to start. 

MBG: Favorite healthy food?

KM: Vegan carrot cake. It brings me joy, which is more important for health than the beta-carotene in the carrots!

MBG: Do you have any guilty indulgences? 

KM: It is such a gift to enjoy something, why feel guilty? Cynicism and guilt are energy wasters. One of the most wonderful feelings is being an enthusiastic fan. Lately, I’m an enthusiastic fan of two indulgences: the TV shows Glee and So You Think You Can Dance

For more on Kelly:

Kelly on Twitter

Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Chronic Pain on Amazon

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