Why Yoga Is An Ideal Practice To Sharpen the Mind
Our culture has divided the mind and body since Decarte. Our modern medical systems still separate the study and practice of healing the mind and body. But, the mind and body can not be divided! A 2014 study showed that just 30 minutes of moderate cardio was enough to boost cognitive functioning in adult brains of all ages. Physical exercise increases the blood flow to the brain, delivering a boost of fresh oxygen and glucose to hungry brain cells. But the benefits don’t stop there. Exercise is believed to stimulate hippocampal neurogenesis: new cell growth in the region of the brain associated with long-term memory and emotions. Healthy cell growth in this region is important to the aging brain, and believed to help prevent cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The term neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to “rewire” itself through the practice of a desired skill. It is the combination of new cells and new learning that creates this magic. When fresh nerve cells are well-stimulated, through specific learning exercises, they make new connections. In other words, they become healthy brain cells that contribute to learning and the development of new skills. Movement practices are the primary way for helping us do this. Having a variety of movement patterns in your daily life is not only great for your body, it is also really good for the mind. It makes us more capable of a variety of tasks.
Many of the yoga practices are probably new to you. When we learn new things that stimulates new neuronal connections in our brain our brains can change in positive ways over time. It works on the “use it or lose it” principle. It has often been likened to a muscle - the more you use it the better it gets. We can regenerate brain cells until we are 100-120 years old. Besides the yoga poses, doing multiple forms of pranayama, or breathwork, throughout your practice increases your mental capacity and mind body connection.
Yoga and other forms of moving meditation integrate physical movement with breath awareness and focused attention. This can facilitate neural communication between the brain and body, and the integration of both top-down and bottom-up cognitive processing. This ability to integrate mind and body in the service of sustained focus, attention, self awareness and self-regulation may explain why yoga and meditation may enhance cognitive capacities and impact related brain networks.
Communication between the body and the brain are very complex and there are many more fibers going to the brain from the body then from the brain to the the body. The brain is not the boss of the body. The body is actually doing more of the communicating about what's happening than the brain is. Just to feel the sensations in your body, called interoception, strengthens the neurological circuits in the right hemisphere of the brain.
Our sympathetic nervous system stimulates our flight or fight response. Our parasympathetic nervous is engaged when our body is in a rest and digest state. This state allows us to respond appropriately to what's happening around us instead of over-react. A clear and healthy mind is one in which the responses we have in the moment are proportionate to what is happening in the situation. In this way we can be liberated from our conditioning and patterned responses.
Let's get more into specifics. In the sequence I give you below I go through some basic exercises you can do to enhance your cognitive function.
Movements where there is a crossing of the mid-line of our bodies create greater connections and integrate the functions between the two sides of the brain. The right hemisphere primarily processes our emotions and imagination while the left hemisphere primarily processes logic and language.
You've probably heard about or experienced for yourself how walking can help you clear your head. Walking is a contra-lateral movement which means we exercise muscles on opposite sides of the body from one another. Some contra-lateral movements are offered to help the two sides of the brain communicate better.
Meditation, mindfulness and other relaxation practices affect the secretion of key hormones which enhance brain plasticity, thus changing the very way we respond to stress. The UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging found that long-time meditators have larger amounts of gyrification, the folding of the cortex, than people who do not meditate. It is thought that this allows the brain to process information faster.
Things like toning, singing and chanting are not only very uplifting, but they can increase our vagel tone. The Vagal nerve is the longest cranial nerve. It goes to the heart, lungs, brain, gut, and beyond. Vagal tone is typically considered to be important to the function of our hearts, but also is an assessment of emotional regulation. Sounding with longer exhalations stimulates our relaxation response. Our heart rate and blood pressure lower.
LET'S GET STARTED! HERE'S A GREAT SEQUENCE FOR COGNITIVE HEALTH.
Mindfulness and interoception
Supported Fish pose (Matsyasana) with three part breath
Instant Maui with extended exhalations
Seated Meditation with Body Scan
Mindfulness and Interoception: Mindfulness is being present with your moment to moment experience. Close the eyes. Relax the weight of your body down into the floor as you exhale. Breath in through the center channel of your body; lifting and lengthening through the crown of the head. Each out breath grounding you down. Feel the floor underneath you. Each breath in is lifting us; letting the body become more light. Exhale, noticing the places your body is touching the floor. Inhale and find openness. As you breath start to notice the sensations in your body.
The most fundamental area we can be aware of is our body. Start to being your attention to head, then the face, the neck, feel the shoulders, notice what your arms feel like right now, scan your awareness down your torso from you chest and upper back to your mid-section and down through your pelvis. Sense the sensations in your legs and feet. Another area we can bring awareness to is our thoughts. Usually we are thinking without observing the thoughts. Here we notice what the exact thoughts are that we are having and the judgement that are part of them. As our mindfulness deepens we can be more in touch with our emotions. If there are emotions present, notice where you feel them in your body and if any thoughts come with them. An important part of this practice is to be curious to what is happening with a balanced mind, not judging what you observation. Before we finish, please direct your attention to the world around you. Notice the sounds you hear right now. be curious about the colors and shapes you can see. Eyes can be open or closed. What do the surfaces that you are touching feel like? Are there smells in the room?
Cloud Walker: We are going to make our way up to standing. Use a chair if it's safer. Stand with your feet about as wide as your hips. Raise the right heel off the floor and left arm up. Exhale them down and inhale the left heel and right arm up. Continue with this and breath. Opposite arm and leg move. Let this be a soft and smooth motion through your arms and shoulders, like you are walking on a cloud. Inhale to lift. Exhale to lower. When you feel ready you can try bringing the whole foot off the floor. If that's not for you today you can continue to lift the heels only. Move with your breath. Imagine walking on the moon, where gravity is really low. Everything moves more slowly. Feel how your brain and body are learning how to do this better as you go? Begin to hold the balances longer and longer on each side. This movement stimulates more complex brain and nervous system development and integration. Check out how high the knee can lift. Okay, relax and stand tall in mountain pose.
Windmill: Stand tall. Be mindful of anything close to you as you start to windmill the body around side to side. Let the arms move freely. They are relaxing and naturally tapping the body. As you do this the weight will go back and forth from right to left foot. If you want to practice something a little more challenging, try lifting the back heel off the floor as you turn. So if you are turning to the right the left heel lifts. If you are turning to the left the right heel lifts. Let the legs and hips turn as you pivot on the back toes. The breath can become faster to match the movement. Inhale through center and exhale as you turn to the side. You can exhale through the nose or the mouth. Notice which one feels right for you in this moment. Inhale center, exhale turn. Nice, strong breaths. Begin to slow the movements and soften the breath. Watch as the body slowly comes back to center.
We will do one more variation on this movement we have been working with. This time we will do the same movement, except we will pivot on the heel we are turning into. When our arms swing to the left the weight is on the right foot and the left toes lift. When are arms swing to the right the weight is on our left foot and the right toes lift. If you need to adjust your stance for this to feel comfortable please do so.
Arm Circles: We will start with a symmetrical movement and move on to an asymmetrical movement from there. Begin with both arms moving symmetrically in a circle. Keep this gentle. If you look to your right arm you will see it is going in a counter-clockwise direction.. Looking at the left arm, it is moving in a clockwise direction. New just relax the arms. Next we will have both arms go clockwise at the same time. Bring the right arm forward and the left arm back. Now bring them over your head. Bring the left arm forward and the right arm back. And, then bring them down. Continue to move them like this. They will always meet at the top and bottom of the movements. Left arm forward. Right arm back. Right arm forward. Left arm back. It's not a swimming motion. The arms are going in opposite directions. If its hard to get don't worry about it. Relax and enjoy the ride. As you practice, notice how there is some twisting in the spine and an opening of the chest each time
Supported Fish Pose: Make your way onto the floor. Have a rolled up mat come about 3/4 of the way up your mat. Sitting in front of it, bring your back down onto the roll so it is touching your upper back, right below the shoulder blades. If it is too low it might be uncomfortable for the muscles of your back. If it is too high the shoulders will be off the floor and the back of the neck will feel compressed. Adjust yourself until the tops pf the shoulders are touching the floor and the arms can be off the mat in a “T” position. If the head is not resting comfortably on the floor place a pillow underneath it.. Relax through the whole face from the eyes through the jaw. Here we are going to do a three part breath, beginning with bringing the breath into the belly. So, begin by bringing the breath into and out of the belly. let this be a slow, deep breath in and a complete breath out. Now let the breath come into the low lungs where the chest meets the abdomen. Feeling into that area, notice the sensations there as you expand on the in breaths and soften on the out breaths. Encourage the breath to now move into the chest to whatever degree feels right. then we are going to combine these three parts into one complete breath. Listen for the amount of breath that feels good for you. Begin by breathing a full breath into the belly, through the diaphragm and into the chest at your own pace. Exhale starting at the chest, into the diaphragm and down to the belly, feeling empty. Take this slow and easy, letting each part fill to over-flowing on the in breaths and empty completely on the out breaths. After a few breaths like that let the breath come back to its normal state. Bend the knees and place the feet on the floor. Roll over to one side. Use your arms and hands, not your back, to come up. Head relaxed.
Instant Maui: Inhale up and slowly move your chair to the short end of your mat. Have a blanket or pillow under your head. Sit in front of the chair and bring your lower legs onto the seat of the chair. If it is a high seat you might want to place a blanket under your pelvis so your feet are able to rest onto the chair. You get to just throw your feet up, lay back and relax. Adjust until you feel just right. Finding a comfortable place to be, let the body begin to relax. As we lay here in this nice, comfortable, relaxed posture lets extend our exhalations. Start to encourage the exhalations to be about one and a half to two times longer than the inhales. We can inhale for a count of 3 and exhale for a count of 5 or 6, whichever feels best. Let that breath practice go and just continue to rest here. Just relax. Finding your breath again, begin to breath more deeply. Move your fingers and toes gently. Bend your knees into your chest and hug them in with the arms. Move slowly onto your side and come to seated.
Seated Meditation with Body Scan: Have your spine be tall. Find the sensations of the breath in the body. Allow the mind to settle. Notice the space between each breath. Notice the gaps between the thoughts. As many times as the mind wonders is as many times as we lovingly guide it back to the breath. When you are feeling finished start to deepen the breath.
As we move through this body scan try to be aware of the sensations in you body while maintaining equanimity. Equanimity refers to having a calm and balanced mind, releasing any anxiety that might come up. Without moving your feet or doing anything we will start to notice any sensations we find in your right foot. Feel each individual toe. Feel the whole right foot. Feel the right ankle. Notice any sensations at all; tingling, heat, cold, pressure; any sensations at all. Move your awareness into the right lower leg. Feel your right knee. Notice any sensations in your right thigh - inner thigh, outer thigh, top of the thigh, back of the thigh. Feel your left foot. Your left ankle. Notice what your left lower leg feels like right now. What is happening in your left lower leg? Feel your left knee; your left upper leg; each by inch; every inch of your thigh. Feel the base of your pelvis where it touches the chair. Notice any sensations in the lower belly. Can you feel the breath there. Sense into the feelings in the middle of your torso. Be conscious of sensations in the upper torso. Notice what is happening as you are observing these sensations; as they change from moment to moment. Feel into your buttocks. Feel your lower back. Keep bringing your attention back to your body. It's natural for the mind to wonder. See if you can keep bringing your attention back to your body and feel your middle back. Feel your upper back. Feel your right shoulder. Move your mind's eye down your right arm. All the way down to the hand. Feel your right hand with your mind. Feel each individual finger. It's a practice of concentration and focus. Feel your left shoulder now. Identify any sensations present in your left arm. From inch to inch all the way down to your left hand. Now, feel your left hand. All the fingers of the left hand one finger at a time. Bring your attention to the neck and all the sensations in the neck. Feel your head – the face, the ears, the scalp. Notice all the sensations of your head.
Humming: Find a comfortable seated position. We will do a few humming sounds. Find yourself here in your seat. Feel your breath. You will be humming with your mouth closed. We will do three hums. Hum...Hum...Hum...
Toning: You will do each of the vowel sounds, ending each with an M. So, it will be A, E, I O, U. Each with an M sound at the end. Begin with and A. Aaaaammmm. E, Eeeemmm. I, Iiiiimmm. O, Ommmm. And U, Ummm.