To evolve or devolve, that is the question.
In Galapagos, Vonnegut’s post-apocalyptic novel, a pandemic has rendered the entire human race infertile save the people who inhabit the fictional island of Santa Rosalia. Fast forward one million years later, the descendents of this island, naturally adapt to their surroundings, evolving biologically to resemble sea-lions, with smaller brains and only flippers for hands. These evolved/devolved descendants of the human species live in a much simpler post-futuristic paradise quite unlike the technologically fluent world of their ancestors; a high-tech world which led to the near-demise of the human species in the first place. The advancement of human intelligence at a rate greater than what nature can cope with is according to Galapagos the catalyst that will lead to the downfall of the human race.
This hankering for a simpler pace of life is a common fantasy we all share. Running away to that remote tropical island is a recurring urban wet dream. Except that we can’t always run away to Fiji or Santorini. Learning how to create an environment or mindset that feels like a vacation away from the sensory overloaded world that we live in is the key. On many levels, our practice theme this month which focuses on breath and drishti (eye gaze or focal point) creates a pathway to that type of mindset and thinking. These are the baby steps of the daily practice that could one day lead to more profound changes in brain chemistry and in one’s perspective.
Neuroplasticity and the Yogic Brain
Neuroplasticity, or the capacity for the brain to change and rewire itself even in adults, in response to new stimuli and information has been accepted within the scientific community since the late 1970s and 80s. Neurogenesis or the ability of the brain to create new neurons and pathways between neurons throughout a person’s lifetime is well documented in neuroscience. Additionally independent experiments conducted by various universities including Massachusettes and McGill have recruited the use of MRI to show changes within the brain in response to yoga and meditation practices.
In the 2010 Massachusettes research led by neuroscientist Sara Lazar, 16 subjects were enrolled in a 8 week programme where they were asked to perform mindfulness tasks and meditation daily. MRI scanning displayed a significant decrease in beta waves, indicative of brain processing activity, suggesting the influence that meditation has on relaxion by slowing down the brain’s processing centre. MRI scanning after the 8 week course displayed increased density in the grey matter of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory as well as structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
A separate experiment running under the auspices of McGill University concluded based on MRI scanning that regular yoga practice has neuroprotective benefits against whole brain age-related grey matter decline. Additionally the results suggested weekly yoga practice contributing towards larger grey matter volume in the left hemisphere of the brain most associated with stress regulation with increasing years of practice tuning the brain into a more para-sympathetically driven mode. Yoga has claimed for centuries the mental and emotional benefits of practice but neuroscience through the magic of technology can now display the specific changes in brain chemistry and anatomy as a result of yoga related practices.
What is Meditation
Meditation holds many meanings within popular culture. So it’s best to clarify at the outset what we’re talking about here. One word which has found popularity within the modern wellness industry is mindfulness. When we talk about meditation in the true yoga sense of the Vedic tradition, we are really referencing Transcendental Meditation (TM). The goal of TM is to rise above thought and come to a state of thoughtless awareness. This is where the practitioner is fully aware but the mind is not addressing or processing thoughts. For most, this takes many years of practice to arrive at and coincides with a state known as Kundalini Awakening. This is typically explained as a form of spiritual awakening where key energetic channels within the body are freed allowing the practitioner to come to a state of pure consciousness.
Mindfulness on the other hand is the retraining of the brain to be aware but also to be present. In mindfulness exercises, the practitioner is often asked to pay particularly attention to breathing, physiological sensations and present emotional state without judgement or response. In mindfulness, one is learning how to be in the body but in TM, it is almost as if you are standing outside of the body looking back in.
Either way, yoga techniques assist in reducing the chatter in the head which is the first step to developing a mindset for either practising mindfulness or meditation. If your disposition is anxious and the mind is jumpy, the first thing you need to do is bring the nervous system back to a a state of neutrality. The key to this is always the breath.
Breathing Life into your Practice
Many postures in yoga are replicated in other fitness disciplines. However what makes yoga unique is the rhythmic and disciplined application of breath pattern in conjunction with movement and another technique of concentration and focus known as Drishti. Together these form 2 of the 3 pillars of Tristana, which is the foundation of the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. Along with the application of Bandhas, Tristana offers a powerful navigational roadmap guiding a practitioner to move with grace and strength through the sequences turning one’s practice into what is often described as a moving meditation.
Through the rhythmic and disciplined application of breath pattern, the practitioner learns how to control and regulate the nervous system. One of the key benefits often talked about in yoga is the tuning into of the parasympathetic nervous system which aids in rest, relaxation and recovery. We established earlier that yoga practices help increase grey matter in the left hemisphere of the brain – the side of the brain more attuned to stress-regulation. Though playing sports in general assists in promoting good health, certain types of activities can increase anxiety levels thus elevating the fight or flight response. Yoga is unique in the sense that whilst increasing fitness, the application of breathing technique serves to also decrease fight and flight response due to activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Particular types of yoga practice such as Yin yoga in addition, help restore and repair fascia which can become damaged and brittle through other types of physical endeavours.
Generally speaking Ocean breathing or Ujjayi breathing is used in vinyasa style practices such as as Ashtanga.
“Inhalation and exhalation during ujjayi are slow and deep and take place with the partial closure of the glottis. This produces a sound like sighing, but it is even and continuous” ~ Science of a Breath – A Practical Guide by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballantine, M.D., Alan Hymes, M.D.
Other than creating heat in the body, the rhythmic sound created by the drawing in and expellation of the breath against the roof of the palate produces a kind of a mantra which invites a meditative quality to the practice. From the perspective of this article, Ujjayi breathing invites internal focus and attention thus allowing the practitioner to remain aware but detached from external forces – a small but important step towards the practice of Prathyahara, the 5th limb of Yoga.
“If a man’s reason succumbs to the pull of his senses he is lost. On the other hand, if there is rhythmic control of breath, the senses instead of running after external objects of desire turn inwards, and man is set free from their tyranny. This is the fifth stage of Yoga, namely, pratyahara, where the senses are brought under control.”~ Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar.
Here’s a tip. Want to learn how to meditate? Well come to a yoga class and learn how to breathe in rhythm to each posture first.
Ujjayi is not normally used in Iyengar style classes but every yoga class would normally start with some kind of centred breathing to help bring about an internal focus to the practice. Another breathing technique commonly used is Sama Vritti or Equal Breaths breathing and I would normally encourage my students to start with this when centring prior to the beginning of a practice. If you don’t practice Ashtanga or go to a class where they teach you how to do Ujjayi breathing then it is easy enough for you to use Equal Breaths breathing in your practice. In Equal Breaths, simply inhale to the count of 4, retain a momentary pause before exhaling to a count of 4. Spend about 3 minutes either in child’s pose or in cat – cow tabletop position with Equal Breaths breathing. Try and bring this rhythm with you into the rest of your practice.
The other strategy utilised in Yoga vinyasa is Drishti, also commonly known as Focal Point. Quite simply, there is a gazing point for every yoga posture, a point that you fix your eye gaze upon.
Drishti or Focal Point
Each posture has a specific gazing point in Ashtanga Yoga. There are 9 gazing points in total. Whilst gazing points have practical applications; for example to help assist with balance, on another level, it helps to cultivate an inward focus.
My advice on bringing Drishti into your practice is this – don’t expect it to be easy or consistent. Focus is often a function of mental state and of course ultimately, mental state is influenced by the direction of focus and attention. However in the early stages of your practice, it will be difficult to be consistent in fixing your eye gaze in the same place every single time. Some days you will do better than others. However start by applying Drishti in a few specific postures and try and remember to stick to these every single time. By doing that you will slowly start to build a bit of uniformity in your practice and learn to develop focus purely from repetition.
My recommendations on where to start is with:
- Urdhva Hastasana our Upward Salute arms: from standing Mountain Pose when you bring your arms up and hands together, you are coming into Urdhva Hastasana. This is a great pose to learn how to integrate Drishti into your practice. The focal point for this pose are the thumbs, also known as Angustagra Drishti. As this posture comes towards the start and end of each Sun Salutation, it is a great way to learn how to be consistent in your focal point practice. The same can be said for Warrior I also. The focal point for Virabhadrasana or Warrior I is the thumbs of the raised arms, so try including this into your routine.
- Adho Mukha Svanasana or Downward Facing Dog: The focal point in Downward Dog is the navel or Nabi Chakra Drishti. Now this may not be accessible to most practitioners so my suggestion is that you find a point, perhaps in between the legs and what feels manageable for your level of flexibility. But the key is for you to return to this gazing point with consistency every single time. As your flexibility improves you can start to bring the point up and closer to your navel.
- Virabhadrasana II or Warrior II: your focal point here are the front finger tips – Hastagra Drishti. Warrior II is frequently practiced in most yoga classes and at all levels, so again this is an easy one to integrate into your practice. When you turn the head to bring the eye gaze towards the front finger tips, continue to draw the shoulder blades together and try and keep the chest and collarbones expansive.
When you have been practising this for long enough and are able to bring Drishti into these poses with regularity then you will be ready to incorporate the other focal points into your practice. You might consider getting a copy of Jois’s Yoga Mala or Gregor Maehle’s Ashtanga Yoga handbook at this point for more complete detailing of the postures.
Devolve to Evolve
In Vonnegut’s Galapagos, human intelligence created a technologically advanced world which resulted in its own near – demise. In this science fiction fantasy, humans biologically devolve into animal – like creatures with smaller brains and actually end up living happily ever after. The book raises many big questions about the kind of world we want to live in and how we measure progress through material wealth and technological advancements. I am certainly no Luddite but I know we now live in a very sensory driven and time-deprived world which has had an impact upon our emotional and mental well-being. Our brains are constantly being exposed to visual stimuli and the effect this has on our nervous system is still largely unknown. However the science is very clear on the positive benefits of slowing down the brain through yoga and meditation. So let’s learn how to create this internal focus in your practice using breath and drishti and elevate your practice from a set of postures into something akin to a moving meditation. These are the baby steps that may lead to more profound shifts of consciousness in the future.
All this July, we are working on elevating our practice with greater focus on breath and drishti at our Hatha Yoga classes on Fridays 10:30am and Sundays 9:30am at Bodyneed Sports Clinic, 17 Maidstone St, Ponsonby. To join in a class email Ewa at firstname.lastname@example.org or text/call 021-833966