I’ve been thinking, reading and teaching about how yoga influences neurobiology for a number of years.
So when one of my students passed along a recently published article proposing a comprehensive model for the self-regulatory mechanisms of yoga, I got all dysregulated – increased heart rate, dilated pupils, sweaty palms, insomnia – it’s too exciting!
It’s going to take me a while to break this stuff down, so I’m going to write several short blogs to try to cover the main themes.
One of the things I most love about this is that it goes beyond some of the previous models (that only look at postures or pranayama) and defines yoga as ethics, meditation, postures and breathing regulation. That’s huge. When they start adding bhakti to the models I’ll have even more to celebrate. At this moment, I’ll happily take something more holistic than postures.
I want to start with some perspective.
As tools of measurement have gotten more powerful, specifically functional MRIs, scientists have been able to measure brain changes associated with practice. The kind of jump starter was Richard Davidson’s famous research at the University of Wisconsin in the early 2000s – remember, the cover of Time with the meditating monk with electrodes on his shaved monk head? People who meditate, Davidson’s research found, have thicker pre-frontal cortices. The implication is more front brain = better capacity to inhibit (your behavior, thoughts, actions). Good for mental health and health in general.
Lots of other research followed including Sarah Lazar’s work – she took non-meditators, taught them some techniques and after two weeks – Voila! Brain changes. So it’s not just 40 hour a week meditation professionals who benefit.
Then Rick Hanson (who’s been dubbed “The Mr. Rogers of Neuroscience”) made it a lot easier for us lay people to understand meditations effect on the 3 pound lump of tofu inside our heads. People like Bessel van der Kolk, Stephen Porges, Dan Siegel (and I would venture to add Rupert Sheldrake to this list although many label his fascinating research grossly “unscientific”), have expanded the definition of the brain and mind beyond the cranium.
Fast forward to last month. Tim Gard in Boston along with a team of researchers from all over the place, have put together a model of how yoga helps us self-regulate. Yes, a model! I know, it’s so exciting, I can’t stand it.
Here’s a picture of it:
Next blog: I’ll start to break down top-down/bottom-up mechanisms so you can begin to really understand the profound implications of yoga for mental health.