A series of Science based articles on the topics of Yoga, Meditation and Eastern Philosophy by Elgar Richards. LMT-ERYT500. Teacher, Traveler, Student, Lover of Human Experience and Beyond.
This past week I had the immense pleasure of attending a Neuroscience Symposium titled: from the Brain to the Cosmos and back. It was a privilege to sit and learn from some of the top researchers in their field about new exciting research coming from Neuroscience, Quantum Physics and from that age-old practice we call Yoga. One of the things that fascinate me the most as a Yoga teacher, is the emerging science that provides a validation and congruity with the ancient science of Yoga and Meditation.
For those of us who have had the experiences first hand through consistent and deep practice, there is little doubt as to the seemingly magical powers of Yoga and Meditation. The curiosity for me however, is still much deeper. What exactly is happening biologically within the body during and after a practice? Is Yoga really the cure all for so many chronic ailments? If so, how is it possible? Can we measure it or observe the processes and what does it look like? Are some practices more effective than others? How can we use the emerging insights of Neuroscience to craft practices that are better tailored to the needs of a diverse humanity?
One of the things that bring me joy as a teacher is reducing incredibly vast and perhaps otherwise difficult to understand concepts and teachings, into simple practices and conversations, which make it accessible to everyday people who otherwise could miss it.
While so much of Yoga in the West has become a cult of personality, fitness routines, “celebrification” (yes I made that up) and identification with something trendy or otherwise appealing for any number of reasons; the ancient science itself holds incredible potential to transform our lives both inside and out. That is the beauty of Yoga, it can and will meet us where we are, it will guide us into the experience we are prepared to have or the one we are seeking; and it will also gently guide us deeper into the far reaches of what is possible through our own direct experience, softly penetrating layer by layer and in the process, altering our own life in so many positive ways. But what is happening when we practice that makes us feel these ways?
The Neuroscience of Yoga and Meditation is becoming more understood, slowly. What was previously for the most part anecdotal evidence is now emerging as a scientific fact. Yet there is so much more to understand, we have only touched the surface. So we know that we may feel good after our Yoga practice, but lets walk our way through a practice and see how it affects us in profound ways that may be beyond your understanding; just a sneak peak.
From the moment you have set a goal or intention to practice, followed by the decision to step onto your mat and practice, you have already initiated the release of dopamine and serotonin. Both of which, operate synergistically to reinforce a habit pattern, in this case a healthy one. This particular neurotransmitter combination release creates a feeling of tranquility, happiness and reward. All things we can appreciate. Dopamine stimulates our sense of enjoyment, pleasure and reward, while a properly functioning serotonin production and absorption is responsible for good moods, staying out of “low” or depressive states and reducing our sense of anxiety, better sleep patterns and normalizing sexual desire. Essentially, these two neurotransmitters will contribute to our sense of life enjoyment, happiness and feeling good!
You sit and begin to watch your breath. Breath is often overlooked, spoken about at times in Yoga but rarely treated as a complete practice unto itself. Yogis have always said that breath and mind are more than just interrelated. They are mirrors of each other. An excited mind will produce an excited breath; a calm mind will produce a calm breath. This is of course a simplification of a complex science, but if we understand this concept then we can begin to rewrite our patterns and behaviors consciously. Every emotional state produces a corresponding breathing pattern, what the mind thinks, the breath becomes. What makes this so crucial to understand is that breathing regulates in some way every physiological process in the human body. Stress or ease, overactive mind or quieted mind, feeling connected or feeling disconnected, it all can be shifted by consciously using the breath. The emotional or mental disruptions we feel may arise from mind, but breath can change it. Think of breath as the middleman between the body and mind if it helps. The simple act of breathing deep and rhythmically through the nose will activate the parasympathetic nervous system and slows bodily process, thinking processes and induce a sense of calm in the body.
The act of moving consciously in your Yoga practice will deepen your brain, mind, body connection or neuro-visceral integration. What does that even mean? Think of this as developing a greater level of communication and connection between brain and body, as well as the regulation of our autonomic nervous system. What this means in another way is assisting to bring the otherwise unconscious conditioned patterns of our sensory body into our awareness and control. Think of the super human ability to regulate moods and emotions and bring them into a more functional and healthy realm. While some of us may have attachments to emotional patterns and while they are necessary socially for their ability to regulate human behavior, its important to also understand that what we refer to as a mood or emotion is really just a chemical cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones that if left unchecked can have devastating effects on the body and brain.
Developing a routine to regulate and bring this into our awareness is incredibly useful. Also, as we learn to become aware of our bodily sensations, thoughts and process them accordingly, we will eventually develop a communication that allows us to regulate these emotional and sensory phenomena that currently may seem out of our control. The result is that with consistent practice, we will begin to be able to regulate our emotional states; this does not mean that we will not experience emotion not will it minimize their value or importance, it simple means that we will be better able to direct them consciously in ways that are more conducive to living a happy, joyful and peaceful life. Our emotions and feelings may no longer have to derail us, consume us or create prolonged suffering. They can simply exist as markers that we observe in their rightful place that show us how to better interact with reality, which can now be constructed consciously through our own biofeedback capacity.
Your brain on Yoga is a fascinating thing. While we love the external benefits of a Yoga practice, the calming effects on our minds, or the challenge of disciplined practice; Yoga actually exists to do so much more for us. That’s one of the most unique aspects of Yoga among other modalities of consciousness based work; Yoga is so vast that is meets us where our intent lies. In other words, Yoga will take us as deep as we are willing to go. If that place is purely physical or mental, we will receive the benefit, if it is something much deeper and profound, Yoga will meet us there also. While we can use it to address our need for health and inner peace and joy; it is designed to do so much more, so keep journeying on into Yoga and discover for yourself where it can take you.