An article about the neurological aspects of yoga and how we can use yoga to train our minds to react less to physical stress caught my eye today. Alex Korb, Ph.D. wrote a great post “Yoga: Changing the Brain’s Stressful Habits” in his blog, Prefrontal Nudity. His main premise is that yoga is designed to stress our bodies and make us uncomfortable, not calm us. However, the idea is that WHILE you are stressing your body, moving into different yoga poses, you actively seek to breath deeply, focus on the present and basically fight your body’s innate stress response. You literally train yourself to be calm in the face of physical stress and discomfort.
I’ve been a yoga practitioner for many years and I find that the regular practice of yoga is a great way to learn how to be “in the moment” in your own body. The point of yoga is not to show how flexible we are or to improve our range of motion (although that can be a nice side effect). The point is to give our bodies wonderful movement and train our minds to calm down and focus on what is going on in our bodies in the here and now.
My favorite teachers are the only that give helpful directions for where to focus our minds as we move our bodies. Following the instructions of these teachers has made me far more aware not only of my body, but of how I can make subtle adjustments in my posture, my movements to achieve a deeper stretch, a more balanced pose. When in downward dog pose, I had an instructor tell us to focus on widening our fingers, putting more weight on our palms, trying to move the skin of our shoulders backward, lengthening our spines and moving our heels toward the back of the room. Like a crazy game of Twister, trying to maintain all these directives without falling over takes a lot of mental concentration and physical stamina. And while I am trying to do all these things, the usual “chatter” in my mind is quieted because I can’t think of anything but my body while I am trying to perform all these tasks! Meanwhile, I get more fit, my body feels great and I have an inner sense of calm I can draw from when life gets hectic!
Here is a nice example of an instructor giving multiple directives to focus on when going into Dogward Dog pose.
Do you practice yoga? Have you ever tried it? What benefits do you get from yoga? If you practice yoga, what are the most helpful things your yoga teachers can do to help you calm your mind?
Who is Alex Korb, Ph.D?
Dr Korb is a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UCLA. He earned a BS in neuroscience from Brown University in 2002, and his Ph.D. at UCLA in 2010. He is a consultant with BrainSonix Inc., a company developing therapeutic focused ultrasound neuromodulation for treatment of mental and neurological disorders. His other research interests include using measurements of brain activity in depressed patients to predict antidepressant treatment response. Outside of the lab he coaches the UCLA women’s ultimate frisbee team, where he uses his knowledge of brain and behavior to unlock their peak performance.