Our brain is the source of all thoughts, emotions and feelings. It is the center for creativity, imagination and exploration. The brain is an information processing organ and keeps records of our past. The emotional residues, preconceptions and the negative thought patterns that are recorded in our brain keep us from reaching our full potential. We then develop addictions to numb these negative feelings hoping that the pain of our past will go away.
Yoga means “union” but it is mainly known to us as series of physical exercises (asanas). In my personal experience, during workout routines my brain is running in the opposite direction to my body. It is busy trying to problem solve, create to do lists and think about non-essential things. But during my yoga practice my body and brain are more connected. In actuality, every part of our physical body is connected with the brain. Information is constantly being exchanged between brain and body through the nervous system. By awakening the body’s senses through practices of yoga and by moving the body in new and different ways, we can awaken different part of our brain. In addition, a flexible body creates a more flexible and adaptive brain.
Meditation is the practice of focusing our mind. I realized that during the meditation portion of my class, my body, brain and soul were in alignment as my mind was focused inside by body on my True Self.
I am not a certified yoga teacher. However, I teach outreach programs on a volunteer basis to help people because going to yoga and meditation classes has changed my life in many positive ways. I would like to explore what really happens to our brain and nervous system during a good yoga and meditation class:
Balances, harmonizes, connects and integrates right and left hemispheres of brain
The right hemisphere of the brain recognizes gestures, facial movement and body language. It is the center of non-verbal thought, visual spatial perception and creativity. It is a seat of passion and dreams. It is used more by artists, craftsman and musicians. It perceives energy and generates a feeling of connection to all. It is the domain of intuition, knowingness, compassion, wholeness, gut feeling and present moment awareness. It seeks similarities. A right brain prominent individual would rather be happy than right.
The left hemisphere of the brain is associated with logical and analytical thinking. It is the domain of verbal language, mathematical calculations, time and details. It process information in linear fashion. It differentiates me and mine and helps establish individual’s relationship with external world. It is a seat of reason. Is helpful to writers and engineers. A left brain prominent individual would rather be right than happy.
The left and the right brain connects through a bridge of nerve fibers called corpus callosum. Our right hemisphere is connected to left side of the body and left hemisphere is connected to right side of the body. A good yoga/meditation class can help balance, connect, integrate and harmonize both sides of the body and brain. Thus we are able to create win-win situation within ourselves and others instead of arguing about who is right.
Awaken the pineal gland or Third eye
The pineal gland is shaped like a pine cone. The third eye (sixth chakra) when awake gives us insight, wisdom, intuition, spiritual awakenings and psychic abilities. It is seat of God Self (Atman) or Divinity. In spiritual traditions of the East and far East, the journey of ascension of the Soul is the journey within ourselves from lower chakras in the body to the upper chakras in the brain. It is the journey from person’s animalistic instincts to being human to being Divine. When the Individual Soul (Jivatma) becomes free from illusion (Maya), attachments, desires and negative psychic impressions. It passes through the throat chakra and seats in Third eye until it is ready to leave the body from the top of head either through death or Samadhi. It then merges with universal consciousness (Brahman or Paramatma or Absolute Self or Supreme Self). When this happens the person is free from the cycle of birth and death and experiences oneness with all. Therefore, pineal gland hold a high reverence in Eastern spiritual traditions. Its sacredness is signified by dot on forehead or Tilak.
Shrinks the amygdala
The amygdala is an almond shaped mass of nervous tissue located on each side of the brain which stores emotionally charged memories associated with emotions such as fear and survival instincts. Studies have shown that an increase in size of the amygdala results in an increase aggression. Thus decreasing the size of amygdala bring feeling of safety and calmness.
Engages the Vagus nerve X
Taking deep breaths or doing diaphragmatic breathing during yoga/meditation class engages Vagus nerve ten passing through the bottom of the diaphragm. It is called the wandering nerve because it is the longest and most complex. It controls the involuntary nervous system and commands unconscious body functions such as heart rate and food digestion. It connects information from the gut (which is considered by many as the second brain) to the brain. It activates the sympathetic nervous system which gives us feelings of calm and relaxation. This also helps in decreasing inflammation, stress, anxiety and depression.
Calms the brain waves
We have four types of brain waves.
Beta waves (15 to 30 oscillations per sec or Hz) - These brain waves are associated with normal waking states, thinking and conscious problem solving. They are rapid and active when our attention is on outside world.
Alpha waves (9 to 14 Hz) – These brain waves are active when we feel a sense of relaxation and as if everything is slowing down. During this state the creative energy flows, fears vanish and feeling of peace and well-being is restored. This is starting point of meditation and a door way to deeper states of consciousness.
Theta waves (4 to 8 Hz) -These brain waves are activated when we are in deep relaxation either during sleep or meditation. This state increases receptivity, imagination and inspiration. It also brings forgotten memories to light.
Delta waves (1-3 Hz) – This is the slowest type of brainwave activity associated with deep dreamless sleep.
Slowing down your brain waves reduces stress response and activates self- healing mechanisms in the body.
Increases the thickness of the prefrontal cortex
The primary function of the prefrontal cortex is executive functioning such as planning, problem solving and emotion regulation. Increasing the thickness of the prefrontal cortex helps us control our impulses, use good judgement and also helps keeps the amygdala in check as prefrontal cortex is considered the policeman of the brain.
Other things we can do for brain health are:
- All forms of physical exercises and activities that are enjoyable. They are helpful with glucose control, cardiac, blood pressure, weight loss, increasing lung function and is ultimately good for brain health.
- Life-long learning and mental exercises which increases cognition and memory.
- Mindfulness- being more attentive, and aware of our bodies’ function. This reduces stress, depression, anxiety and increases self-awareness.
- Social interactions with supportive family members and like-minded friends, coworkers and neighbors gives us a feeling of usefulness, prevents loneliness and provides access to a supportive environment of community.
- Eating anti- inflammatory foods such as fruits and vegetables with polyphenols, resveratrol (red grapes), curcumin (turmeric), garlic, ginger and dark chocolate.
- Regular practice of deep breathing (diaphragmatic breathing) or pranayama (breath control exercises) calms and energizes the brain and creates a focused mind. Breathing is the only function of the autonomic (unconscious) nervous system that can be controlled by us consciously. Inhalation determines emotions as every breathing pattern is associated with different kinds of emotions. This also increases oxygen flow to brain and body.
- Doing inverted poses such as bridge or even lying down on ground with your legs up against the wall on daily basis increases blood flow to the brain. (I am not advocating doing head stand or back bends as I cannot do those either, but practice poses that are challenging yet respectful of your body’s conditions).
- Being your own cheerleader with positive self talk.
- Practice opening our hearts with unconditional love and gratitude. Open heart helps in energy flow between the body and the brain.
- Smile – It relaxes the brain and body.
- Rest - Getting 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep daily.
- Intention – gives positive direction and focus to the brain.
- Power of choice – Choose positive information on TV or reading material instead of binge watching news and TV shows that promote negativity and fear. The brain produces positive hormones with feeling of love, joy, compassion and gratitude.
- Since we are left brain prominent as a society, the right hemisphere of the brain can be developed not only by doing yoga and meditation but also by praying, giving and receiving hugs, selfless service, tai chi and qi gong.
Regular practices of yoga and meditation can give us a clear, awake, flexible, healthy, happy and ultimately conscious and peaceful brain. A clear brain helps us make good decisions. Since our brains are very flexible and highly adaptable, they learn new tasks quickly and easily. Scientists call this neuroplasticity. Neurons (brain cells) love repetition. Repeating a new positive habits consciously and persistently for 21 days will results in the growth of new neural pathways. This helps us sustain our new healthy habits. A peaceful brain creates a peaceful relationship with oneself and others resulting in peaceful world. By becoming more conscious and aware, we are not only helping our own children who follow our footsteps but also helping generations to come.