Neuroscience, Hatha Yoga and Creativity: A New Paradigm for Teaching
Source: Yoga Chicago Magazine • Michael McColly •January 2010
The Brain–is wider than the Sky —
For–put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease–and You–beside —
~ Emily Dickenson
Advances in imaging technology, neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and a host of converging fields have brought us to the brink of unlocking the biological basis of consciousness itself. Neuroscience is discovering that the brain is an evolving organ that matures as we respond to our environment, our genes, and our physical, emotional and mental experiences. Scientists have learned that patients with brain injury or sensory impairment can recover brain function with sustained retraining regimens, facilitating the brain’s natural capacity to adapt and compensate–not only creating neural pathways that circumvent damaged areas of the brain, but also triggering the growth of new neurons. In other words, the brain, when confronted with challenge, becomes creative.
Sustained mind/body disciplines such as Hatha yoga, Buddhist mindfulness practices, and contemplative prayer focus and entrain the mind in ways that are helpful in cultivating this natural plasticity in the brain. As a result of this increasingly clear link between the benefits of mind/body practices and recent discoveries in neuroscience, many psychiatrists, psychologists, and educators are studying the applications of meditative practices in classrooms, therapy, and correctional institutions. Some of the key parallels that mind/body disciplines share with these recent discoveries in neuroscience include the concepts of awareness, focus, imagination, and empathy. This article will explore each of these concepts with regard to their relationship to corresponding discoveries in neuroscience and their application through mind/body practices.
Attitude, agency, and information
Attitude is everything. Framing the mind with a positive intention and staying focused are not just clichés you hear in sports advertisements; they’re how the brain works most effectively. For instance, Richard Nesbitt, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, gave an experimental group of middle school students a special tutorial on how their brains worked, reinforcing the basic idea that it was their own work habits and ability to learn–not their family income or parents’ educational background–that determined their academic success. Testing showed that the students given the tutorial not only outperformed other students in their school, but also exceeded national averages for their age.
Daniel Siegel, interpersonal neurobiologist and professor of psychiatry at UCLA, is exploring the same basic techniques used on the middle school students, but instead with psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and their patients. Siegel advises therapists to use actual models of the brain in therapy sessions to help patients visualize and understand what is happening in their brains when they are depressed or emotionally troubled. Patients are relieved to know that their frustrations are a brain processing problem rather than a lack of will or emotional strength. Afterwards, the therapist teaches patients an easy mindfulness exercise to calm them down when these frustrations and emotions emerge. Educating people on how their brain works and offering them tools to change attitudes make a difference. Why? Because those people are then actively and consciously involved in changing the wiring of neural pathways in their brains.
The phenomenon is similar in mind/body practices such as Hatha yoga. The framing and focusing of the mind begin with calming the mind. Patanjali begins the Yoga Sutras with the famous basic premise to guide the yogi: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuating patterns of the mind.” In Hatha yoga and Buddhist meditation practices, the practitioner first learns to observe the mind as it cycles through patterns of thought and emotions. When the waves of thought begin to subside, a positive intention is then introduced. I always begin my yoga classes with breathing exercises and a short mediation; but before I do, I ask students to think of an intention for their practice. This ritual of quieting the mind and then framing it helps students to focus and engage emotionally. Throughout their practice I ask the students to consider this intention–reminding them that the poses they are practicing are strengthening and challenging not just their bodies, but their nervous systems and brains as well.
Awareness and perception
Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, is also interested in how meditation affects brain function. He wired several Tibetan monks and novice practitioners to compare the activity within their brains as they meditated. What he discovered was that the monks could reach unprecedented low levels of brain activity (i.e., quieting the mind), and meditation enabled their brains to synchronize brain waves so as to attain efficient and balanced states from which to integrate information.
What the monks revealed so beautifully was the limitless potential we have to train the mind to affect states of consciousness and well-being. But their skill came from a long series of learning experiences in which interconnecting groups of neurons were forged as newly formed neural pathways were used over and over again. The first step in this process, which occurs through the development of a meditative practice, is to actually calm the mind in order to focus. Once the mind is calm, the real work of meditation begins, as practitioners begin to first observe and then feel what it means to influence their own thoughts.
When we are focused, we enable the brain to carry out its primary function: to process or integrate information into the various centers in the brain necessary in order to learn. The stronger the signals, the stronger the memory for the next time we practice. Awareness is registered in both the conscious and unconscious mind. As we practice yoga, we begin to cultivate deeper and deeper levels of sense perception.
World-renowned yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar speaks of involution when he describes the learning process of yoga; in other words, we develop our practice by working from the outside of the body, learning from our five senses (particularly touch and balance) and progressively moving deeper into muscles, organs, and energy centers in the core of our body. When we practice, we use several layers of perception: the exteroceptors (the five senses and balance), the interoceptors (the feeling of the organs as they function), and proprioceptors, which regulate effort and the feeling of muscles and joints as we move or hold a pose. Perception is a feedback mechanism–the brain processes each experience to create more elaborate sets of maps in the brain. It is important, then, in a yoga class to remind people that what they are learning is not just how to perform a pose, but how to feel it.
This same process occurs in meditation. As we sit, we are not only psychologically challenged as we observe countless patterns of repetitive thoughts and emotions, but also learning to pay close attention to sensations coming from the body. In particular, when we are first learning, we are focusing on the feeling of our lungs and the muscles associated with breath. But as we develop the skill and stamina to sit for longer periods, we can begin to notice our awareness dropping from the buzzing in the mind downward to the core and energy centers of the body. The frequent practice of meditation allows practitioners to repeat this process with greater speed and efficacy as they progress, as Davidson’s monks demonstrated.
Imagination, visualization, and metaphor
As a writer and teacher of writing, I’ve found that one of the most compelling findings of neuroscience has been in the area of imagination and language. I’ve long suspected that the creative work of an artist provides pleasure in a profound way, not only because it simply inspires us emotionally and intellectually, but also because the work engages our imaginations deep within the unconscious. And this is exactly the case, as many brain researchers are discovering. Imagery and metaphors trigger a complex process in the brain as memory, emotion, cognition, and the imagination collectively recreate what we read from our own experience. When readers remark that they were so involved with a book that it felt as if the events described were happening to them, they may be surprised to know that, according to their minds, it actually did happen to them. They must work to translate what they read into some semblance of it with their own mind. Artful expressions and imagery not only prime and expand the imagination, they also demand that we become artists ourselves as we appreciate and process what artists present to us.
Imagination has become one of the areas I have begun to explore in my practice and teaching. I have often employed metaphors referring to nature such as flowering and rooting to help guide me in a pose. Boulder, Colorado-based Richard Freeman, one of America’s most respected scholars and teacher of yoga, often uses “flowering,” “rooting,” and other metaphors of classic poetry that refer to nature. But, as I’ve come to understand, metaphors aren’t just pleasing figurative language; they are like mandalas, or symbols, that engage the imagination in order to entrain the mind and cultivate deeper states of awareness. By telling students to imagine the bottoms of their feet spreading and setting down roots into the earth in the mountain pose, the teacher encourages the students to direct their focus to their feet; the students, through this focus, will feel the sensations more intensely within their feet and thus develop a deeper sense of balance.
Empathy and mirror neurons
Finally, one of the more fascinating discoveries over the past few years is the neurobiological explanation for how we are affected by the movement and sensations of other bodies around us. Have you ever wondered how a flock of birds instantaneously sets off in flight because of one bird’s response to a predator? Or why we unconsciously yawn or smile when we witness someone else doing the same? Italian neuroscientists Rizzolati Giacomo and Vittorio Gallese have found that animals and humans are equipped with an adaptive mechanism in their nervous system called mirror neurons. They wired macaque monkeys and watched where neurons fired in their brains when they engaged in complex motor movements such as reaching for food, pulling a lever, pushing a door. What was incredible to the scientists was that these same neurons fired precisely in the same areas of the brain when these monkeys watched other monkeys perform the same actions. Mirror neurons are triggered in the body unconsciously as we perceive not only the actions of others but also their facial gestures and emotions.
Students in a yoga class attune to one another’s focus and physical awareness, thereby heightening the therapeutic effect for everyone in the class. This phenomenon occurs in a variety of group interactions where there is a collective focus on a goal or shared purpose. As social animals, we have evolved to be highly sensitive to the needs and emotions of others in our group. Researchers are beginning to understand the profound capabilities we have to feel empathy and how important interpersonal skills are to our health and survival.
In his studies of interpersonal neurobiology, Daniel Siegel recognizes that humans often cannot access deep emotional patterns alone but require the presence of another witnessing and actively feeling the emotion along with them. He trains therapists to develop a keen awareness of both the body of their patient as well as their own body as they listen and offer feedback. Siegel believes that therapeutic skill is both a verbal and nonverbal art. By teaching therapists to use mindfulness and breathing techniques, Siegel hopes therapists can in turn help patients to trust their own bodily sensations as they relate narratives or speak about difficult emotional issues in their lives.
It’s not surprising that we are seeing a renewed interest in the benefits of mindfulness, yoga, and other practices that involve integrating the mind and body. Our times are fraught with anxieties that we feel we have little control over, be they the world economy, war and terrorism, global warming, or the fecklessness of government. The scientific exploration into the mysteries of how the brain functions comes at a crucial time. We cannot continue to act as if our brains and bodies can increasingly absorb or process empty bits of information without thinking they have an effect on our health or that of the earth. Mind/body practices are real pragmatic applications for cultivating the potential of all of the body’s many forms of intelligence. The excitement of these new scientific discoveries, however, will mean little if the billions of dollars given to research institutes do not translate into the ability for people to learn how to cultivate the wisdom they already possess. It is my hope that, together, these ancient and modern systems of knowledge can learn from each other to help us all unlock the potentials of the human mind.
Michael McColly teaches creative writing at Northwestern and Columbia Universities. He offers workshops and teaches at Yoga Now. You can read more about his work on his blog: michaelmccolly.vox.com. His last book, The After-Death Room: Journey Into Spiritual Activism , chronicled his reporting and reflections on the creative and compassionate work being done by people working at the epicenters of the AIDS pandemic in Asia, Africa, and in Chicago.