Yoga and the brain
Your brain on yoga: its myths and healing powers
Nitin K. Sethi, MD
Address for Correspondence:
Nitin K. Sethi, MD
Department of Neurology
NYP-Weill Cornell Medical Center
525 East, 68th Street
New York, NY 10021 (U.S.A.)
What is yoga? Yoga literally means union. Union of the self with the inner consciousness is yoga. When one gets skilled in yoga then one can meditate. It is difficult when one tries to meditate for the first time. You close your eyes and the mind is bombarded with thoughts. What happened at work, who said what, things I have to do when I get done with meditation here. Mundane thoughts like these start racing through the mind. In the Bhagavad Gita an ancient Indian text Lord Krishna rightly tells Arjuna “your mind is your best friend but also your worst enemy”. It is indeed very difficult to control the mind, to slow it down and make it calm. In the recent years yoga has gained immense popularity in the west. What is about yoga that is different from traditional exercises like jogging and weight training? Why have so many people incorporated yoga into their hectic schedules? Yoga has been postulated to have dual benefits for the body (exercise) as well as the mind (meditation). What are these benefits of yoga? What is the neuroscience behind meditation? I shall discuss these and other issues briefly in this article.
Different types of Yoga
Before we begin let us briefly talk about different types of yoga. I am in no way an authority on yoga and various yogic postures so I shall keep this short. If you seek further information, there are many books which go over the practice of yoga in great detail. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna talks about three kinds of yoga namely karma yoga, bhakti yoga and gyana yoga.
Karma yoga as stated in the Bhagavad Gita means that one should do ones prescribed duties without worrying about the fruits. What does that mean and does that have any relevance to the health of our mind? A lot of stress in our daily lives is due to the attachment to results. We all seek something and strive hard to achieve it. This is especially true in a city like New York where I reside. It is hardly 6 am and the city is on the go. People rushing to work and to appointments, constantly on the move. I personally am of the philosophy that hard work never killed anyone. One should do ones prescribed duties. Like for instance I am a doctor and my duty is to my patients. I need to be there for them and take care of them. Karma yoga teaches us the same, do your prescribed duties, as one cannot remain stagnant. Stagnation or boredom is a big killer. When people get depressed they have what has been referred to as anhedonia. The term means the loss of interest in anything pleasurable. Work can and should be a pleasure. It gives us a reason to get out of our homes, meet new and interesting people, meet up with friends and share a coffee during the lunch break. All this keeps our minds healthy. Man is a social animal and the human brain seeks interaction and I feel thrives on it. What does hurt the mind and through the mind-body connection the health of our bodies in turn, is the desire for results. If I am working hard as a doctor because I want to get rich and famous then I am constantly worrying for the fruits of my endeavors. This attachment to the results leads to stress. Stress which may lead to a nervous breakdown, depression and which has been linked to cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and cerebrovascular diseases like stroke. The philosophy behind Karma yoga is thus intensely appealing. It does not ask us to renounce life. If you love to party, so party (if indeed that is your prescribed work) but do it without getting attached to the results (I hope I meet someone famous there, someone that will help me in climbing up the social ladder).
Bhakti Yoga the word “bhakti” literally means faith. So what does bhakti yoga mean and is there a relevance to the state of our mental and physical wellness? The way bhakti yoga is described in Indian texts like the Bhagavad Gita is having faith in god. The human brain needs to believe in something. If you are religious you would believe in god (does not matter what your religion is or who is the god you believe in). If you are not religious you may believe in yourself or a close friend. Again bhakti helps the mind in turning inwards. They say faith can move mountains. People have faith and have been able to overcome physical hurdles or go through an intensely draining experience like been diagnosed with cancer.
Gyana Yoga also called Jnana yoga or Dhyana yoga: refers to the yoga of knowledge. In the Gita this yoga refers to seeking the ultimate knowledge and in a way introspection, trying to make a union with the inner self. It also refers to leading a disciplined life in which one remains detached from extraneous sensory objects. In today’s world we are constantly wired. How many times in the space of a day do we check our emails or are talking on the cellphones. The mind just like any other organ of the body needs rest. Needs time to reflect, time to organize its thoughts. Many writers prefer to work in solitude, away from cellphones, televisions sets blaring out the same news and even the Internet.
Neuroscience of meditation
In a thought-provoking article, Deshmukh talks about the neuroscience behind meditation 1. Deshmukh likens meditation to an art, the art of being serene and alert in the present moment instead of a constant struggle to adapt and change to various external stimuli. As per Deshmukh, when one is meditating there is more efficient management of attentional energy, one may be totally engaged or totally disengaged. During meditation there is a simultaneous, participatory consciousness rather than a dualistic, sequential attentiveness. Thus meditation helps in changing the response of our mind to external stimuli. One can be a part of the external world yet at the same time be detached from its influence. This as Deshmukh points out leads to a natural sense of well-being and spontaneous joy.
Does a meditative mind function better? Does a meditative mind lead to a meditative brain? Meaning do the benefits of meditation on the mind translate into benefits for the brain too. Does regular practice of mediation lead to physiological and neurochemical changes in the brain? Hopefully science shall yield answers to the above questions soon.
Thus there is some evidence though not all scientific suggesting the benefits of yoga for the mind and the brain. That the mind is connected to the body has been emphasized recently. So changes in the milieu of the mind (and brain) affect the body and the reverse is also true. This mind-body connection works both in health and disease. A healthy brain and mind live in a healthy body and vice versa. Is it possible to use this mind-brain connection to promote healing? Can you use the power of the mind to fight cancer of the breast or to overcome a stroke that has left you weak on one side of the body? There is some evidence to suggest in the affirmative. I strongly feel that patients do well when you treat them as a whole, not just the body system that is giving them trouble.
Benefits of yoga for the body
The concept of yoga benefiting the body is far easier to comprehend. The physical aspect of yoga involves various asana (postures or poses). These help in toning the muscles and improving balance and station (posture). Yoga may benefit people suffering from chronic back pain by strengthening the muscles of the back. Patients with Parkinson’s disease or those with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s dementia would likely benefit from some yoga exercise done under proper supervision. This would improve their stiffness as well as balance. I stress the “under proper supervision” part here as some of the advanced postures have the risk of causing injury 2.
Yoga may have the unique capacity to benefit both the mind and the body. Further studies exploring the neuroscience behind yoga shall reveal the secrets behind this ancient science.
- Deshmukh VD. Neuroscience of meditation. Scientific World Journal 2006 Nov 16; 6:2239-53.
- PK Sethi, A. Batra, NK Sethi, J Torgovnick, E. Tortolani. Compressive cervical myelopathy due to sirsasana, a yoga posture: a case report. The Internet Journal of Neurology.2007.Volume 6 Number 1.