The Missing Link: Yoga & Neuroscience

This weekend, I found the “missing link.” As part of LMU’s Masters in Yoga Studies curriculum, there is a pre/co-requisite to enroll in one of several certificate programs. I was excited to enroll in the pilot year of “Yoga, Mindfulness and Social Change,” which features renowned speakers from all over the country with varying expertise within the field. This weekend’s topic was “Yoga & Neuroscience,” and although I’ve always been intrigued (perhaps hereditarily) by psychology and sociology, I was taken aback and truly blown away by the evidence modern neuroscience provides of the true benefits of yoga.

As you might remember, my hope and mission in this program is to discern the socioeconomic benefits of yoga, within a global context. This interest came about through years of courses and hands-on experience in sociology, communications, media relations, cultural studies and international affairs, through which I developed a deep-seated interest in what makes people think the way they do – both as individuals, and as a collective society. Academically speaking, my pursuit is an exploration of individual ideological formation (aka consciousness), as well as of institutionalized methodologies of ideological pervasion. While in college, I was blessed with unique opportunities: to study the pervasion of local culture through public and mainstream media in Australia; to explore (and publish a manuscript on) gender disparity in Latin America as it relates to pervading machismo attitudes and state-controlled transmission of democratic ideals (see “About Me”); and, after college, to work for several years in politics and government affairs for non-profit and private, small and large organizations – to better understand what makes us and others, especially those in “power,” think the way they do. And, (surprisingly to me as well) this journey has led me to yoga studies. Mounting evidence supports my personal belief that yoga, over all other modalities, has the greatest potential to positively reform individual and collective ideology – thereby helping us live happily and helping communities live peacefully, everywhere. Imagine that.

This weekend, I attended two five-hour lectures on “Yoga & Neuroscience” by leading neuroscientists in consciousness formation (see “Lecture Credit” below), and soon found that scientific evidence already supports that yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices stimulate and even grow the part of the brain responsible for processing feelings of compassion, empathy, altruism, interconnectedness and happiness – otherwise known as the “neocortex.” Specifically, I learned that practices such as yoga and meditation, as well as Tai Chi and nature activities, help stimulate the brain’s neuroplasticity, or its capability to grow and reshape itself through the movement and connection of neurons. (More simply, neuroplasticity states that the brain is not a fixed form, but is in fact adaptable.) As a result, these practices in particular have been proven to expand and increase activation of the neocortex and overall brain capacity, as well as physically enlarge areas that promote feelings of empathy, compassion and altruism – collectively called our “emphatic response.”

However nice this all sounds, it may feel a bit displaced, as our society currently embodies a paradigm – or pervading ideology – which disproportionately emphasizes the “reptilian” brain, or the part of the brain responsible for primal instincts, basic survival needs, ego and competition, rather than cooperation. Many practitioners and professionals (and scientists) who have been imparted with this knowledge also believe that we [the human race] are in the midst of an evolutionary shift towards global cooperation. More candidly, they articulate a resounding belief that mankind must either learn to cooperate and live harmoniously with one another and with Nature, or fall victim to the harsh realities of disconnectivity and competition (i.e. global warming) for generations to come. As such, we notice widespread discontentment and rebellion in the form of protests, political stalemate and corruption, and civil war around the world and in the States, at levels unprecedented since the last major paradigm shift occurred in the 17th century (following the Industrial Revolution). It’s worthy to note my own belief on this issue is still evolving as I gather more information, and I encourage you also to ask the hard questions and think critically about this and all information you hear about the future of our planet. But, I do believe strongly in the agency and power of individuals to incite change in themselves, and in the world around them; be it on Capitol Hill, in the classroom, or on their yoga mat. And I hope to continue to explore the empirical evidence available now, and that yet to be discovered, which enables us to better understand how yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices benefit you and me, and (why not…) the rest of the world.

On that note, I’d like to dedicate a thought (or several) in recognition and gratitude of Mother Nature and the vast resources and opportunities she provides us: as humans, as Westerners, as yogis, as wilderness explorers, or from whatever perspective most resonates with you. It can be something as simple as a sunset, or as vast as the algorithms of consciousness and science we seek to understand. In solidarity, give thanks!

Peace – Shalom – Om Shanti,

Amy

Videos to Watch:

The Empathic Civilisation (10 minutes: 30 seconds)

How Meditation Works: For Beginners (2 minutes: 50 seconds)

Lecture Credit:

Dr. Jay Kumar (9/27/14)

Dr. Louis Cozolino (9/28/14)

Photo Credit:

Sunrise in the Outback, Alice Springs, Australia (Personal Photo, July 2009)

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