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Yogic Lifestyle and its Effects on Wellbeing
1. Perception is not a fixed certainty; lecture at Kanha Shanti Vanam
This December, I was invited to give a presentation at Kanha Shanti Vanam, a meditation center outside Hyderabad, Telangana. Calling Shanti Vanam a meditation center doesn’t quite do it justice, as it is more of a hub for spiritual growth with a philosophy that aims to (among other things) 1. spread free meditation and training practices, 2. work with and support the various yoga traditions of India, and 3. serve as a support center for scientific research on meditation, yoga asana, and pranayama. The practice followed at Shanti Vanam is called Heartfulness Meditation, started as Sahaj Marg by the spiritual leader Ram Chandra. Ram Chandra synthesized different spiritual traditions into his teaching that aims to, in a very simple and—as the name suggests—effortless way, bring the heart and mind into alignment with each other and allow the mind to rest within the heart space effortlessly. Their campus is a testament to service in action, having turned several thousand acres of dry, barren land into an oasis with hundreds of thousands of trees, rare plants, and a meditation hall that seats 10,000 people.
This conference was the first of its kind at Shanti Vanam. The roster of speakers was impressive, and a wide variety of topics were presented, from the current state of yoga research to how stem cell regenerative medicine is enhanced by meditation practices. I had been asked by the organizer, Dr. Jay Thimmapuram, to speak on Yogic Lifestyle and Its Effects on Well-Being, so I organized a short, thirty-minute lecture on three topics:
Yoga as a top-down/bottom-up multi-modality practice
Yoga’s influence on the brain-body connection
The obstacles to freedom that Patanjali discusses in Yoga Sutras, and their physiological locations
I started with two meanings of yoga, one meaning according to Patanjali, and another meaning as viewed through the lens of Western science.
Patanjali’s definition is quite straightforward, and it’s spelled out as an equation:
Yoga = the nirodhah of the vrittis in the field of citta.
Yoga is an active process, and not necessarily a state, though not all would agree with that statement, including me in earlier times. However, after reading and contemplating Patanjali for several decades, my current thinking is that yoga is a process, and Kaivalya, or liberation and not yoga, is the culmination state. But more on that at the end.
Our mind, as it is commonly called, is a field of conscious and sub-conscious awareness where thoughts, memory, and perceptions occurs. As thoughts arise in this field, identity attaches to them and we feel, “these are my thoughts, this is my reality, this is who I am.” However, the content of the mind is only that—content. Some of that content is partially true, some not at all true, and some completely true. It is the mind's job to think thoughts because, on occasion, we need them. However, incessantly thinking and getting stuck in rumination, catastrophizing, planning, regretting, and all the other things we do to fill our minds all the time keep us from being present, aware, and balanced. All of these things are called vrittis, an arising of an energy pattern that we call thought. Some vrittis help us stay balanced, and some bring us out of balance. The first process of yoga is to identify which is which and begin to practice reinforcing thought patterns that lead toward harmony and peace and weeding out those that keep us trapped in false identities.
This is what nirodhah is: the practice of identifying and eliminating thought patterns opposed to knowledge and identifying and reinforcing ways conducive to knowledge. Yoga practice, in this context, is the process of mastering the content of the field of our mind and choosing what we want to have happen in it. The choosing occurs from the faculty of discernment called buddhi, which is not the mind, but exerts control and direction over the mind. This directing of mental activities is not always an easy feat, but a wonderful undertaking and probably one of the most worthwhile things we can do with our minds. When we think about achieving potential or anything like that, it’s only done through and within the mind, so if we don’t have our minds in order, we will have a harder time accomplishing whatever we set out to do.
That’s yoga from Patanjali. What about how scientific research currently views yoga? The definition I proposed in my talk is this:
Yoga is a systematic multi-modality intervention of practices that influence our anatomical body and physiological systems; balances and calms our emotional and mental states; increases the facility of the faculty of discernment; increases feelings of devotion, gratitude, and awe; and provides conceptualizations of transcendent principles that expand (or dissolve) our sense of a separate, discrete existence apart from the rest of the world.
Why the extended definition? It’s because when it comes to science and yoga, there need to be concrete things to study. Psychology has not decided, conclusively, what the mind is. Neither have the different Indic philosophies, though there is some generalized agreement. So, if we cannot directly study the mind, we can look at the content of the mind or the vrittis and conclude what practices shape which vrittis. This includes how asanas, pranayama, and meditation calm and balance emotional states (emotional states are perceived through bodily sensations and can be measured in hormones, blood samples, and brain scans); how they increase our ability to reason and be present (measurable through different cognitive tests); and through questionnaires determine which practices increase feelings of devotion, gratitude, and awe, which can be measured as well through factors such as heart rate variability as they have a direct impact on our physiological systems, in particular the neuro-endocrine system. Vrittis, though we cannot locate where they are or what they are, leave behind traces in the physical body, and it is through those traces that we can have a direct line of measurement from the perceptible traces to the imperceptible thought forms.
Let’s take a concrete example, hypertension. High blood pressure is largely a life style disease, and if not due to a structural problem in the heart or nervous system, is driven by perceiving the demands of the environment that you live in to be more than you can handle. This is called stress. But stress doesn’t live in a vacuum, it is dependent upon perception in order for it to be a positive or negative stress.
How does this look to you, above? Do the big, large, red letters saying stress automatically make you feel slightly anxious or stressed? What if we kept the words but changed the colors?
How about now? Do you sense a small shift? The words are the same, but the color impact from an alarming red to a gentler blue has softened the tone and message, and so you might relate to the words and the cognitive association you have with the word stress in a slightly different way. If you sense this shift, it’s simply and only a matter of perception, and it’s one of the things that our brain has been built to do: accept incoming information, make sense of it, and then respond to the constructed sense in a programmed way. The programming is based, stated a little bit in a reductionist manner, on two things:
Our past experiences that shape our perceptions
Our present actions that either reinforce or contradict our past experiences.
Acting in a way that reinforces past experiences that are limited keep us bound to that way of perceiving ourselves and the world, and not acting in a way that reinforces those viewpoints can expand our perceptions. Many have likened our brain and responsivity/reactivity system to a computer, but we actually have a decent measure of control over what happens in our brain, and although the brain might be a super-computer as such, our inner sense of discernment and intelligence is a programmer.
Perception is not a fixed characteristic like our eye color or height. We can change, mold, and enhance perception purposefully. If we want to enjoy expanded states of consciousness, it’s largely a perception shift. Yoga, at its essence, is concerned with expanding the perceptions we have between our limited notions of self and the world we live in and the larger experience of conscious awareness and all that it brings. Asanas, pranayama, and pratyahara along with the lifestyle adherence of yama and the spiritual practice adherence to niyama directly address physiological and emotional factors of our being that are adjusted.
The brain and body are a continuum of communication and collaboration that are active every moment of life. Messages go up, and messages come down. Each message that goes from the brain down to the body exerts an influence and a change, and each message that goes up to the brain does the same.
In the next post, I’ll carry on with the presentation and how yoga practices influence and enhance this process.
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