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Yoga and the Brain


by Derek Beres

Marc Coronel - Open Mind Fitness

Recently I was in a yoga class when we reached the backbending sequence. The instructor then stated, ‘We’re going to do three backbends now. My teacher always does three, so that’s just the way it is.’ Visions of my initiation arose: the mandatory three bridges or wheels that marked the beginning of the ending of class. Somewhere along the line ‘three’ became the rule; many Hatha and Vinyasa teachers have stuck with it, as if mandated in the Sutras.

There’s nothing wrong with respecting your teacher or having a foundation. What concerns me is the dogmatism that sometimes infects instructors and students. The physicality that has emerged as the focal point of yoga has ironically created an inflexibility in the minds of its proponents. As it turns out, this is one of the worst things we can do for our brains.

The Spice of Life

Some forms of yoga require the same sequence each time you step on the mat. Bikram is one, and must be taught with the same cues and timing across the planet. Ashtanga is another, though there are levels you can progress to over time. Many Hatha and Vinyasa classes are routine and don’t change it up much. One studio in Park Slope, for example, requires that its instructors teach three Series A and three Series B sequences every class. From there, personal flavor is allowed.

Golds Gym Middletown Yoga by Robert RocheI understand the premise of such a practice: when you know the sequence, the entire practice becomes a moving meditation. You learn the postures from the inside out. If you’ve done yoga for a few years, you know that you constantly learn and relearn postures as you age, so there’s always something new to learn inside of the familiar stances.

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And yet repetition stunts growth. As neuroscientist Michael Merzenech writes,

Activities you have already mastered—even if you found them challenging at one point—won’t do your brain much good.

Any asana—the Sanskrit word for posture which originally meant ‘seat’—can be a place for meditation. The problem arises, in part, because of dualistic tendencies of some yoga practitioners, when they separate ‘body’ from ‘mind,’ and even worse, throw ‘spirit’ into the mix. This archaic understanding of our bodies and brains promotes an unhealthy disassociation from the totality of what we are as animals.

As Merzenech suggests, to develop a healthy brain one should partake in activities that provide the following:

  1. They should teach you something new.
  2. They should be challenging.
  3. They should be progressive.
  4. They should engage your great brain processing systems.
  5. They should be rewarding.
  6. They should be novel or surprising.
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At least half of these are not accomplished when you perform the same yoga routine day after day. This might be fine if yoga is only part of your physical workout. If it is your only workout, or at least the major focus of your exercise regimen, over time your brain health will suffer from a lack of diversity.

Not About the Postures?

One of the most unfortunate mantras voiced by instructors is ‘yoga is not about the postures.’ If you’re stating this in an asana class, you’re contradicting yourself as well as belittling your students. You’re being paid to teach postures. In my experiences, it is usually the instructors who say such things that forget to do poses from one side to the other, provide incongruent sequences and do not provide proper anatomical cues.

Meditation by David McTavishYes, yoga is not just about postures, but we have to be real about what most people step into the studio for. If someone is there just for the workout, do we alienate him or her? Do we chastise a student who is predominantly concerned with getting the Warrior series correct? In my history as a teacher, it is only later that one gets a glimpse of the emotional and mental healing possible within the class. There’s nothing wrong with teaching those other facets of yoga during a class, but to teach postures and then deny the importance of them is a blatant hypocrisy, and could help explain the growing number of injuries occurring due to yoga around the planet.

The ‘Best’ Workout

Another tragic consequence of such an attitude is thinking that yoga is the ‘best’ form of exercise, or that it offers something no other form of movement does. While rarely expressed in such outright terms, that’s the sense one gets when an instructor focuses more on the spirituality of the exercise rather than on physiology, anatomy and neurology (i.e. not teaching that the kriya kapalabhati is a contraindication of anxiety disorder).

I’ve long been a fan of movement. Modern dance and capoeira opened the door to yoga for me in the late nineties.  Today my yoga practice occurs alongside VIPR, TRX, Shockwave, 4×4 and the pilates-based Powerhouse. As a lifelong athlete, I’ve found the state of ‘Flow’ that one can achieve during a yoga practice in sports as well, as well as the same sense of refined focus and clarity in the above listed classes as when doing asanas.

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Where yoga differs is in how it treats our nervous systems. This is predominantly achieved through breathing exercises and meditation, as well as the much beloved Savasana at the end of the practice.  When someone asks me if yoga is ‘enough,’ I ask what they’re hoping to achieve. To relieve anxiety and tension,  boost your immune system and sedate an overactive nervous system? Certainly. To help you attain optimal heart health through cardiovascular exercise? Definitely not. As a weight loss tool? Possibly, though given that it slows our metabolism, probably not too helpful.

I’ve come across a few teachers who only do home practices but then teach group classes. I’ve also known many that only go to the same handful of teachers or studio. While there is not set ‘way’ of practicing yoga, I think this is a shame. You can learn from anyone. It’s important to know what you like, but it’s equally if not more important to constantly challenge yourself. You can learn even in classes you don’t particularly enjoy, take from it a nugget of inspiration that you can apply to your own groups.

In his wonderful book Spark, Harvard associate clinical professor of psychiatry John J Ratey states that the healthiest thing we can do for our brain is to exercise. And the healthiest forms of exercises are varied. I hope as we learn more about how our brains operate, we can cool the arrogance rampant in certain fundamentalist segments of the yoga community and learn from other disciplines as well as styles. We know that it’s a healthy step in the right direction. We just have to take it.

Images: Marc Coronel on Instagram; Golds Gym Middletown Yoga by Robert Roche; Meditation by David McTavish