It literally changes the structure of your brain. It alters your
brain chemistry and it changes the way the thought patterns are
processed. And it's been measured.
A regular yoga practice
can improve physical, mental, and emotional balance. Physically, the
poses bring more strength and flexibility to all areas of the body. That
part is easy to recognize. The more you practice, the stronger and more
flexible you get. Simple. But why do people fall in love with the
practice and why do they feel they have been changed on a deeper more
spiritual level? Well, that part can be measured too.
for a long time, have known that practicing yoga and meditation
enhances mental stability and brings about profound changes in life. How
does the physical practice of yoga postures do this?
your answer: on a mental level, practicing yoga develops a stronger
connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. However,
this only occurs if your practice is “mindful”. That is, only if you
are experiencing the poses and practicing being in the moment. Your
energy flows wherever your thoughts go. Imagine you are sitting inside
your house and hear a loud noise outside; your awareness goes outside
immediately, with or without your body. Imagine it, and then think of
someone trying to talk to you while you are attuning to the noise
outside. You would shush them immediately. You are directing your
awareness away from your body and are tuning into what is going on in
your yard. The same principles apply to a mindful yoga practice. If your
thoughts are elsewhere, your energy is not directed inward on the body
and is not focusing on specific areas of the body that the poses are
designed to work on. In a nutshell, just doing the poses correctly is
only getting you halfway there. Without being mindful, you are simply
getting exercise. To get the most out of your practice, you must be
present and practice mindful techniques while you are in the poses. The
easiest technique is to focus on the breath. Yogis have believed for
thousands of years that the breath is the gateway from the physical
world to the world of consciousness.
Western science is
paying more and more attention to the phenomenon of yoga. Studies have
shown that mindful practices develop a stronger connection between the
right and left hemispheres of the brain. That connection between the two
sides is called neural integration. The right side of the brain is
nonverbal, holistic, visuospatial, integrated map of the whole body, raw
spontaneous emotion, and stress modulation. The left specializes in
linguistics, linearity, logic, and literal thinking. When functions are
separated, the brain can harness them into a state of connection to
achieve more complex and adaptive functions.[v] We can say then that the
left side of the brain may contain the “narrator” function, while the
memories are stored on the right side. It has been proposed that during
mindfulness practice, the left side of “chatter” would be competing with
the right side (associated with body sense) for limited resources of
attentional focus. By causing the two sides to compete during asana
practice and forcing focus on the body, neural integration occurs. The
cross over and coordination between both sides happens. With each
successful mindful practice, the interconnections become stronger and
create a form of coordination and balance structurally in the brain. The
areas of the brain associated with neural integration actually become
corpus callosum is the structure deep in the brain that connects the
right and left hemispheres of the cerebrum, coordinating the functions
of the two halves.
The Sanskrit term Hatha
yoga, the practice of the physical postures, translates in a couple of
different ways; Ha means “sun”, tha means “moon” and yoga means to
unite; hatha can also mean “forceful”. Practicing the postures then, is
a way to unite the opposing sides in a forceful way. (for this
discussion) It's uniting forces of the right and left (literally) the
yin and yang, the masculine and feminine, the logical and the
Oh No, They've Gone Spiritual
yoga sutras of Patanjali, which date back to 200 B.C., open by stating
that yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object
and sustain that direction without distractions.[vii] Sutra 1.2,
“yogasgcittacrttinirodhah”, literally translates to yoga ceases
fluctuations of the mind. Patanjali’s description of the benefits of
yoga, lead us to understand that yoga is for the mind and soul. He
wasn't talking about the postures we practice today (in fact those are a
recent invention). Was Patanjali talking about neural integration? My
guess is yes, on some level. What modern neuroscience is saying about
yoga is very much related to what the ancient texts of India state.
Patanjali's yoga sutras are just a little more esoteric than the average
American is interested in. So for those that need scientific proof,
reading or hearing about the spiritual benefits of a yoga practice may
seem like new age fluff, or even weird. My point is not to take away
from those that make their practice a spiritual practice, but to
demystify the process a bit. To point out that there is actually
something physical that happens to your brain on yoga. Why it changes
its practitioners, and why so many yogis "go spiritual".
Practice Practice Practice
has proven that experiences can create structural changes in the human
brain[viii]. Neural integration and the practice of mindful awareness
have been proven to “improve the capacity to regulate emotion, to combat
emotional dysfunction, to improve patterns of thinking, and to reduce
negative mindsets.”[ix] Mindful awareness strengthens the areas of the
brain responsible for our relationships, our emotional life, and our
physiological response to stress.[x]
mindfully requires you to experience everything about the pose without
forming a judgment about the sensation. For example, observe the body
during practice without narrative preconceived notions like, “ouch this
hurts, or I’m not even going to try to do that”. There is a line
between pain and discomfort. Never cause yourself pain, but use your
practice to cultivate calmness through minor discomfort. Eventually,
your mind will begin to relate the energetic effects of the asana with
the practice and theoretically, the pose will no longer be associated
with discomfort. Move beyond the idea that a pose is inaccessible,
become aware of limitations and simply perform the pose to the body’s
current capacity, wherever that is. Move into and out of the poses at
the same speed and think and feel the sensations as you breathe in a
controlled manner. Try not to describe or label your experience with
words, try to conceptualize and feel your way through instead.
get this: the more challenging a task it, the easier it is to bring
mindfulness into the practice. In other words, the harder it is, the
easier it is to focus. Duh. So, go ahead and indulge in that ass-kickin'
asana practice. Over time you'll be more able to go to the restorative
class without getting annoyed or falling asleep. And if you prefer the
slower paced gentle yoga class, and you are able to practice
mindfulness, congratulations. However, everyone should balance out their
practices with a little bit of both practices. It's good to keep your
body and your brain guessing, and it's good to develop strength and get
out of your comfort zone.
So, what happens when both sides
of the brain are communicating simultaneously during every day life and
during decision making? I guess you'll have to start practicing some
form of mindful awareness to find out. So, go ahead yoga nerds...get on
your mat, practice mindfulness, and do some neural integration.
[i] Timothy McCall, M.D. Yoga as Medicine; the Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. (New York, 2007). 31.
[ii] McCall 37.
[iii] McCall 39.
Mundell, EJ. “Yoga May Help Treat Depression, Anxiety Disorders”.
Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. (Health Day News) May
[v] Daniel J. Siegel. The Mindful Brain; Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being (New York:Toronto 2007) 46.
[vi] Siegel 44.
[vii] T.K.V. Desikachar. The Heart of Yoga; Developing a Personal Practice. (Rochester, VT 2005) 165.
[viii] Seigel 25.
[ix] Seigel 6.
[x] Seigel 6.