Neuroscience Loves Yoga. They are going steady. Neuroscience deals with the structure and function of the nervous system and the brain; Yoga is so much more than exercise. Their love affair makes sense.
Many people translate the Sanskrit word Yoga to mean union. Defining yoga as ‘union’ is a pretty sweet concept. For some it is the union of the body with the mind, for others it implies a union of self with the divine. Other translations include “to subjugate,” and “to discipline.” If you’ve ever struggled in utkatasana (fierce pose, also called chair pose), these definitions might hold some resonance for you, too.
Classically, yoga is defined as having four distinct paths: Jnana Yoga, the path of knowledge; Bhakti Yoga, the path of love, emotion, devotion; Karma Yoga, the yoga of action and selfless service to others; and Raja Yoga, the king. Literally. In Sanskrit raja is the title given to a monarch. In yoga, Raja is the most comprehensive path that incorporates the first three paths, and adds meditation and pranayama. Hatha yoga, the physical postures or asana, is just a small branch of Raja yoga. Raja yoga is the yoga that transcends thought and eventually the body. This final level of mastery is called samadhi.
In classical yoga, you and the divine (or Divine) are distinct entities. In more modern yoga philosophies, like Tantra Yoga – a mere baby at 3000 years old give or take – you and the divine are one and the same. In Tantra Yoga, the four paths essentially bring you home to yourself – a sort of somatic samadhi.
In either case, whether you use asana to transcend or to celebrate, yoga is about change and flexibility — in body, mind, and, if you’re lucky, spirit. This element of change is the spark that drew Neuroscience’s affection. By increasing bodily awareness and sensitivity, maintaining the spine and vital organs, yoga is good for your brain, no matter where your philosophy lies.
According to Hebbian theory “neurons that fire together wire together.” (Donald Hebb, was a Canadian neuropsychologist.) In other words, the development of good habits can have a greater effect that just the result of those good habits.
“Studies of the brain show that the same areas and structures of the brain that are active in cognitive function (all aspects of thinking, reasoning, evaluating, judging, remembering and feeling) are also active during movement…That means that whatever you think, perceive and feel (whether intentional or unconscious) while you’re practicing yoga is essentially training the brain to think, perceive and feel in those ways. Your mind and body are essentially rewiring when you practice yoga.” (
An article in Scientific America cites a study done by Chantal Villemure and Catherine Bushnell of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Bethesda, Md. The study showed that “Yogis had larger brain volume in the somatosensory cortex, which contains a mental map of our body, the superior parietal cortex, involved in directing attention, and the visual cortex, which Villemure postulates might have been bolstered by visualization techniques. The hippocampus, a region critical to dampening stress, was also enlarged in practitioners, as were the precuneus and the posterior cingulate cortex, areas key to our concept of self.” (Here’s the full article:
Ancient yogic tradition and modern science agree that when we engage in yoga, our consciousness expands. When we practice regularly in this expanded consciousness, the brain starts to reconfigure itself to accommodate the change. Such changes can be long-lasting, particularly if they entail changing a habit, such as the habit of self-deprecation or creating false scenarios.
Sounds like love to me.
Here is an upcoming workshop in which you can experience first hand what the fuss is all about:
Learn more about the roots of yoga beyond asana:
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika: Exploring the Roots of Hatha Yoga
Sunday, October 30, 2-4 pm, $30
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