I am excited to share one of the key realizations of my last 25 years exploring personal growth and spiritual practice: Your brain is where the real magic happens.
Practices that literally carve pathways of presence, compassion, creativity, intuition, and resilience are the key to lasting transformation, healing and growth. Change your brain, change your life! Let’s begin together now…
What follows is an excerpt from my ebook Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind: A Modern Yoga Philosophy Infused with Somatic Psychology & Neuroscience, available May 28th, 2013 through Amazon.com This is a text for yoga students, teachers, and teacher trainers. Find out more here.
The central mystery is consciousness: the relationship between mind and body, the origin and process of subjective experience. These questions remain confounding, but this is not to say we have not come a long way. While we are by all accounts humbled in the face of both the brain’s extraordinary complexity and the completely unique nature of consciousness, the last 25 years have been a period of exponential growth in our ability to look at these questions scientifically.
Of course, yogis have been inquiring into consciousness for a very long time, but this is purely from the other side of the conversation. Spiritual practice is an entirely subjective affair, whilst science seeks objective evidence.
In a way, consciousness is at the junction of subjectivity and objectivity. It has simultaneously a neurobiological substrate with neuronal and biochemical correlates we are slowly but steadily identifying and brain regions we are are mapping, and a mysteriously private 1st person expression. How exactly the two relate remains inscrutable, but the fact that they are inextricably related is undeniable.
With lots of research being done on how practices that train mindful awareness affect the brain, this dance between subjectivity and objectivity, spirituality and science is more fascinating and exciting than ever before. Far from negating the mysteries of consciousness, this feels like a celebratory exploration.
Up until about 15 years ago it was thought that the brain was “hard-wired” by the age of five or six. But there has been a revolution in neuroscience, based in the discovery of how experience changes the brain’s function and even structure over time. This is called “neuroplasticity.” Any meaningful conversation about how yoga practice can effect transformation now has a reference point in brain research. Quite exciting!
Here then are Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind’s Three Principles of Transformational Neuroplasticity, as gleaned from the current neuroscience literature:
It is the repeated, consistent patterns created by new experience that change the brain, and therefore who we are, how we feel, how we deal with our emotions, how aware we are of our bodies and how integrated we are on all levels.
The emphasis on consistency in all practice-based traditions is connected to the observation that staying on the path produces results over time. Proponents of spirituality have always understood this intuitively, but now we are closer to understanding why it works! Consistent practice is essential—it is where the rubber meets the road.
Commit yourself to a daily practice,
Your loyalty to that is like a ring on the door.
Keep knocking and eventually the joy that lives inside
Will look out to see who’s there…
(To begin laying the foundation for a consistent meditation practice, I recommend my Everyday Enlightenment course!)
“What Fires Together, Wires Together.”
Above is a catchphrase from the research referring to the phenomenon of linkage between neural pathways. We can create powerful chains of association that form strong and complex neural networks with multiple links when we practice.
Think of this as the creative act of intentionally sculpting your own brain pathways! Creating beneficial patterns of neuronal association is a byproduct of being immersed in the rich experiential process of spiritual practice.
Linking the experience of sitting down on our mats with activating breath awareness, and becoming grounded, resourced and oriented* is one example of utilizing this principle. Each time we sit down to begin yoga we are stimulating this neural network until it becomes almost second nature.
Linking the experience of being resourced to the experience of consciously and compassionately staying present with what scares us starts to change how we deal with stress and trauma in ourselves and in others.
Linking the “Practice Trinity” of breath, presence and compassion similarly develops a new brain skill. Skillfully adding elements like music or poetic images can enrich this still further.
Your Just Desserts: Utilizing the Reward System.
Mindfulness activates neuroplasticity, but when the brain’s reward system is firing, those new pathways grow even stronger. The reward system releases feel good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins. In the biochemical matrix created by the reward system, the possibilities of neuroplastic transformation are amplified.
Deep breathing, music, poetry, communal experience and physical activity all stimulate the reward system—that’s why they make us feel good.
So experiencing the process of inner work, resourcing, healing and even the discharge of emotional energy in contexts that also make us feel good, means that the transformational pathways will be formed that much more strongly.
Enjoy being in your body when you are practicing, let the good feelings in, maintain a sense of connection to the community or tribe around you, radiate and receive compassion, permission, and gratitude and use all of this as fuel for the journey of shifting old patterns, healing wounds and learning new habits.
From The Radiance Sutras:
Rocking, swaying, undulating
Carried by the rhythm,
Ride the waves of ecstatic motion
Into a sublime fusion of passion and peace.
We think of the above three principles of transformational neuroplasticity as a doorway into the “sacred biochemistry” of yoga practice. They represent both a poetic and science-informed way of seeking to frame the experiential processes of self-transformation through yoga and meditation.
Neuroplasticity is a complex and rich subject to explore. If you want to know more, look into the seminal work of Michael Merzenich and Paul Bach y Rita, and consider reading the The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. Rick Hanson also has a fascinating book on the relationships between Neuroscience and Buddhism called Buddhas Brain.
The Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Teacher Training draws on Neuroscience, Somatic Psychology and Buddhist meditation to offer a uniquely integrated approach to yoga. The associated ebook lays out our underlying philosophy.
*Note: Grounding, orienting and resourcing make up the “Foundational Trinity” of the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind approach to yoga. The concepts are related to somatic psychology and have to do with regulating the nervous system so as to feel at home in your embodied experience.