I recently went to an awesome workshop by Baxter Bell, M.D. at Sun and Moon Yoga Studio.
He reminded the class of the Mayo Clinic’s six key recommendations for healthy aging – eat healthy foods, get physical exercise, be socially connected, reduce stress, sleep well, and continue to be mentally engaged. Yoga can help with all of those things.
For my 500-hour yoga teacher training, I held a workshop on yoga and the brain and wrote a paper on the topic. My theory was similar to Dr. Bell’s, but I focused on three ways yoga can help the brain: #1, it helps with sleep; #2, it reduces stress; and #3, it builds mindfulness, the ability to be aware of the present moment, which involves a lot of brain activity in the areas of the brain that help with focus, concentration, and executive functioning.
Check out Dr. Bell’s blog, Yoga for Healthy Aging.
I had been practicing yoga for seven years before I learned in a workshop that my down dog was likely going to be the death of my shoulders. And while it was the first time I heard that I had to externally rotate my shoulders so my back and chest muscles would engage and protect my shoulders from injury, it took me another five years until I actually started feeling what that meant in my body.
Sound familiar? Why is it that a pose we may have done 10,000 times feels suddenly very different on our 10,001st try?
After finishing “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain,” I think it’s brain plasticity at work.
Every yogi should read this book. Sharon Begley is my new science writer superheroine. She does such a great job breaking down lots of rat studies in a really accessible way to tell the history of neuroplasticity and what happens when a bunch of the world’s most prominent neuroscientists get together with the Dalai Lama to talk about the latest in brain science.
Buddhists have been saying for thousands of years that meditating can transform your life, and now brain scans that are starting to back that up. Pretty cool.
Here are some nuggets from the book that made me think it was only after 12 years of downward dogs that I had made the neural connections in my brain to actually feel what it means to externally rotate my shoulders and activate my chest and back muscles.
- Animals that move the same part of their body repeatedly grow brain cells in the part of the brain that governs that part of their bodies;
- Mice who are active and cognitively challenged have bigger brains and are better at performing challenging tasks than their couch potato counterparts;
- Mindfullness-based cognitive therapy has been shown to actually change brain circuitry; and
- Brain scans of Buddhist monks who have meditated for years are very different than non-meditators, with more activity in the regions of the brain that govern happiness.
I want to point out that I’m an English literature major who never took a biology class outside of high school and I’ve probably completely misinterpreted Sharon Begley’s amazing prose. So I think I’ll stop there.
But please, please, please—if you’re a yoga student or a teacher, if you’ve ever known someone who struggles with depression, if you’re just interested in being able to justify why taking that exotic vacation will be good for your brain (it is! Go buy the tickets now!), please read this book.