Yoga has been shown to improve coordination, reaction time, memory, and other measures of effective brain function. When you study yoga, you are learning completely new ways to move the body, and coordinating different actions simultaneously. Beyond all the variety in asana, there are breathing techniques, visualizations, mantras, and different kinds of meditation. Each of these activities causes the brain to build new synapses, the connections between neurons. Scientists now believe that continuing to learn new things into older age is one key to increasing neuroplasticity and maintaining brain function. Yoga also teaches you to focus your attention. (source: Timothy McCall, M.D.)
By Stephen Cope, Senior Teacher at Kripalu Center
Kripalu Center is situated just across the street from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. From early on in my tenure at Kripalu, I found myself wandering across the street, sometimes every night, to watch conductor Seiki Ozawa’s artistry and hear the genius of musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, Peter Serkin ad Kathleen Battle. What a treat!
Gradually, I began to notice something interesting – something that linked my daytime yoga practice with my nighttime revels at Tanglewood. These artists routinely entered into profound states of concentration. I recognized these states because they were precisely the same states cultivated in yoga and meditation – the same states I was cultivating in my own practice. What a surprise! I also noticed that the concentrated states into which the musicians entered affected not only themselves, but the audience as well. There was a profound “field effect” that extended to the thousands of people participating through listening.
All contemplative paths cultivate the mind’s natural capacity to focus awareness. Yoga and meditation systematically expand and deepen this ability. In highly concentrated states, attention becomes one-pointed. External, distracting sensory input is completely tuned out. As the mind penetrates the object of its attention, the very architecture of the mental process is transformed. The stream of thought becomes laser-like, narrowed but highly organized. All extraordinary human endeavors involve this same quality of concentration. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “what makes a man is great concentration of effort.” “Winners focus, losers scatter,” says Stephen Covey, author of the acclaimed Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Yogis have another way of saying this that better conveys the spirit lying behind most extraordinary achievements: When you bring all of your energy and commitment to the table, God shows up. When you fully commit to one path, to one endeavor, then the Universe somehow responds. Mysterious doors open. We discover powers we did not know we had. Unseen beings come to our aid. We experience unboundedness – a mystical connection with the whole field of mind and matter – and act not from the individual personality but a state of unified mind.
I believe everyone has the capacity for extraordinary living. All that is required is that we bring our focus, skill, and energy together to serve on purpose. If we do it, it can lead to astonishing powers of body, mind, and spirit – powers that are note “ours” in any sense of the word, but which we simply channel into worthy endeavors.
Inspired from Rick Hanson, P.H.D and Budda’s Brain – The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, & wisdom.
Let’s be mindful of the automatic mental processes that cause us to identify with a particular group (gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, political party, nation), and then regard members of different groups as others. Focus on similarities between “us” and “them,” not differences. Recognize that everything is connected to everything else, that “us” is the whole wide world – that, in a deep sense, the entire planet is our home and the people on it are our extended family. Deliberately create mental categories that include us along with people we usually regard as not-us. For example, when we see someone in a wheelchair, consider the fact that we are all disabled in one way or another.
Be particularly mindful of the default processes of valuing our own group while devaluing others. Notice how often that valuing actually has no rational basis. Be aware of the little ways that our minds regard others as less of a person than our individual selves. Focus on the good things about people in other groups. Regard people more as individuals than as representatives of a group, which reduces prejudice.
Meditation on Loving Kindness
Find a posture that helps you remain relaxed and alert. Settle into your breath, establish some equanimity, some mental spaciousness and balance.
Be aware of the sensations of the breath in the region of your heart. Bring to mind the feeling of being with someone you love. Keep that feeling of love. Sense that love flowing through your heart, perhaps in a rhythm with your breath. Feel how that love has a life of its own, flowing through your heart, not specific to any one person.
Sense the love toward people you know, your friends and family. Feel that loving-kindness extending further out, to people you know who are neutral to you. With them the best, wish that they suffer less, and that they truly be happy.
You may feel loving-kindness like warmth or light or like a spreading pool, with gentle waves that extend further out to include more people. Feel this loving-kindness including even difficult people and people who may have harmed you. Wish that even they suffer less and be truly happy.
The peacefulness and strength of this loving-kindness flows outward even to people who you don’t know, whether you agree with them or not, whether you like them or not.
Keep feeling that flowing love as you watch your breath enter and leave your body.
To say that yoga simply relaxes the nervous system is an oversimplification. Many yogic practices, like backbends and strong pranayama techniques, actively stimulate the SNS, so yoga’s benefits can’t be reduced to just relaxation. What you want is an ANS that’s finely tuned to respond to whatever stresses life brings, shifting the relative activation of the PNS and SNS as needed. My guess is that yoga, by a combination of stimulating and relaxing practices, tones the nervous system to give it this flexibility. Researchers analyze the function of the ANS by looking at such factors as how well the body senses and adjusts to changes in body position (baroreceptor sensitivity) and whether the heart maintains a healthy though subtle variation in its rhythm (heart rate variability). Yoga appears to improve both of these measures. (source: Timothy McCall, M.D.)
When people talk about stress reduction, they often mean changing the balance between the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), switching it from a hyper-vigilant state, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), to relaxation, mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The ANS regulates the function of internal organs such as the heart, lungs, and intestines; it is sometimes dominated by the SNS and sometimes by the PNS, depending on the circumstances. The SNS, the “fight or flight” response, becomes more dominant in emergencies. When there is now perceived emergency, the PNS dominates. The PNS is calming and restorative; it lowers the breathing and heart rates, decreases blood pressure, and increases blood flow to internal organs such as the intestines and reproductive organs, allowing you to “rest and digest.” These effects, which are the opposite of fight-or-flight, constitute what Dr. Herbert Benson has dubbed “the relaxation response.” The system he popularized to elicit it, which involves closing the eyes, following the breath, and repeating a word or phrase, is directly modeled on Transcendental Meditation (TM), a type of yogic mantra meditation, though other yogic tools including asana and pranayama can similarly shift stress in a wide variety of medical problems – not just the obvious ones like migraines and insomnia. (source: Timothy McCall, M.D.)
Author Bo Forbes, PsyD – Yoga for Emotional Balance
Chronic stress, multitasking, the pressure to have it all, and a value system that emphasizes achievement over self-care make emotional imbalance, not balance, more common in modern human experience. It’s no secret, alarming numbers of Americans are on some type of anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, and/or sleep aide.
If you’ve tried for a long time to “fix” your anxiety and depression through medication or psychotherapy, these are not your only options. You can add yoga to any treatment you’re currently using and see beneficial effects. Unlike medication and psychotherapy, yoga addresses the mind and body at the same time. Yoga’s physical poses (both active and restorative) help build new body experiences that differ from anxiety and depression. This tells every system in your mind-body network that you are not anxious and not depressed. Yoga also influences posture: it can shift the very movement and alignment patterns that have led to a closed heart area, amped-up muscular tension, or sped us up to the point of agitation.
Yoga’s benefits don’t stop there. It’s special breathing techniques can calm an anxious mind or invigorate a sluggish one. Its use of relaxation, after each practice and in restorative poses, balances the nervous system. And yoga’s ability to help us attend to our direct experience (sometimes called present-moment awareness), also sets the stage for quieting the mind and changing mental patterns. Yoga’s therapeutic tools (focused attention, visualization, breathing exercises, relaxation, and Restorative Yoga, to name a few) don’t just begin to assemble a new, healthier emotional experience. They reach beyond these experiences to the root of our original suffering: a separation from the deepest parts of ourselves.
Yoga is a mind-body medicine. It works through the mind and body to help heal anxiety, depression, and other forms of emotional pain.
There are countless studies proving the benefits of yoga practice at the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels.
I encourage you, if you are suffering in any way, to seek out a yoga teacher who’s teaching style resonates with you in an environment that feels safe to you, and move through your healing process and find inner peace, happiness, and strength.