Yoga is for everybody, including Runners! Part 3 – Yoga can change your brain

I hope you have started to exercise your brain with either the simple thought observation (part 1) or breath awareness (part 2). If you have, you have probably already noticed some changes in how you act or react in everyday situations.

Yoga practitioners have talked about the benefits of yoga for thousands of years but with little tangible evidence, especially for the non-physical benefits. However, now, thanks to modern day technology and the advances in science over the past 10 years, we are starting to see actual proof that yoga changes the structure of your brain.

Research (Gotink et al., 2016; Hozel et al., 2011) demonstrates that five minutes per day of mindfulness for an eight week period has the power to illicit functional and structural changes of the brain that promote psychological health and wellbeing. These changes in the brain are due to the brains incredible ability to adapt and reorganise itself by forming new neural connects, which we refer to as neuroplasticity.

“Neuroplasticity refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences” – Celeste Campbell.

The modern understanding of the brain is that, rather than it being a static structure (which is what was taught in universities 10 to 15 years ago), the adult brain has an element of plasticity. This means it can change. “Neuroplasticity” refers to the brains ability to change throughout life. Repeated thoughts and actions can rewire your brain; the more you do something, the stronger these new neural networks become. Thus, yoga induces positive change by increasing the number of cells in areas of the brain responsible for a healthy mental state, (or decreasing messages of stress).

Interestingly, Master Patanjali (should you not know who this is, go read part 1) was onto this almost 2,500 years ago, when he suggested that the key to success in yoga is dedicated, uninterrupted practice over a long period of time. The resulting neural networks - or samskaras - get stronger as you stay with your practice. With time, healthy thoughts and actions encouraged in yoga help guide people out of bad habits.

I have no doubt that many of you are thinking: “but yoga is not only mindfulness or mediation, it’s about placing our body in all sorts of shapes”. Sadly, yes this is true about some western yoga classes where ‘tradition’ has been stripped (cultural appropriateness is a big topic for another day).

Traditionally the yoga poses are used to create enough strength and flexibility in the body to eventually sit comfortably, upright in any sitasana or meditative pose for prolonged periods of time to enter the state of samadhi/ bliss/ total absorption.

If any of you have tried to sit cross legged with a straight spine, unsupported for eight hours without moving… you will understand what I mean when I say, our bodies are just not prepared.

Master Patanjali laid out an eightfold path to enlightenment:

1. Yamas – external discipline

2. Niyamas – personal observances or practices

3. Asana – yoga poses

4. Pranayama – breath control

5. Pratyahara – withdrawal of senses

6. Dharana – concentration

7. Dhyana – meditation

8. Semadhi – total absorption/ enlightenment

So yes, yoga asana may be a part of the journey, but it’s not yoga in its entirety. As outlined in part 1 “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha”. This directly translated into English means “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”.

This is what distinguishes a yoga class from a gym exercise or movement class. The true definition of a yoga practice incorporates establishing a sense of focus, whether it be stilling the mind, quieting the mind, working with the mind or learning to focus the mind.

Anyone can move there body mindlessly, but it takes time, dedication and patience to develop a deep-seated awareness that enables mindful movement, consciousness and intuition.

As a gymnast myself, the physical stuff came easily, and I can arguably say that I have reaped many more mental gains than physical. So, aside from the potential physical gains and enhanced breathing capacity, yoga can help you extend your mental focus, to be present (here and now), gain insight into bodily sensation and assist you in letting go limiting beliefs (all of which we will touch on in the weeks to come).

We all know, that running, especially when done competitively is all a mind game. So ask yourself, do you do any mind work? Just like a muscle requires strengthening, so does the mind. As a runner, you need to look at the whole picture and this means, you cannot only focus on your physical ability.

Week 2 task: The Perfect Ten

Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair, spine tall. Close your eyes as this helps to bring awareness into your body. But of course, if you’d prefer you can keep them open with a gentle gaze. Simply begin to observe your breath. No need to change it, judge it or think about it, just observe it.

Then when you are ready, start the perfect ten. At the top of each inhale count i.e. inhale, one, exhale; inhale, two, exhale; inhale, three, exhale. You will count to ten. This may seem easy at first but the trick is, every time a thought enters the mind, start again at one. Should you get past four on the first, second or third round, you are probably fooling yourself. Should you end up on 14, 15, or 16, that’s okay just start again at one. Do this for at least five minutes. Use a timer if you need.

Most of us are so externally distracted, that we need to prepare the mind to be still. This exercise was used by Siddhartha, the young buddha as a preparatory technique for meditation.

The light in me sees the light in you

Dale Guthrie

MSc Occupational Therapist: neurosciences

Adaptive yoga specialist

Founder of Holism Health

The light in me, sees the light in you,

Stay well

Dale Guthrie

Founder of Holism Health

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