Neuroscience and the True Purpose of Yoga

Neuroscience and the True Purpose of Yoga
We all know it is good for you, but is the true purpose of Yoga being revealed by science?

For some time, whenever I went to a yoga class, I’d get that feeling you get when you come in part way through a television series. I got the gist of the story and was able to go along with with what was happening but it wasn’t until yoga teacher and human movement specialist Simon Thakur explained some details around what I’m choosing to see as ‘the beginning’ of the story that things really started to make sense.

The Foundations Of Yoga

The foundation stone I discovered I had been missing was the purpose behind all of the postures. Simon Thakur shared that one of the core functions of yoga is about increasing awareness throughout the body with a particularly important focus around the central axis of the body, between the spine and the organs. From here, a fundamental aspect of yoga practice can start with the awakening of our ability for the spine to undulate backwards and forwards, undulate side-to-side and to twist – and awakening this ability in each individual vertabrae.  This was the foundation stone I was looking for.

Like going back to the beginning of the television series I’d started watching in the middle, I suddenly saw new depth and had a more complete understanding of everything I’d already seen so far. For example, it suddenly occurred to me that this opening of spinal flexibility and increase in strength helps one to sit for extended periods of time with the spine in a state of alignment, for connection to higher awareness in meditation.

A fundamental aspect of yoga is the awakening of the spine's ability to undulate and twist“A fundamental aspect of yoga is the awakening of the spine’s ability to undulate and twist”

It didn’t take long to realise that this was the tip of an iceberg of knowledge that Simon Thakur tends to keep below the surface. Thakur draws from his experience spending extended periods of time studying ancient practices in their home cultures, including traditional Svastha Yoga in India and Xingyi in Taiwan. His philosophy of 90% practice, 10% talking about practice has thawed a little in recent years and I was fortunate enough to see him present a public talk earlier this year which shared some of the pillars of the practice he has developed known as Ancestral Movement. It’s a combination of ancient traditional practices, cutting edge developments in neurobiology and evolutionary theory as well as a deep respect for… well… playing like a monkey. Here’s a quick summary of what I learned at Simon’s talk, in February 2015.

By Feeling Our Own Body We Feel The World

Inside my own body, I can feel my own breath, if I really still myself I can feel my heartbeat, and maybe even the pulse at my carotid artery. Beyond that, I can’t feel much – and this is common for most people living in the modern world. The foundation of yoga may be about waking up sensitivity to feel each individual vertebrae independently, but it also extends to building increased sensitivity to all parts of the body, both internally and externally. What science is discovering is that through our increased ability to feel our own bodies, we increase our ability to empathically feel the world around us. To understand how this works, we need to first get our head around bodymaps and mirror neurons.

“The current human disconnection from the natural world starts with our disconnection from our own bodies, which we as a culture inherited – to a degree that most of us generally don’t quite acknowledge the extent of our inability to feel our own bodies.”
– Simon Thakur

Waking up sensitivity to feel each individual vertebrae independently“Waking up sensitivity to feel each individual vertebrae independently”

Bodymaps and Mirror Neurons

Known to neuroscience, psychology and cognitive science, bodymaps (such as those found in the somatosensory cortex) are the parts of our brain that electrically light up when we physically feel something, or when we think about feeling something. They’re called maps because the part that lights up for our hand is right next to the part that lights up for our arm and so on. If a scientist was to stimulate one of these parts of our brain with electricity, we’d feel sensation in our body part, even though nothing was touching it.

“If we can accept that [our] awareness of my body is not a fixed thing, it can change, it can change hugely… and I can change it, and the what I have inherited from my culture is not necessarily the best way it could be then I take that on, and I can use any practice from any tradition or I can make up my own, anything that will involve stimulating, whether through movement or awareness, every single little part of my body – maybe starting with the spine.”
– Simon Thakur

Neuroplasticity is our brain and nervous system’s ability to rewire itself according to what we focus our attention on. For example, as we practice a particular posture, the repetition creates more neural connections from the brain’s associated parts of your bodymaps. More nerve fibers are also created along the connection through the nervous system to that part of the body. As we do something more, our ability to receive more information about the subtlety of what we are doing increases. Mirror Neurons give us the ability to feel what it feels like to be doing something, simply by observing another person doing it. For example if someone waves their hand, around 15% of the neurons in our own bodymaps in our brain around our hand and arm of that area in our brain light up. The study of Mirror Neurons has widely been referred to as the science of human empathy.

Sitting in a chair every day, we lose flexibility and awareness in our spine as well as the majority of our body“Sitting in a chair every day, we lose flexibility and awareness in our spine as well as the majority of our body”

Yoga and the Biology of Compassion

When we sit in a chair at school or in an office all day, every day, we lose flexibility and awareness in our spine as well as the majority of our body. On the other hand, when we do a practice like yoga, we increase the amount of neurological detail in our body maps and our nervous system. We can feel more subtle detail within ourselves. Because there is a larger volume of wiring that has been built up in our nervous system, so we can feel more information. This also means that as we increase the volume of neuronal detail in our bodymaps, the 15% that behave as mirror neurons increase and 15% of a larger volume of neurons is a larger 15%. By feeling more detail within ourselves we increase our ability to feel empathy for others.

‘The more awareness we have developed of our internal processes is, the more we will feel and notice whatever signs –changing complexion, changes to the rib cage posture, the more we can tell if something is wrong or ok in another person.”
– Simon Thakur

We are Animals

Perhaps the most profound element of Simon Thakur’s Ancestral Movement practice is the recognition that humans have been exploring physical movement as a necessity for survival since long before recorded history. He theorises that the more we participated in practices like animal mimicry, the more we were able to understand our environment through our internal mirror neuron response, feeding us vital information about food, hunting and the natural world.

“If we take the spine as an example, and we practice movements that open up every segment of the spine, so the spine is free to undulate, rather than the spine moving as a rigid block, you’re going to experience empathy in the sense that you feel in your body as if you are doing the movement yourself whenever we see a moving spine.
Humans aren’t the only creatures that have spines. Lizards have spines, fish have spines. If we don’t have full awareness of every little bit of our spine and it’s potential for wave-like movement then when we see a lizard, our spine parts of our brain aren’t going to be very active. Whereas if you have a practice that involves spinal undulations and involves opening up every little bit of you central axis and your spine, then when you see the lizard moving, your spinal bits [in your brain] go crazy and you feel how much of you is in the lizard, how much of the lizard is in you.”
– Simon Thakur

The realisation I walked out of Simon’s talk with was that all of the indigenous cultures that speak of being part of nature and not separate, now have a biological basis for this very real animistic belief.

For further reading, check out the amazing reading list on Simon Thakur’s Ancestral Movement website.

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kamir bouchareb st
1 year ago

nice topic

6 years ago

Vertebra is single, and vertebrae are plural.

7 years ago

The Bible talks about the tree of life – is the tree of life the spine?

7 years ago

“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” – Luke 12:27

7 years ago

I read many comments. I am from india and seeing comments I conclude that Western people has huge ignorance regarding yoga either they believe yoga and its form(Asthanga, hatha,etc) are just stretching exercises and meditation is call to evil spirit.
Only focus on budha and jesus are not the solution. Yoga is not designed around any specific religious supreme god or saint or whatever you called.
I am hindu but I am not claiming yoga is only for hindus, of course I could because it was founded about 6000 years ago in India( archaeological exploration founded ancient yoga pose in excavations)
Similarly yoga is not only around Buddha and other monks it is beyond that. The first relevance is depicted in Bhagwad Gita ( when Bhagwat gita created there were no hindus only humans)
Yoga is totally scientific and it should be seeing from science rather then just connecting to religious practice( Creating ‘Christian yoga’ is showing the huge ignorance by western people)

Adrienne Bolles
7 years ago

I have always loved Yoga and meditation. I am interested in nueroplasticity a body mind connection. I love God Jesus and Buddha. But unfortunately I was hit with the most bizarre ignorance and paranoid fantasy ever, firstly you can believe in Christianity and meditate or do yoga or be atheist. This woman said Yoga means “Yoked” to satan and that the poses are to all those different Hindu Gods. The weak minds are not the New age hippies they are the paranoid distortions or those who think religion is a competition and theirs is best. When I bow in Buddhism it is to The practice. To becoming near myself and to revere both myself and the divine as connected. I recovered from Religiosity which is a mental illness and you can too. Don’t pollute your mind. Don’t pollute mine.

8 years ago

I almost never did joga, but I do lots of Feldenkrais and lots of animal study…and I have exactly the same experience. Amazing to find it in this article, I never read about it before. Interesting

Vietta Robinson
8 years ago

Sadly, many Christians look at yoga as something to avoid. This article certainly opens up our over/inner/understanding and increases our knowledge that we many share with others who choose to remain ignorant. Thanks!

Benzion Weiss
8 years ago

The value of yoga is evident from the feeling I get when I practice it. And it was in a yoga class many years ago that I first had the sensation that I was actually in my body. I was doing pachimodanasana or sitting head to knee posture and I looked at my legs and felt and thought in that moment – I’m actually in this body. I think up to that time I felt like my body was just there to carry around my head and my arms. Being embodied then made me feel so much more part of the world around me.

8 years ago

Ive practiced Hatha Yoga on on and off for the last 40 years. I feel my body. ‘My body is straight, flexible and strong. I know what he is talking about. I feel life in my body; while Im practicing I feel the prana flowing, or at least that’s what I think it is. When I practice my body gets warm as I roll out the mat. I finish with a 10 or 15 minute meditation. My body stays warm until Ive stood up and folded my mat. Then I feel the chill in the morning air.

Fiona Stonehouse
8 years ago

I don’t know about the animalism connection but I have been practicing yoga on and off for most of my life and until recently wouldn’t have had a clue what Simon Thakur was talking about. I have been practicing once a week with a very experienced and demanding teacher for about a year now. For me the meditation bit was easy and the moves more challenging, although I have more than average flexibility and am stronger physically than my build would suggest. I had been going through the motions of the poses most of my life and not feeling what Simon is talking about, just competing with others and trying to push my body further. Very recently I have observed changes in my body when I practice and am experiencing glimmerings of understanding what it is supposed to be about; thank you Francis :-). The understanding began by feeling independent movement in my mid back that feels quite scary at first (especially if you have suffered from back pain at times as I have) but is not at all painful; more like a gentle popping sensation. As I begin practicing more mindful poses with continued instruction from my teacher I hope to develope more mindful awareness of my body. I think that is a great start.

8 years ago

This is interesting and may be partly true, but I don’t think this is what makes people more empathic in yoga. What about gymnasts or acrobats with spinal flexibility? Are they more empathic too? Are yogis really more empathic? If they indeed are, I don’t think it’s the spinal movement as much as body awareness can lead to greater awareness in other areas of life, but that yoga practice involves and intention of conscious awareness of the self, unhealthy habits, thoughts, etc, with a focus on cultivating healthy habits, whether through cognitive restructuring or behavior modification, etc. Every yoga practice usually has an intention or focus on cultivating some kind of positive practice, like non-judgement, acceptance, forgiveness, surrender, unconditional love… And the awareness and practice of those intentions lead to greater empathy, not spinal movement.

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