Thinking (!) about brains and yoga

I am preparing my materials for the 2016 Toronto Yoga Conference and Show, and Ruth, the conference director asks me every year if I want to write a little blur for the conference guide.  I always want to, but then think: “What would I want to say to a group of yogis and yoginis who might never attend one of my workshops?” and “Would anyone care?” Then paralyzed between inertia and confusion, I miss the deadline.

This year I was determined not to miss the deadline, and thought hard and long about my above question.  After a few stabs, I realized there is something that I would like to share.

In the end, I want yoga people to see science as an ally, not an adversary. Western science and Eastern practices have had an uneasy relationship. The caricature is one of warring factions, with Western science sneeringly dismissing anything that was not generated in a lab and measured to the milligram, micrometer and nanosecond; and with Eastern practices suspiciously rejecting the over-compartmentalized and dogmatic ways of thinking. In the end, neither way of thinking is better than the other, but they bring different things to light.  Each makes mistakes. Each finds different kinds of truth (this comment could be expanded into a post of its own!).

With that in mind, I wanted to write a brief post on how to think about brain science and yoga, since it is a big confusing world, and lots of people are making lots of claims.


What’s the deal with brains? Suddenly it seems like everybody is going on about them, which is surprising, because humans have had brains for a very long time. We haven’t had yoga for nearly as long, but people have been yammering about it for years!  But yoga and brains seem to be showing up everywhere. From 2005 to 2010, the research database PubMed logged 851 articles for ‘yoga’, 122,502 for ‘brain’ but only 225 for ‘yoga’ and ‘brain’ combined. From 2010 to 2015, these numbers changed to 3524 for ‘yoga’, 341,577 for ‘brain’ and 1147 ‘yoga’ and ‘brain’. The increase for each was 314% for ‘yoga’, 178% for ‘brain’ and a whopping 409% for ‘yoga’ and ‘brain’.

Even so, the research so far has been pretty limited, with most effects of yoga on the brain still unknown.  We do know yoga appears to modulate cortisol, the stress hormone; it increases brain waves associated with relaxation; it improves production of a brain chemical known to reduce anxiety and another involved in the growth of new brain cells. It is also linked with improvements in mood, eye-hand coordination and stroke recovery.  But the mechanisms are not really understood. In fact, pranayamic breathing might be responsible for at least some of the benefits, regardless of whether or not people practice the postures. Even then, it is worth wondering if Tai Chi or Chi Gong or breakdancing might do the same thing, but we just don’t know. We are still at early stages and the some of the evidence seems uncertain and even contradictory.

Yet there are reasons for optimism. The impact of yoga on the brain is finally getting serious scientific attention, which will increase the profile of yoga and its acceptability as an effective intervention. Yoga is being researched as a real treatment for Parkinson’s disease, stress, cognitive function, psychiatric disorders and other brain-related issues.  Yoga doesn’t really ‘need’ scientific validation to prove that it works.  It just works. However, ‘alternative’ treatments need support from research before they will be taken seriously, and who knows? possibly even prescribed by doctors.  Also there might be some conditions that yoga helps more than others or certain things that it does not benefit at all. More important perhaps, is what yoga might contribute to the discussion about how brains and bodies work together and how that impacts yoga practitioners, both as individuals and as communities of people.

We also need caution. On one hand, the quality of much existing research is poor, and often the experimental design does not have a control group or condition to see if yoga was really what caused the change; or results are coloured by what the experimenter wanted to see. On the other hand, even well-meaning people misinterpret, misunderstand and overstate the claims of research.  Further, because ‘brain’ has become such a potent buzzword, people ironically give up thinking critically as soon as they see it: hucksters and snake oil salesmen rush in to fill the gap.  ‘Brainyoga’ and ‘Neuroyoga’, and other products and services promising a glorious union between brain and body, with unprecedented benefits, are surely a thing by now, or will be very soon. However we must remember, ALL yoga is ‘Brainyoga’, just as all walking is ‘Brainwalking’ and everything you do with your body is ‘Brain-Everything-You-Do-With-Your-Body’, because that is just how brains and bodies work. Together.  Yoga by its very nature is an exploration of this link. The important question for any practitioner may be ‘How mindful am I?

In the end, it might turn out that yoga is not the only or best thing that helps the brain in the ways explored so far, or that it doesn’t have some of the benefits we thought it did, but this is not cause for alarm or concern. Although some in the worlds of yoga and science might see the two as mortal enemies— adversaries in an imaginary war, simply, they are two paths of discovery.  Science works not by “proving” or “disproving” ideas, but by accepting the idea supported by the best available evidence. The early research is providing a footing against which new ideas can push and move forward. Continued research and work by thinkers like Dr. Chris Streeter and Dr. Kelly McGonigal is slowly establishing the field. Great resources like Google Scholar (look it up!) and many open access journals are giving more people than ever the ability to read the research themselves.

Still, both as yoginis and as scientists, we must do the important work of letting go, exploring the places where we seem to be stuck, observing carefully and without prejudice, and applying the truth to our lives, whether we like it or not. Let’s step to the top of the mat, and begin.

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