Yoga: Beyond Pretzel Bodies

Image Credit: Athlete on the Map

Dispatch by Dr. Sutherland for Spacious Minds from Yoga Journal Conference San Diego

For most people in America, yoga conjures up images of sweaty athletic bodies twisted into pretzel-like figures, or maybe colorfully dressed hippie types speaking in a new-agey dialect. Even among people who “do yoga,” that usually means hitting a studio for an invigorating round of strengthening, stretching, and balancing movements followed by savasana, a time for quiet stillness that leaves you with a peaceful feeling. But those with a deeper practice know that yoga’s true gifts lie beyond asana postures.

At a Yoga Journal Conference in San Diego last month, some of the country’s most highly respected teachers imparted their wisdom on topics ranging from “Yoga for Athletes” to “Foundational Practices of Tantric Yoga” and everything in between. Yogis turned out in droves to sessions exploring tools that have been used for thousands of years to affect the entire nervous system, including classic yogic practices: pranayama breathing, chanting, mantra or repeated cycles of “seed” sounds, and dhynana, or meditation.

The way I think about yoga shifted about ten years into my practice, when I found a teacher who guided me in meaningful study of the Yoga Sutrastexts laid down by Patanjali about two thousand years ago laying out the already-ancient Vedic tradition. I was amazed by how much this ancient approach shared with my chosen field of neuroscience—a Western, modern experimental approach to understanding the mind by way of the brain. Over several more years, I came to find Viniyoga and my current teacher, Gary Kraftsow, at American Viniyoga Institute. (See this description of Viniyoga at Whole Life Blog.) What I’ve come to appreciate is that yoga not only provides a systematic way to understand the human mind; like neuroscience, that is its very purpose. 

Kraftsow, speaking at the YJC, explained: Following ancient tradition, asana postures are used as purvanga—preparation—for the deeper aspects of practice. Describing the ancient Vedic tradition, Kraftsow said, “asana prepares the body for pranayama, breathing prepares the mind for meditation, and meditation prepares the heart for prayer.” These preparatory steps are crucial to “transformation of the mind,” which Kraftsow described as the aim of meditation. “You can sit and meditate for an hour,” he said, “but the depth of where you go depends on your preparation.” 

As anyone with meditation experience can attest, sitting still with eyes closed does not always equate with a meditative experience. Kraftsow explained that long sitting meditation is actually an advanced practice, and that the physical aspects of yoga—like asana and pranayama—help prepare the mind for that deeper practice. The human brain’s greatest achievement might lie in its capacity to think about what is not going on here and now; it allows us to plan and reflect, but also to worry and anticipate. This ability comes at a cost: our minds are wandering on default, and as researchers show, this mindless activity accounts for a good bit of people’s unhappiness.

Other teachers in San Diego also emphasized the preparatory elements of the physical practice. Bhava Ram, a local teacher with a playful spiritual bent, once served as a war correspondent for NBC news. After suffering a broken back and a diagnosis of terminal cancer, he says yoga helped him heal physically, and he admits he’s “hopelessly addicted” to his asana practice. But more important, he said, are the tools of mantra, visualization, and live music, called kirtan. Yoga, he said, “is about overcoming demons and coming back to the truth of who we are.” 

In a class dedicated to the breathing practices, renowned teacher Rod Stryker imparted “The Secrets of Pranayama.” Common—and correct—conceptions of pranayama characterize it as a way to prepare for meditation, to focus and sustain attention, and to better know thy self. But Patanjali’s description was simpler if not somewhat metaphysical. Stryker described its purpose as “to remove the veil over one’s inner light.” Pranayama, he said, “is the greatest physiological tool to affect the state of yoga”—that lifting of the veil. 

If this all sounds a bit mystical, Stryker said, rest assured that the tools of pranayama, meditation, mantra, sound healing, and other rituals are laid out quite clearly according to the Sutras and other Vedic texts. “If pranayama is going to remove the veil from that inner light,” said Stryker, “we have to take a systematic approach.” These tools, such as breath and meditation, are rooted in our physiology, and their effects are now being examined with modern research. As Kraftsow pointed out, the breath is the only function of our autonomic nervous system that we can consciously control, and through it we can directly impact the workings of the entire nervous system. Your breath “is something that will be with you until you die,” said Kraftsow, “so learn to use it to benefit your condition.” The physiological effects of breath on the body are by now emerging in many studies, and its effects on the mind and on learning are now the topic of much research and educational and medical policy. 

Yoga superstar Seane Corn might be most famous for her body-centric Vinyasa flow classes, and she delivered a challenging asana practice. But beforehand and afterwards, she too highlighted aspects of yoga’s deeper practices. No matter the style of yoga, she said, “all asana is just a practice to release toxins and tension so that you can sit still for meditation.” In a process she called “inner visioning,” Corn said, you can learn to “stop giving away your power and accept the shit-storm of life, the good and the bad.” Indeed the process of introspection, which yoga calls svadhyaya, is a cornerstone of the practice. Studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex houses neurons critical to introspection. Moreover, the research suggests that practice of the process leads to neuroplastic changes in that area. Perhaps as neuroscience continues to investigate contemplative practices, the neural underpinnings of these and other, more esoteric practices will emerge.  


Posted on August 21st, 2012
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