YOGA AND THE BRAIN

When the signal arrives at the brain, the stem can muffle or stop it by releasing endorphins. With practice we can experience this in a challenging yoga session. Unfortunately, this is also how we can sometimes push too hard in practice and not realize we have caused some type of injury until afterwards. We need the governor of intuitive practice to control how much we exert and for how long we persist.

When we injure ourselves acutely, like breaking a bone or being sharply cut, the A delta nerve fibers open the gate wide and send the message to the thalamus and cerebral cortex, where all of our “thinking” takes place, so that we can act quickly on the site of the acute injury. However, the typical aching, cramping, or dull chronic pains we experience travel along the slow moving C fiber nerve path to the hypothalamus (which releases stress hormones) and limbic system (which processes emotions). Understanding this, we can appreciate why chronic aches and pains throughout the body so often associate with depression, stress, and anxiety because the messages pass through the same parts of our brain that control these emotions and feelings.

In addition to our physical practice, how we frame our mental attitude about our practice controls whether the nerve gates to pain open or dose. We have all experienced a time when stress and anxiety have actually amplified physical pain. The reverse, however, is true as well. We can prevent or muffie pain through our mental attitude. Considering all of these factors, when a yoga teacher says “Go to the edge,” this is what he or she means.

Immobility often involves progressive stiffness. As you avoid painful movement, your body adapts to the tension protecting the area from the painful movement. It then progresses and develops strength to maintain an immobilized state. Therefore, sometimes we must move through a range of motion as long as we can tolerate the discomfort. We live in a subjective world, flooded with changing emotions, fluctuating energy levels, mysterious pains, and surprise stressors.

Everyone at some time in their lives has experienced fluctuations of some kind among common variables: performing the same pose twice can seem harder, running the same distance can seem longer, resting the same duration can seem shorter, and so on. The subjective experience differs from one moment to the next. The sum total of stress in our lives at a particular point determines if the gates are open or closed to pain, and how much anxiety or elation we experience.

Before we are able to apply effort in a pose, we must first have the proper form sufficient to “hold” the discomfort we are going to experience, the discomfort necessary to release residual tension, myofascial density, and fear-reactivity and awaken from sensory motor amnesia: + Rating of Perceived Technique (RPT): On a scale of 1-10 (1 being very sloppy and 10 being the best form you could ever do), we need an 8 (extremely good) in technique before we start to apply effort or experience discomfort.

+ Rating of Perceived Discomfort (RPD): On a scale of 1-10 (1 being insignificant annoyance and 10 being intolerable agony), our “edge” is a 3 (uncomfortable). We need to go to that edge, but no farther.

+ Rating of Perceived Effort (RPE): Our edge takes effort. How much effort we apply determines whether or not we develop and whether or not we become i ured. On a scale of 1-10 (1 being incredibly easy and 10 being the hardest you’ve ever exerted yourself), going to our edge is a 6 (very hard).

So when we are exploring an asana, vinyasa, or prasara, we first need a technique of at least an 8 before we can apply effort of 6 and experience a discomfort level of 3.

Some feel off put by quantitative evaluations of the subjective experience. However, we must remember that when we are beginning a new pose or movement, or beginning yoga altogether, we often have lost touch, or become disconnected from that internal experience of the pose or movement. Therein lies the problem. Intuitive practice gives us a tool to transition from the externalized experience of doing yoga to the internalized experience of being yoga.

Bodyweight exercise, historically known as calisthenics, emphasizes strength, endurance, and flexibility. Calisthenics use the weight of the body as a form of resistance to condition the body. Bodyweight exercises must have technical simplicity so that athletes may immediately execute the skill.

Yoga, sometimes historically referred to as self-gymnastics or acrobatics, emphasizes agility, coordination, and balance. Yoga must have technical sophistication so that we may sufficiently unlock our flow. As in its incipience, the primary goal is flow-state, or Samadhi.

Yoga asana, vinyasa, and prasara, once technically developed, may be able to be used as bodyweight exercise, but the reverse is not true. This is because body weight exercise lacks the sophistication necessary to unbind your flow. That is, until we have internalized the essence of yoga, that in all human movement, we are doing yoga. Then, any movement becomes an opportunity for us to release bound flow and unlock bound flow.

But to do this, the method with which the movement is applied determines if it is merely exercise for strength and conditioning or if it is yoga, specifically crafted as a physical vehicle toward flow-state.

To distinguish between the two methods, observe the protocol: Bodyweight exercise is viewed as training, and yoga is viewed as practice. Training refers to repetition for increasing attributes such as strength, stamina, endurance, and flexibility. Practice refers to technical development to recover, coordinate, and refine a skill so that the person gains unconscious competence (the autonomic stage of development).

Bodyweight exercise movements are so basic that it appears that little practice is required. As a result they can be used immediately for training. However, as soon as effort and persistence are inserted into these movements, because training is the objective, the form breaks down. When form deteriorates, unintentional and undesirable training effects embed somewhere in the body. Because the focus is training, the bodyweight exercise cannot “hold” effort and persistence, like the yoga asana. Note here that we can mutate a yoga asana such as Plank Pose into a bodyweight exercise if our focus is on creating a training effect. When we do this, we prioritize the training effect (increased strength, endurance, stamina, and so on) over deepening form. Then, it is no longer yoga.

Yoga augments the quality of our physicality by integrating our breathing, movement, and structure. Attributes such as strength, endurance, and stamina are natural by,products of our practice, but they are not the focus, nor is physique, the physical beauty of our shape. If attributes or appearance becomes the focus, we lose our yoga.

The protocol that distinguishes yoga is practice. Once we have internalized how to practice through daily deepening of our personal practice, then we can expand our practice to all things. Critical to yoga is our “core.” Movement in the three-dimensional world necessarily involves rotational and angular/diagonal action. The stability of our trunk, therefore, can be found only through improvement of our attention to core mobility.

Our abdominal muscles involve both internal and external portions, though most fitness approaches fixate on the external: the rectus abdominus (our six-pack) and the external obliques. If we lie down on the floor, we can feel the rectus abdominus flex the spinal column forward 30 degrees. If we move beyond this, we’re actually engaging the hip flexors and going beyond the nature of core activation. Our trunk rotates primarily under the power of the external obliques.

In yoga, our focus is on the inner unit: the transversus abdominus and the lumbar multifidus. These tissues exist underneath the external abdominals and control our respiration and our structural alignment, contributing to our total health, performance, and strength.

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