By Gabriel Axel | US News Health
I began my journey as an aspiring neuroscientist determined to understand the basis of what makes us human. What was our most fundamental essence that allowed us to be, express and function in all the wondrous ways that we do? I knew the answer had to lie in the brain, the most complex and mysterious organ in the body and the one that held the most promise for unearthing the origin of our unique species. I toured universities in the U.S. and Europe, studying and conducting research looking for answers. I devoured every piece of knowledge I studied, mesmerized by the wonders of the brain.
I was looking for consciousness itself. I realized after some time, however, that consciousness itself was not to be limited to being found in the brain. All human endeavors that have ever reached greatness – from elite athleticism and creative genius to humble expressions of grace through service – have touched a deep strand of humanness, lodged within the metaphorical heart. As amazing as the brain was, I knew that consciousness – this essence for which I was searching– had to be lived and directly experienced.
I wanted some activity I could incorporate regularly that would help me develop physically, mentally and emotionally, and also touch this ineffable essence itself. My busy schedule of study and research at the time did not allow for simultaneously doing various workouts and activities to these ends, so I set the intention of finding a single activity that would address these needs together. This was the pivotal moment when I found yoga. Yoga struck a deep chord in me. There were marked increases, both immediate and long-term, in physical strength and flexibility, mental calm and overall peace both inside and outside the actual practice. I was hooked.
Neuroscience has repeatedly demonstrated the capacity of the brain to rewire itself through experience, known as neuroplasticity. In a practical sense this means that every moment of experience creates grooves in the landscape of the brain, which then affects the way we relate to the minds and bodies of ourselves and others, as well as to the environment around us. The good news is that a changeable brain is a hackable brain – in other words, by understanding some of the rules of brain function, it is possible to learn how to use its capacities more effectively in order to deliberately bring about positive change.
I discovered along the path that this deliberate act is part and parcel of yoga. Yoga is a scientific technology that harnesses the innate capability of the body as a vehicle for transformation. It is a technology, a human art, purposefully crafted to serve as a tool for maximizing the health and potential of the human being. Yoga has been popularized by its physical aspects, which are an integral component of the larger science of yoga. The system as a whole, which includes techniques that address many aspects of the human being, works the brain and nervous system in a synchronized and harmonious manner. The techniques are manifold, but they are based on core principles. These can be unpacked in a digestible manner using exercises that improve fitness and well-being if appropriately applied.
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Yoga on the Brain
Just 20 minutes of yoga could help your brain function better, according to a small new study.
Researchers found that people did better -- both speed-wise and accuracy-wise -- on brain functioning tests after just 20 minutes of Hatha yoga, compared with aerobic exercise.
"It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout," study researcher Neha Gothe, a professor of kinesiology, health and sport studies at the university, said in a statement. Gothe conducted the study while a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities," he added.