Not so long ago, everyone wanted a ‘yoga butt’ or Madonna’s ‘yoga arms’. But yoga offers a more impactful and important way to re-shape your body - ‘yoga brain’.
Our understanding of how the brain works has come a loooong way in the last few decades. We now know that the brain is incredibly adaptable, and keeps changing right up until the end of life - and possibly beyond. People who have been clinically dead come back with their brains changed! In the same way that your muscles grow or shrink depending on how and whether you stimulate them, parts of your brain also grow and shrink based on how you use it!
Your brain can change its own structure and function based on what you think and do. This concept is called ‘neuroplasticity’. ‘Neuro’ for neuron and ‘plastic’, meaning changeable or malleable. And your brain is malleable - with the consistency of a brick of tofu. You can literally re-shape it; adding or subtracting neural connections based on how you use your mind. When you learn new things, for example, you add new neural connections. You can also lose neural connections if you don’t use them.
This is the most wonderful, hopeful and exciting news!
It means you can learn new things and new ways of being with regard to habits, love, relationships, pain, learning, addictions, and more. And it means your past is not a prison sentence. You’re not necessarily doomed to repeat the same patterns. You can re-train and re-structure your own brain in ways that help you live life better.
Yoga Meets Neuroscience
Yogis have known this for a long time. The proof is in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a 2500(ish) year old book that lays out the blueprints for yoga practice. A hefty chunk of the Yoga Sutras is dedicated to explaining how the mind works and how to work skillfully with your thoughts so you can unlearn habits that cause suffering and create new habits that lead to peace and freedom.
In yoga-speak, the concept of ‘neuroplasticity’ is known as a ‘samskara’ –a behavioural ‘rut’ or ‘groove’ that you sculpt into your body/mind by repeating thoughts and behaviours. It gets easier to fall into a thought/behaviour ‘groove’ every time you repeat it. That’s how habits are formed. You can also create new ‘grooves’ by practicing new thoughts and behaviours.
Both neuroscience and yoga agree: the way you think, feel and act changes the structure of your brain. When you become aware that this is how your brain operates, you can start to use that knowledge to consciously re-shape the way you think and act. You can steer the direction of your brain’s growth and evolution by choosing to practice thoughts, feelings and behaviours that grow your brain in a direction YOU CHOOSE.
That’s an incredibly empowering idea! Let that sink in…
In mindfulness practice, that’s exactly what you do! Steer yourself away from habits and thoughts that lead to suffering and create thoughts & behaviours that shape your mind into a more serene and peaceful place.
Neuroplasticity is a simple concept: when you repeat a thought or behaviour, you create a robust neural pathway in the brain that grows stronger with every repetition. Repeated use shapes that circuit’s function and strengthens it. Want inner peace? Practice thinking peaceful thoughts.
When you alter the physical structure of your brain, you alter the way your brain functions.
Proof That Yoga Re-Structures Your Brain
Thanks to modern brain imaging technology and the recent boom in yoga research, we an actually SEE the kinds of changes that take place in the brains of yoga practitioners. Three areas of the brain that are re-structured by yoga practice are your Amygdala (fear and emotions), Hippocampus (memory & learning) and the Insula (self-awareness).
Your amygdala is part of your limbic system. A very old (reptilian) part of your brain that is dedicated to your survival.
If you think about the history of human development, and what the human body looks like compared to other animals (wolves, bears and tigers) we don’t look like a predator. No fangs, no claws, no talons. We look like prey. As prey, our brains developed to be hyper-aware about things that could potentially harm us -so we could be prepared to react quickly to save our skins.
This is where your amygdala comes in. It’s a part of the brain that plays a role in emotional reactions and fear responses, amongst other things.
If you’ve ever found yourself in panic mode when your child is late coming home from a friend’s house or flown into a full-on freak-out about how unprepared you are to give a presentation (even though you’re perfectly prepared) … you’ve felt your amygdala doing it’s thing. Your evolutionary biology has predisposed you to focus on identifying potential threats. While this is useful in certain situations – like when you’re walking alone through a shady neighbourhood at night or trying to survive on the savanna - You DON’T want your amygdala running your life and injecting fear into situations where it doesn’t belong.
The amygdala shrinks in yoga practitioners. This can be seen with fMRI imaging. And as a result of this structural change to your brain, your propensity for reacting with fear and anxiety shrinks too.
A number of studies highlight changes in hippocampal volume following yoga practice. The hippocampus is involved in learning and memory processing. It shrinks as you age, and it’s the structure first affected in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So, beefing up the amount of gray matter in your hippocampus is a great idea – and yoga practice does just that! Studies have shown that middle-aged meditators have the same-sized hippocampus as people in their 20s. And no deterioriation compared to age-matched subjects who aren’t meditators.
Interestingly, your hippocampus is also related to body awareness and is critical to dampening stress. Both also improve with yoga practice.
Research shows that the insula plays an important role in many different kinds of meditative practices. It’s central to interoceptive body awareness. Interoception is your ability to sense signals coming from deep within (heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, hunger, satiation, etc). It also seems to be involved in empathy, postural changes and slow breathing.
Here's a practice to hone your interoceptive awareness
Various neuroimaging studies have shown that interoceptive awareness is associated with stress resiliency and low interoceptive awareness is associated with depression. It’s believed that the insula is involved in our present-moment awareness and in processing bodily sensations which are used to make decisions (choosing how to react to a situation based on a gut feeling or recognizing that your blood sugar is low and you need to eat).
Increased interoceptive awareness allows you to be in touch with early warning signals coming from your internal environment that let you know something is out of balance and needs correcting (you need water, are fatigued, are under stress). When you’re aware of imbalances in the early stages, you can take steps to address the situation before it gets out of hand. Perhaps that’s what allows yoga practitioners to experience more physiological, mental and emotional balance.
In addition to its involvement in your sense of presence and self-awareness, your insula seems to be connected to your awareness of others and their feelings. Exercising your insula gives rise to feelings of compassion, social connection and attunement to others. Yoga means union and the practice is meant to help us experience our interconnectedness. The insula may be the key to understanding this effect.
If you’ve been practicing yoga for awhile, you likely already know, deep in your guts, that yoga has changed your mind/brain. The evidence is in the way you show up and respond to situations in your own life on a daily basis. But now, thanks to brain imaging technology, we can SEE and point to the ways yoga physically changes your brain and positively impacts its health.
Stay tuned for Part II of this blog, where we investigate Pratipaksha Bhavana, a yogic tool for transforming negative thinking.
Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6971819/
What Has Neuroimaging Taught Us on the Neurobiology of Yoga? A Review
Neuroprotective effects of yoga practice: age-, experience-, and frequency-dependent plasticity
Neurohemodynamic correlates of 'OM' chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study
The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D.
Yoga International, Anatomy of the Meditative Brain (video)
You’re probably familiar with the ‘Hang in There’ cat meme. The original was created by a photographer named Victor Baldwin back in the 1970s - the cat clining to a bamboo pole, trying to prevent a fall. It may be the first ever motivational poster - meant to inspire us not to give up when the going gets tough. And it’s implied that if you can just hang in there long enough, there’s a reprieve or a reward waiting for you.
The artist received lots of letters from people concerned about animal cruelty – worried that Sassy, the cat, was legitimately scared and suffering. Although the meme certainly ‘hung in there’ (for 50+ years), Sassy the cat did not. She let go moments after the picture was taken – landing feet first on the ground before running off to play.
*No cats were harmed in the making of this blog post*
The inspiration I draw from the story is – sometimes you just need to let go. And life frequently gets better when you do!
Even the ‘Hang in There’ kitty (THE FACE of hanging in there) had to let go at some point.
‘Aparigraha’ is the yogic principle of ‘non-grasping’ or ‘letting go’. Both yogic wisdom (and life experience) tell us that trying to hang on to what’s past its ‘best before’ date in life just creates suffering.
Life is in a state of constant flux, which means life offers us an endless string of reasons to let go. We have to learn to let go of circumstances beyond our control (illness, job loss, weather, natural catastrophes, other peoples’ behaviour) and let go of people we care about deeply (breakups, deaths, and drifting apart). As an inevitable part of living. Trying to hang on often hurts more than letting go.
Still, life changes are stressful - especially changes you didn't invite. Death, illness, marriage, divorce, job loss, retirement, moving & pregnancy are some of the most stress-inducing adjustments people have to make in life. Whether it’s good or bad, change is hard. It requires you to let go of one way of being in the world and adapt to another.
In spite of the fact that letting go is:
a) an inevitable part of being alive, and
b) can open the door for wonderful new things and people to enter your life
it’s still really hard to do! Which might lead you to wonder…
WHY IS LETTING GO SO HARD?
It’s in your wiring. Resisting change is part of your inherited evolutionary strategy for surviving in a dangerous world. You’re wired to find change and uncertainty difficult and to find comfort in what is familiar. There’s a measure of safety and security in knowing what to expect from day to day.
When you find yourself needing to adapt to new circumstances in life, it activates your stress response. Have compassion for yourself if you have a hard time with letting go. You’re working against your biology. The good news is that you can get better at letting go by practicing.
And yoga practice provides a tremendous training ground for giving your ‘letting go’ muscles a workout. If you’ve been taking yoga for awhile, you’ve surely been instructed to ‘let go’: of tension, of your breath, of stress, of anything that isn’t serving you on your path to peace and anything else in your life that you may have outgrown. A job, a relationship, an old sense of identity, any beliefs that prevent you from moving forward. Your yoga practice is full of amazing techniques that you can use to help you ‘unclench’ and loosen your mental and physical grip in everyday life.
HERE’S HOW YOGA CAN HELP YOU LEARN TO LET GO LIKE A PRO – ON AND OFF YOUR MAT:
1.SET AN INTENTION
Next time you hop on your mat, begin by setting an intention to let go of something (an attitude/belief/way of being) that’s blocking your growth: perfectionism, tension, stress, the need to rush, judgment, criticism… And devote your practice to doing just that.
Let’s use perfectionism as an example. Perfectionism can make you tight, anxious and preoccupied with doing things ‘right’. That can really suck the joy out of your practice and leave you feeling bummed out when you fall out of tree pose.
Consider this: if you're reluctant to do things you can’t do perfectly, you deny yourself the opportunity to grow, change and master new skills. Do the poses you find challenging. That’s how you get better at the poses you can't execute perfectly. You might fall out of tree pose today – but over time and with patience and practice, you'll improve.
Each time you make an effort to accept yourself and your abilities as they are, you loosen your need to make your practice, your body and your life more perfect. Your mat is a perfect training ground for letting go of attitudes and beliefs that keep you stuck – both on and off your mat.
2.CREATE A POSITIVE MANTRA AROUND CHANGE
Like this one: "I AM FORGING A NEW PATH IN LIFE.”
Repeat it to yourself often and throw as much positive energy as you can behind it. To move into the future, you have to let go of the past. Remind yourself that when you let go of one thing, you energetically free up space in your life to create something new. That idea is kind of exciting.
Bravely go forward into your ever-evolving life!
Breathing like you’re relaxed actually makes you relax. When you exhale deeply (like you would if you were letting out a long sigh of relief) it sends a message to your brain that it can calm down and let go – and your brain sends a message back to your body telling it to relax, too – creating a beautiful feedback loop that starts unwinding mental and physical tension. Try this breathing exercise:
4. TRY PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION (PMR)
PMR teaches you how to free yourself from tension from head to toe. By systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups. When you Juxtapose the sensation of muscular gripping with ‘non-gripping’, it helps you understand what those things feels like in your body. And gives you the skills you need to consciously relax yourself when you’re in the grip of muscular or mental tension. It can also help reduce physical problems associated with stress - like stomachaches, headaches, and trouble sleeping.
The communication pathway between your mind and your muscles travels in two directions. A stressed out mind signals muscles to contract in preparation for fight or flight (your body’s stress response). But you can signal your muscles to relax and send a powerful message to your mind that it can relax too.
Try PMR to let go of tension in your muscles and your mind
5. PRACTICE SAVASANA
The corpse pose. Savasana is a reminder that eventually, at the end of life, we will have to let everything go. It's the ultimate practice of renunciation and teaches us how to let go with grace: relax, be in the moment, be with things as they are, surrender, and let go.
OFF THE MAT: WATCH YOUR THOUGHTS
When the ‘what ifs’ in your head are running wild and you feel yourself freaking out about change, DO NOT let the worst case scenarios running through your head get the best of you. Recognize them for what they are: it’s your biologically wired preference for familiarity talking to you. It’s not reality.
When you think ‘What if I let go of this job and can’t find another one?’ or ‘What if I let go of this relationship and I never find love again … and I die alone and no one even notices except my dog?” Do yourself a huge favour and cut that voice off. The ‘what ifs’ can tighten your tendency to grip and make it even harder to let go.
Beat the 'what ifs' at their own game. Start with this thought: ‘“What if instead of expecting the worst, I expect the best?” ‘What if I leave this job and get my dream job?’ It could happen. It happened to me when I quit my day job and switched to teaching yoga full time. Talk back to the voices in your head. When they present you with a worst case scenario, fire back with the best case scenario. Keep talking over your fears with hope and optimism.
6. REMEMBER THAT THERE ARE TIMES IN LIFE TO 'HANG IN THERE' AND TIMES TO LET GO
For those occasions in life when you need to let go to move forward, yoga offers you a multitude of ways to improve your ability to unclench: breathing strategies, muscle relaxation techniques, intention-setting, etc. All of which you can use to calm yourself and build trust in your ability to land on your feet in any situation.
If Sassy the cat had just kept hanging on all these years, for fear of the unknown, he would still be there suspended from that bamboo stick today – static and afraid – forever.
Artist James Victore created an alternative take on the ‘Hang In There’ kitty poster when he was asked to design motivational posters for New York State’s Department of Probation. About which he said “‘hang in there’ is the worst advice to give to anyone in the probation rotation system. Hanging on to what brought you to that place will just bring you right back to the same damn place, right? So, let go. Let go of all your fear and bad habits. Let go of the people around you who are poison, who don’t support and raise you up. Let go of your limiting beliefs about WHO you are and what you’re capable of. Just let go, kitty.”
The aim of yoga is to still the busy-ness of your mind – but if your life and relationships are a mess, it’s impossible to have peace. So, yoga starts, not with poses, but by cleaning up your relationships – with yourself, with others and with the world around you - so you can create the conditions for inner peace to arise. Moral and ethical practices are the foundation of Classical Yoga. The first principle of practice is ‘ahimsa’, which means non-violence or do no harm. Beyond just refraining from causing harm to others, you can think of this as a practice of actively nurturing or peace-building in your own body, mind, heart, and relationships. Here are some ways that you can explore ‘ahimsa’ from the inside out:
TALK NICELY TO YOURSELF
“Make sure you’re in a conversation with your body, and not an argument.”
I got this brilliant piece of advice from one of my very first yoga teachers. She was probably watching me try to wrestle myself into a deep forward fold … and failing … and looking miserable about it. Folding in half felt completely impossible in my body, but other people in yoga class seemed to do it with ease. And I thought I should be able to do it too. I hated forward folds – that is, until I got out of the habit of arguing with my body and started having conversations with myself instead. A dialogue with myself in a forward fold goes like this:
ME: (with eyes closed; not paying attention to anyone else) Hey, hamstrings. How does this pose feel for you?
HAMSTRINGS: This is kind of intense. You’re making me really uncomfortable. Can you back off a little?
ME: Of course! (shifting a little out of the depth of the forward fold) Is that better?
HAMSTRINGS: OMG. Yes! SOOO much better. Thank you.
ME: I love you like that, hammies! If there’s anything else you need to be comfortable, let me know. I’m listening.
You probably know the iceberg analogy … You can see 10% of an iceberg above the surface of the water. The other 90% is submerged. Like an iceberg, 90% of what is going on in a yoga pose is invisible to the naked eye. The invisible part of your practice also happens to be the most important part: your attitude and intentions.
If you’re at war with your body’s limitations or bullying yourself into the poses, you’re missing 90% of your yoga practice, and the most fundamental principle: ‘ahimsa’. There’s no bullying in yoga.
Folding yourself in half or forcing your ankle behind your ear is more likely to take you down a path to your physiotherapist’s office than it is to take you down a path to inner peace. Be careful not to place too much stock in the shapes of the poses. You get better at what you practice, so it’s most important that you practice includes adopting an attitude of compassion and curiousity towards yourself.
TAKE A SAVASANA
Your mind is the most powerful tool you have in your possession. Everything begins as a thought in your head. Many of us carry the belief – consciously or unconsciously, that we are not enough. The predominant cultural messaging we live with is that we need more – to do more, to get more, to be more – more money, more Instagram followers, more success, more thin, more beautiful, more fit, etc… so we can finally be enough.
Instead of trying to get somewhere else or become a new and improved version of yourself, Savasana asks you to find comfort and peace in who you are right now: to lie down, look inside yourself; disentangle yourself from the external messaging that you’re somehow inadequate, and engage with yourself for long enough to notice that you are enough – just as you are. You have everything you need in the present moment. You are already whole. There is nothing you can add to yourself that will make you more complete.
Your breath is always with you – which is fortunate – because it’s also a super simple & powerful tool for shifting your state of mind. And you can use it anywhere, anytime. Long exhalations are soothing for your nervous system and calming for your body and mind. Try this:
Close your mouth and inhale through your nose as you count to four. Then exhale for a count of 8. That’s it! Easy peasy! Long exhalations stimulate your body’s relaxation response.
APPROACH CONFLICT WITH CURIOSITY
Once upon a time, I went to school to become a mediator. Plans changed. I went on to study philosophy. In those 8 years of study, I learned a lot about arguing, and how to skillfully engage with people and ideas I don’t agree with. In mediation class, we used a textbook called ‘Getting to Yes’ to guide our practice in resolving conflicts. That book had some of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever read for resolving disagreements peacefully:
I’ve been using these strategies to help peacefully navigate my way through difficult conversations for my entire adult life. Many people haven’t had practice or instruction in how to deal productively with conflicts (I see you, internet!). It’s helpful to keep this in mind and forgive ourselves and each other when we get it wrong.
Disagreements are part of life. Just about every subject worth discussing (politics, religion, public health policy, the best way to raise children, etc) carries the risk of conflict. But there's also usually some common ground. And it’s important to be willing to find common ground - so that you can engage in a productive conversation. In the words of world debate champion, Julia Dhar, ‘If we are more focused on what makes us different than the same, then every debate is a fight.”
When you find yourself in a hard conversation where someone holds a different position than you (on vaccinations, for example), it's important to:
Even if no one changes their mind, you’ve likely glimpsed one another’s humanity, and learned about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That makes it harder to make someone an ‘other’ or an ‘enemy’. And that alone has value IF you are interested in practicing peace.
To learn more about the art of constructive conversations and negotiations, I recommend reading Getting to Yes. Or check out these talks with world debate champion Julia Dhar.
RADIATE PEACEFUL VIBES
Bolster your decision to practice peace by radiating good will to yourself and others through meditation. Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Relax. Visualize yourself and say:
May you have peace
In your body
Repeat those words, sending goodwill out to others
Instead of attempting to wrestle your body, mind, or other people into submission, a lot of peace-building activity boils down to trading in an attitude of coercion for one of curiosity. Peacefulness is a way of approaching life without violence or prejudice, and without thinking of others as ‘enemies’. It’s a way of approaching conflict that is collaborative and values relationships. Practicing peacefulness isn’t easy. It requires tremendous patience, compassion and skill. Like any skill, you can get better at it - with practice. If you want to make peace in the world, start practicing from the inside out.