A guest post.
It is easy to be misled about where the value of a dedicated yoga practice lies. Any social media platform will demonstrate this within moments of scrolling. There he or she will be, beautiful, flexible, strong, showing off agility and ability; someone you may or may not know. In the copy of their post will be some sage advice on how to live better, or how they’re living better because of the dedication they have made to their body.
While the body plays a role in the practice of yoga it is only a vehicle to temper and tame the free radical known as your mind. The physical practice is a platform for inquiry and reflection, a feedback loop for memory and desire, a catalyst for transformation and liberation; not a call to make your body obedient. The body is already intelligent, get your mind on track and the body will follow.
The brain is a powerful organ, a sophisticated computer which plays a primary role in the health and functions of the bodies intricate systems, maintaining equilibrium between the many interdependent elements of health – i.e. homeostasis – sustained without any cognitive effort, freeing the cognitive mind to spend its days consuming information, categorizing, comparing, contrasting, and ultimately organizing that information into a library from which it can be pulled at a moment’s notice. The information that gets archived into memory does not have to be true, valuable, life-enhancing, or illuminating – it must only be information.
The mind is hungry for information because it needs it to function. Nobel Prize winning psychologist Danial Kahneman spent his life studying the human mind, human irrationality, and the way the mind works. Alongside his life-long research partner Amos Tversky a discovery was made in understanding the “systematic errors in the thinking of normal people”. The discovery was that the thinking mind has two speeds at which it operates, fast and slow; “systematic errors in the thinking of normal people” were not cognitive events caused by the corrupting effects of difficult emotions but rather, were built into the works.
Fast thinking is the action of the mind that collects information and uses it at a moment’s notice. The information that the brain consumes and archives in fast thinking mode must only be information, because the brain does not want to have to work to fact check it, and it will not; this is fast thinking at its best. Most people are in fast mind operations the bulk of their life, that is because fast thinking is not under voluntary control. Fast thinking enables one to answer the question of “What is your name?”, to stop fast at the traffic light when it turns red, and to catch the baby before dropping it on its head. Because the information that fast thinking brain gathers does not have to be fact checked, the fast thinking mind is fallible. If fast mind is asked a question and only has bad information archived, or does not have any information on the subject at all, it will make a fast mind choice to fill the in the blanks using whatever info it’s got. Fast mind is a conspirator and generates narrative – beginning, middle, or end – to support the conspiracy. Fast mind provides the quick responses that biology established to save our lives and fast mind is where the cognitive biases which distort one’s judgment of the world originate.
Slow thinking mind is the process of deep cognitive work; solving a difficult math problem or plunging headlong into the writing process. Slow mind is measured, disciplined, and methodical. Slow thinking is tedious and burdensome and so we biologically avoid it, it’s economical, we’re reserving energy. As such, slow thinking is “often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” Understanding fast and slow mind provides a glimpse into understanding the value of a committed yoga practice.
The value of a committed yoga practice is the calming of the fluctuations of the mindstuff, in other words; peace, equanimity, and high quality mental health. Through the extended limbs of practice, which include asana but are not limited to asana, the practitioner is invited into the realm of the mindstuff. There, they meet themselves, fast mind and slow mind. There, they learn to use slow mind to cool fast mind. There, they learn to become cognitively aware of fast mind and the tricks it plays. Calming the fluctuations of the mindstuff is not turning the mind off, why stop the organ from doing its primary function, rather it is coming into relationship with the brain, tempering it, and taming it. It is in the relationship formed with the fast thinking mind and the slow thinking mind that the true value of a committed yoga practice begins to be revealed.
In scientific terms cultivating a relationship between fast and slow mind is known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brains ability to remap itself; to reorganize itself by creating new neural connections. Taking fast mind off line is taking the “I know” mind off the table. Once the “I know” mind is off the table the “I’m curious” mind can jump on, ask hard questions, seek truthful answers, and do the heavy cognitive lifting. Fast thinking “I know” mind follows old maps of pre-fired neurological synapses while slow thinking “I’m curious” mind is necessary to create a new neurological map. Slow thinking “I’m curious” mind is equatable to being here now.
While neurology is well developed branch of science that is becoming a popular topic of conversation most people don’t understand how it works and how it affects thought and behavior. Additionally, most people are uninformed of their power to remap their own brain anytime they want. Neurological maps are made up of neuro synaptic clefts. A neuro synaptic cleft is the connection between two neurons. Neurons transmit nerve impulses and the synapses at the end of the neuron allow information to pass form one neuron to the next. The synaptic cleft (the connection between the neurons) is strengthened when both neurons are active at the same time. Through neurotransmitters, such as serotonin or dopamine, the neurons can chemically bind. Memories are formed when neighboring brain cells send chemical communications across neuro synapses, neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that enable the neurons to bind and they play a crucial role in mental health. Acetylcholine is necessary for REM sleep. REM sleep is when the brain cells rest and basically get washed. GABA is the brains primary inhibitor which keeps the brain from becoming overactive and induces calm. Dopamine, triggers reward receptors in the brain and also has an inhibitory effect on signals traveling across neurons. Understanding dopamine lends insight to understanding drug addiction. Opioids and Cocaine increase dopamine levels and simultaneously inhibit nerve signals that lead to negative feelings. Increased dopamine levels also increase the desire to do the drug. Serotonin is another inhibitor and a mood enhancer which plays one of the most vital roles in mental health. Serotonin is sometimes known as the happy chemical because depression research correlates low levels of serotonin with depression. However, it is not known if depression is caused by low levels of serotonin, or if depression causes low levels of serotonin. Each time a memory is recalled the synaptic cleft is strengthened and the memory is strengthened too. The feedback loop of the synapse, or nerve response, is determined by the receptor neuron, not the neurotransmitter. What does that mean? It means the receiving neuron determines the quality of information that responds. In laymen’s terms, an old map that triggered negative feedback when it was formed continues to send negative feedback every time the memory is recalled.
This is really important when it comes to understanding the value of yoga, neuroplasticity, and mental health. If all the information that goes into the brain gets archived for the fast brains use, and that information does not have to be true, factual, correct, or good, the brain is vulnerable to becoming a victim of itself. Bad information enters the brain and gets reinforced by more fast thinking, following old maps, and telling stories which reinforce those old neuro synaptic clefts, regenerating whatever feeling is attached to that map. This is how maps of poor mental health get built.
In yoga philosophy a samskara is a rut or an impression on the mind. Rut is a good analogy as most people know what it is to be stuck in a rut. Synaptic clefts are the brains physiological expression of samskara. The stronger the cleft the stronger the samskara. Memories are samskara. Beliefs are samskara. Every “I know” is a samskara. Samskara is not good nor bad and some ruts we want to stay in, the ones that keep us from dropping the baby on its head, but the ruts that deplete peace of mind, equilibrium, and the quality of mental health are the ones to drive out of. The practice of yoga invites liberating oneself from the samskaras that bind them through physical practice, breath practice, contemplative practice, and meditation.
Evolutionary and genetic research has proven that we are biologically inclined to remember painful events so as to not be taken out by them in the future. This evolutionary button is always in the on position. The sympathetic nervous system is the computer in charge of this information and it is at the ready to respond with fight or flight. When the sympathetic nervous system gets triggered the physiological response is a flood of testosterone to the body. Testosterone will kick the physical body into gear, get it out of the bad situation, and save its life. But how necessary is that if all you are doing is sitting in the office of your boss receiving some pointed feedback about your contribution in the workplace? If the story you are telling yourself is that you are worthless, your sympathetic nervous system is going to go online and flood you with the right hormones to get you out of the dangerous situation you are in, where the quality of your life is being depleted, all because of a story you are telling yourself.
The act of constructing stories is a part of human nature. Through storytelling we make sense of, understand, and share our experiences. The process allows us to coherently remember events in our life and integrate them emotionally and psychologically. More notably, telling stories gives us a feeling of control over the many unpredictable events of our lives. It is rational for us to believe that once an experience has context and meaning it is easier to navigate emotionally. Hard emotions drive our desire for resolution, and stories facilitate a sense of resolution. A story with a clear beginning, middle, and end leaves little room for rumination, and so, with a good story a painful event may be left to reside in the gallery of memories titled “painful events” – available to be recalled at the drop of a hat, or insult, or criticism, or bad day. Painful events turn into the stories we tell ourselves and the samskaras that run our lives.
What’s the story you are telling yourself? Depending on how you perceive your reality, you experience reality. The stories we tell ourselves about the experience of reality we are having affect that reality directly. The story you are telling yourself right now is affecting everything in your life; from your physiology and overall health to your relationships at home, at work, on the street with strangers, all the way into your unknown future.
This is where the value of the physical asana (Hatha Yoga) practice lies. In an asana practice the body moves cross laterally – enhancing the circulation of information crossing the septum pellucidum (the membrane across the center of the brain). The septum pellucidum is a thin two layered structure which consists of white matter, blood vessels, fiber bundles, and neurons; it runs vertically between the left and right hemispheres of the brain and is surrounded by more neurons which make up the septum verum. While neuroscience is still working toward understanding the absolute nature of the “septum” it has been revealed that all the chemical reactions in the brain are connected to this membrane. Theoretically, healthy neuroplasticity requires a supple septum; i.e. making it easy for information to travel across the right and left hemispheres of the brain with ease. Why is this important? Because Bi-Hemispheric brain activity shakes loose old neuromaps. If you have ever been confused in a yoga class, this is why; as you move your body cross laterally your old neuromaps get shaken up, and your mind gets confused. While the mind is confused and does not know where to make latch onto a new neuron an opportunity to write a new neuromap is present. When a yoga practitioner uses their practice to take an old story and rewrite it into something that is life enhancing, a new map – from which the fast mind can pull – is created; the more the practitioner returns to the new contemplation, the new story, the more that synaptic cleft is reinforced.
The physical practice of yoga is the gateway to the physiological high that arises from the mind and its neurotransmitters, particularly GABA, indulging in peace after the body has been quieted. This is why Savasana feels so good. When the physical practice has moved the body enough to shake up the neurology, so that the mind can cruise up and out of some samskara, and drop into the GABA deliciousness of parasympathetic nervous system repose in savasana, the practice has been successful, the practice has been valuable.
Measuring the efficacy or the value of a committed yoga practice in the shape and glamor of a big asana misses the mark. Measuring the value of a practice in the quality of your mental health, your peace of mind, the relationship you have with the most difficult person(s) in your life, your emotional resilience, your psychological flexibility, now that’s what worth talking about because that’s what serves.
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Top photograph of Genevieve by Bill Curry, other images Stock Files