WLHQ: This Is Your Brain On Yoga

Neural phenomena underlie some of the magic that transpires at Wanderlust. Not all of that intangible magic can be explained by the books on my bedside table, of course, but bear with me and let’s see how far we get.

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” ~ William Shakespeare

Leave it to ol’ Bill to have been hip to the notion of neuroplasticity back in the days when he was penning Hamlet by candlelight (around 1603). Indeed, artists often presaged concepts that were touted as scientific “discoveries”, as Jonah Lehrer’s eye-opening collection “Proust was a Neuroscientist” makes clear. Among other chapter-by-chapter insights, Lehrer points out how Marcel Proust beat science to the punch in pointing out that memory is faulty and ever-changing, and that Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” was an avant-garde musical exercise to prove that what the mind first rejects as offensive, it later perceives as beautiful once the brain recognizes and becomes familiar with the patterns therein.

What relevance does this have for a yogi? If you’ll bear with me, I’m suggesting that are neural phenomena that underlie some of the magic that transpires at Wanderlust.  Not all of that intangible magic can be explained by the books on my bedside table, of course, but bear with me and let’s see how far we get.  Let’s cast you in the role of the artist here, whereby you are the one using imagination to re-design your brain. You hereby get to prove what mindfulness studies are now reporting on an almost-daily basis: your conscious thoughts can indeed re-wire your brain, and thus re-design your experience of life.

Pretty heady stuff, but let’s try to keep it at ground (or mat) level, and keep it totally applicable to your yoga and meditation practice.  First, let’s look at how your imagination actually does re-wire your brain.  In Norman Doidge’s “How The Brain Changes Itself”, he devotes chapter 8 to the power of imagination. He describes how Spanish neuroplastician, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, conducted a study in which he taught two groups to “play” the piano: one group was actually playing the keyboard while the “mental practice” group merely imagined playing and hearing the sequence. Both groups had their brains mapped before and after, and the accuracy of their playing was measured.   Both groups learned to play the sequence and had similar brain map changes, but remarkably, mental practice alone produced the same physical changes in the brain as those who actually played.

Your Brain On YogaWhat this means is that the power of imagination can be applied to any skill you’re honing or new activity you’re trying.  Envision yourself in that difficult yoga pose – truly see it – and you’re more likely to have the body respond. Why? From a neurological standpoint, imagining an act and doing it are not so different – brain activity is remarkably similar when we imagine as when we do. Imaginary exercises activate and strengthen the motor neurons responsible for stringing together sequences of instructions of movements. “Each time you imagine moving your fingers across the keys to play piano, you alter the tendrils in your living brain”, says Dr. Doidge.  Even further, just imagining that we are using our muscles can actually strengthen and tone our physical muscles (see Yue & Cole’s study on p. 204 of Doidge’s book). Clearly, this isn’t an excuse to simply imagine yourself doing your morning vinyasa routine instead of actually doing it, but it does reinforce the notion that each thought you consciously create can alters not only the physical state of your brain, but beyond.

So, while this teaches us to use the power of visualization as we map out what we aim at, it also underscores the huge importance of being mindful of what we allow to penetrate our stream of consciousness.  It implies that as you think, as you are.

This Is Your Brain on YogaIf all of this sounds rather Buddhist to you, I would agree that you’re onto something.  Was Buddha a neuroscientist, too? I, for one, would love to discuss this idea over a bottle of wine with you (and anyone willing to engage in that conversation simply must read the phenomenal book by the Dalai Lama, “The Universe in a Single Atom”).

But for now, let’s stick to what’s happening in your cranium and how you can manipulate it. Beyond the idea that your imagination directs your neural firing (and remember, neurons that fire together, wire together), there’s the concept that memory is not a concrete imprint, but something that is malleable. In “A General Theory of Love”, Chapter 6 presents these graphical depictions of how neurons might fire, and then leave remnant (mute) connections between the neurons. Drs. Lewis, Amini & Lannon state, “Each constellation of mute connections embodies the potential for a previous ensemble to be reanimated and  remembered.” Thoughts become memories, but these traces don’t just live as a singular trace: they are intricately connected to entire other neural networks, many of them laden with emotional attachment.  Therefore, the complicated orchestra that rings forth when we access a singular memory activates other neural networks as well, meaning that each time we remember something, we’re not necessarily remembering that “thing”: we’re accessing the same neural pattern that was evoked the last time we remembered that “thing”.  That “thing”, then, becomes wedded to other associations, like ripples in water meeting each other when multiple pebbles are cast. It’s not the pebble itself we’re remembering but the whole pattern on the water.

Your Brain On YogaThe suggested application of this conclusion about memory is to have a healthy distrust of what you perceive as your own ‘concrete’ memories, knowing that you give them a patina each time you recall them.  Further, and  adding to our first point about being cognizant of the effect your conscious thoughts have on your brain, happy people remember joyous times more readily and depressed people are more apt to call up memories of trauma, shame and sadness. “If an emotion is sufficiently powerful, it can quash opposing networks so completely that their content becomes inaccessible – blotting out discordant sections of the past. Within the confines of that person’s virutality, those events didn’t happen.” (General Theory of Love, p.130) Returning to Pascual-Leone, he explains this with a metaphor of tobogganing a snowy hill: the first time we descend an untracked hill, we determine the path through our steering (which is our will) and the characteristics of the hill (think of this as our genes).  But the second time we descend, you are more likely to find yourself on a path that in some way relates to the path you took the first time, and this tendency toward the path of least resistance makes it very hard for you to change directions, and thus those paths are now no longer genetically determined paths, but behaviors we’ve learned and wired into our brains.

Lastly, it is particularly interesting for yogis (who are by and large gregarious and communal creatures) to stretch and apply these basics of neuroplasticity beyond our own bodies to the actual web of people we relate to.  Drs. Lewis, Amini & Lannon conclude chapter 6 of General Theory of Love with the notion that who we are and who we become, depends, in part, on who we love. They delve into a theory of how ‘Limbic Attractors’ (which, very roughly, are like neural connections but more deeply engrained in one’s limbic/emotional brain) render our personal identity partially malleable, because the people to whom we are attached influence a portion of our everyday neural activity. “Ongoing exposure to another’s Limbic Attractors does not merely activate neural patterns in another – it also strengthens them. Long-standing togetherness writes permanent changes into a brain’s open book”. The next step in their conclusion says that ‘limbic revision’ gives us the power to remodel the emotional (limbic) parts of the people we love, by activating limbic pathways that are reinforced by the brain’s neural tobogganing. We become the company we keep.

The three-fold implication of the above for the yogi is something that can be demonstrated and palpably experienced when you come to Wanderlust.  The quietude you’ve developed in your mind has allowed you to focus on what you want consciously present in your mind and to let go of the negative thoughts and busy-ness that pervade our daily lives.  The power of your imagination has challenged you to pop into a novel pose, somehow with  ease, because you envisioned it.  The energy that is flowing between brain and heart doesn’t end at the boundary of your body, but is something picked up on and amplified by those you surround yourself with.  And the memories created in this communal yogic adventure are something that you can access again and again, each time augmenting them with positive associations stemming from personal associations develop out of your Wanderlust experience. So you think, so you are, which permeates and is reflected in the company you keep. If you don’t believe me, well, you’ll have to come to Wanderlust and conduct an interrelational experiment and let me know your conclusions. We’ll discuss over an organic syrah at Winederlust at sunset.  Not a bad setting for a neuro-nerd to indulge in neauoplasticity theory.

Karina MackenzieKarina Mackenzie loves producing the Speakeasy Lecture Series, and indulges her geeky-meets-creative nature as Digital Marketing Director for Wanderlust. Cover photo by Ryan Salm.  Brain Yoga Mat by Gaiam and available here.  And title credit for this WLHQ column goes to the author’s husband, festival co-founder and WLHQ resident genius, Sean Hoess.