Neural Axis®

Neural Axis®

Brain Squatting: When the Mind Sabotages Growth

[Originally published on Elephant Journal, 15 July, 2014.]

I find myself once again following the scent of life and where it may lead; onboard a journey of sharing experience through educating on yoga and neuroscience to curious minds.  I could say that since embarking on the yogic path I have striven to live freely, remaining open to the currents of consciousness and their pull into the depths of what is possible. Since I began my university studies in neurobiology and anthropology, I always asked myself what it would mean to fully embrace being human. This inquiry continues to this day as a deep desire to experience life in a most Complete way, to live in Wholeness. Upon feeling into the question, there arises a sense of opening up to possibility for growth. What is over the horizon? With raw possibility comes an invitation to part with some aspect of identity in order to make room for what is to come. If we carefully observe the Nature in which we are enmeshed, we may see that to be more fully human is in a sense to be a skillful participant of surrender. An attentive examination of the development of the brain evinces this reflection.

Growth can be defined as a transaction between the present state and some potentiality. During neurogenesis (the birth of brain cells), a budding neuron requires biological growth factors (nutrients) from the surrounding environment to acquire new features, whereby a previous condition is exchanged for a newer and often more refined one. The first condition exhibits a tendency to preserve its order and function until it reaches a critical point in which its condition is surrendered piece-wise or en masse unto the emerging force of the new whole (eg., a new set of neurons). For these cells, this growth through self-organized criticality is a process; it is happening rather than existing as a series of discrete frozen events. The human cognitive faculty does mainly two things with this process: (1) It takes this harmonic stream of what is operating like a verb and converts it into a divided series of nouns, or fixed states, and (2) it grips onto some state (the noun) in an attempt to preserve it, increasing its perceived density. What are by the laws of nature impermanent states of energy then become, through the acts of mind, objects of fixation. This phenomenon is observed not only in the minds and dispositions of scientists and over-thinkers (although it can often be quite pronounced in them, I have found, because I have fallen into both camps at one point or another and had them as my peers)—but also in the average and even the most educated and intellectual of human minds. It is not to say that the nounal objectifying disposition of mind is a total illusion—on the contrary this operation is an abundant pluralization of an otherwise unvaried unit that fosters diversity and beauty. Nonetheless, the gripping action proliferates and has a tendency to quaver, or trip up, the equanimity of awareness. By default, the human mind sabotages its own growth by gripping and thus attaching itself to what is inherently fleeting. This is the illusion.

As there is gripping, there is an increased general tendency for living unaligned with what is a more precise and subtler truth. Mental real estate is occupied by squatters, circuitous self-limiting perceptions and concepts that no longer merit the space and resources they occupy, resources which are actually being awaited by new prospects. What 'growth factors' have yet to be welcomed? Where is there gripping? Where is the sense of the ‘me’ located and felt? The hallmark of growth is the surrendering of held perspectives. Once having stepped into the current of surrender, an elevated level of human functioning, the new question becomes "What is there to offer?". Awareness is stabilized in the active engagement of Nature's algorithm for change: creation, sustainment, dissolution. What is already occurring is hacked by a scrupulous examination of its workings. Hacking is simply finding out how something really works and seizing it for some purpose. What is the purpose? To become a more skillful pilot of this vehicle, this body-mind complex, and to navigate it in a way that takes ever greater responsibility for itself and its environment.

When embarking on new travels, may novel circumstances be harnessed to test one’s strength against the grain of mind's tricks, and to thus invoke a corresponding inner journey toward a more noble Truth. It is accepting the invitation of a Higher Potential to plunge into the deep current of a spiritual process, the same way Nature exhibits Herself in the elegant self-organizing process that drives biology.

If a contemplation or scientific explanation doesn't have import into actual experience, it is limited in its effect. As the Indian yoga Master and scholar Dr. Svami Purna has said, information must become knowledge—much like a reflection on neurogenesis can reflect the workings of our own mind when viewed with a clear eye—; otherwise it becomes a burden to growth at the end of the day. This was a discovery I made for myself upon reflecting more deeply on the limitations of the logical-rational mind. It is possible to conduct any scientific study to produce some result because of the dependence of the method on the person(s) conducting it and interpreting the results, as well the tools used. It is easy to overlook this if one is ensconced in the mechanics of the science itself. As much as information has its appropriate place in observation and scientific thought, it must be absorbed as felt experience for it to actually integrate into the emotional body and be brought onboard in everyday life. It is critical to take into account the impact that the active filter of perspective has on perception. Accordingly, perspective can be liberated from gripping when the mind (and its contents) is allowed flow as a process rather than as contraction around an aggregate of crystallized beliefs and precious assumptions. When there is a steady current, the sticks and stones surrender into its graceful stream and the mind becomes tranquil. Here, the diversity of objects passing through mind are not perturbations that befall our awareness, but rather an empowered garland of conscious and appropriate choices.

What is there to be offered? Every frozen self-limiting belief onto which we grip with certainty, that is but an artifact of mind. Here, in the nexus of sincere longing for subtler layers of truth, of a humble receptivity to learning from the way of Nature, and an interest in the growth that follows, is where yoga happens. It is in this familiar place of stationary travel that I abide. 

OmGym® Suspension Yoga™ Q&A with Gabriel Axel

OmGym® International recently published a Q&A with Gabriel Axel, Certified OmGym® Suspension Yoga™ Instructor, on his experience with the practice and its many benefits.

Gabriel will be teaching OmGym® Suspension Yoga™ all of the Wanderlust summer events in 2014. Visit the Wanderlust website for more info and scheduling.

*Click here for more info on OmGym® Suspension Yoga.

*To purchase an OmGym® Suspension System, click here.

*Read about some of the esoteric ("secret") yogic science involved in OmGym® Suspension Yoga™ in the article, Your Brain on Yoga: The Art of Extending the Self.

OmGym® Q&A with Gabriel Axel

What attracted you to become an OmGym® Suspension Yoga™ Teacher?

As a neuroscientist and yoga practitioner, I was drawn to the unique simplicity of OmGym Suspension Yoga in potently addressing multiple aspects of health as relating to the brain and nervous system. The principles employed in this technology are essentially very similar those used in various health and fitness modalities, such as sensory integration and physical therapy, that have a history of scientifically proven benefits. Moreover, OmGym® International’s ecological awareness demonstrated that its design and above all, its intention, are aligned with a more sustainable form of health. For all these reasons, doing an OmGym® Suspension Yoga™ Teacher Training was a no-brainer way to learn more about this fascinating practice.

How is OmGym® Suspension Yoga™ similar or different to what you expected?

I initially anticipated OmGym Suspension Yoga to be a fun and effective addition to my existing practice, with a side thought that it was more of an extra bonus rather than something that would make a real difference in my overall yoga practice. What I found was an incredibly versatile tool — capable of hosting a virtually unlimited number (literally thousands) of poses— that is what I personally consider to be an evolutionarily novel addition to the practice of traditional yoga asana. Nothing like this has come before, and it is different from Aerial Yoga, which is more focused on a circus arts- and dance-inspired yoga. There are things you can do with OmGym® Suspension Yoga™ that you simply cannot do in traditional hatha yoga. And when used intelligently as an aid, it can produce leaps and bounds of progress in one’s traditional yoga asana practice, even if one is not interested in the “extra” moves that Suspension Yoga offers. I would encourage any skeptics to reserve their doubts and try it out with a qualified instructor first.

What benefits do you see in yourself from incorporating OmGym® Suspension Yoga™ into your own practice?

I have experienced a progressive increase in understanding my body, mind, and practice. The sensory integration aspect of OmGym Suspension Yoga does a great job in calibrating the vestibular system, the part of the nervous system partly responsible for balance, coordination, and the body’s orientation with respect to gravity. This has had a uniquely special effect on my sense of physical and mental orientation in space and time, which has also helped to enhance certain more esoteric aspects of yoga in the subtle body. It’s as close as you can get to being an astronaut while still being near the ground.

How has your professional set of offerings been enhanced by OmGym® Suspension Yoga™?

Since learning OmGym Suspension Yoga, I have been able to add this tool to my set of offerings, providing clients and students with a new entryway into refining the capacities of their nervous system. I have also seen in others and myself how practicing this art can complement various aspects of life, including work, relationships, and overall health.

What is your favorite OmGym Suspension Yoga pose and why?

Having come from a challenging physical practice myself (I have a background in Skanda Yoga®), using the OmGym Suspension System to do some unusual poses has been fun. That being said, my favorite OmGym Suspension Yoga pose is a simple full inversion. No matter how much inversion one does in traditional grounded asana, it is impossible to get the extent of spinal decompression and relaxation while inverted offered by OmGym Suspension Yoga. The spinal discs are temporarily relieved of pressure and are rehydrated (granted sufficient water intake). Moreover, when there is sufficient relaxation, stillness, and deep breathing during sustained inversion, brain chemistry begins to change in ways that promote improved mood, alertness, and subtle awareness. Win across the board.

At the upcoming Wanderlust events, what do you expect will be the highlight of teaching OmGym® Suspension Yoga™? 

The upcoming Wanderlust events will feature a panoply of class offerings, all of which are exciting in their own ways and going to appeal to different practitioners. I’m excited to debut to a wider audience “Your Brain on Suspension Yoga”, a class I teach that focuses on how the practice of OmGym Suspension Yoga can be used to cultivate a felt awareness of the nervous system that is the first of its kind. It’s always fun to be a part of sharing things that have seldom, if never, been done before, and I’m happy to share this offering at Wanderlust.

The Art of Extending the Self (Your Brain On Yoga series)

[Originally published on US News Health, 8 January, 2014]

The practice of yoga often invokes a sense of wonderment in who we feel ourselves to be. It is often commenced with a certain sense of who one is in that moment right before the practice. As we make our way through the various techniques, there unfolds a shift in identity. We play the edge of the moment, testing the body and mind with interlacing intentionalities of willpower and receptivity. Upon completing a certain practice, we may reflect on the new state of being. Perhaps there is a refreshed state of self-representation, or the sense of "I am", what Patanjali calls asmita.  The mind's capacity to form a new identity takes foothold in the boundaries it has stretched, thereby redefining the sense of self. We have now upgraded the mind's framework for who and what it considers "me" to be. The reframing of our boundaries is inherently a learning process. Neuroscience has repeatedly demonstrated the capacity of the brain to rewire and reshape itself based on goal-directed experience. A bona fide yoga practice constantly invites us to examine the sense of selfhood under which we operate by stimulating the physiology and bio-energy to further reaches.

When we self-reflectour nervous system brings online the insula, a critical brain region in managing our sense of body awareness and overall sense of self. The insula relays information between parts of the brain that coordinate movement and the prefrontal cortex, a brain region crucial in conscious decision-making. By placing attention on the interface between new and prior experience, we are igniting the flame of neural change and transformation. The process of growth is one of extending self-representation into increasingly deeper and broader frameworks. Asmita is more broadly defined as the identification of consciousness with the vehicle through which it is being expressed. A challenging yoga practice is one that consciously expands this identification to higher levels. In the case of the physical body, when we first interact with a new object, the brain enters a learning mode and interprets it as a foreign object. As we experience a greater degree of comfort and skill with it, there are corresponding changes in the somatosensory cortex, an area governing the sense of touch, which now treats the object as if it were an extension of the body, a prosthetic limb of sorts. Physical instances of this include learning to use a yoga tool like the OmGym Suspension System, in which the brain must enter a state of relearning the body's relationship to gravity and movement.  A skillful use of such a device can encourage the activation of certain brain circuits responsible for learning and reframing what the brain refers to as 'the body’.

Yoga traditionally explores the potential of the body and mind as we currently know them. An activity like Suspension Yoga can serve as a representative example of a total learning process on the physical level, in which the body is extended to include an interrelating set of objects that function as one coordinated unit, creating and strengthening new and more complex neural connections in which the practitioner is challenged to continually keep up a fresh sense of self-discovery. Ultimately, yoga expands all aspects of being—body, mind, and spirit—so that the sense of who “I am” evolves into fuller and freer ways of experiencing what it means to be alive.

The Yoga of Eating (Your Brain on Yoga series)

[Originally published on US News Health, 27 November, 2013]

Yoga is the science of uniting. We take one aspect of experience and combine it with another, dissolving the boundaries between them by using the capabilities of the body, mind, and spirit. We enter a yoga posture, add a particular technique of conscious breathing, and modify our attentional focus in a particular way to produce a larger synchronized pattern. This new pattern acts like an electrical current or an undulating wave that runs through what were previously viewed as individual components and are now behaving on a higher level as a coherent whole.

This unification can be applied on any and every level as part of a yoga practice. In the same way that we can consciously take in the air that allows for bodily metabolism to take place, we can similarly consciously ingest the food and drink that nurtures us. The Sanskrit word for yoga posture, āsana, literally means "seat of awareness." Where do we place awareness? We can sit our awareness on the food and drink we are consuming. Like the human body, food and drink are bodies of various substances, which then get broken down and absorbed by the human body. 

Once awareness is placed on the food, we can add conscious breathing. As I discussed in a previous post, regularly practicing complete breathing with awareness leads to healthier regulation of the nervous and endocrine systems, as well as an increased fineness and subtlety of mind. Adding such breathing while we ingest food helps attune attention to the sensory details: the smell of the meal, the taste of the ingredients and combination of spices, the feeling of chewing more slowly (and therefore feeling an improved digestive process), the visual beauty of the combinations on our plate, and even the surrounding space in which we are enjoying a meal. 

Once awareness is placed on food and the breath managed accordingly, our faculty of attention can become more sensitive, perceiving the bio-energy present in food. We can use miniature forms of contemplation to deepen awareness of what we sense and put into our bodies. How is this food made of essentially the same biological material as my body? By placing attention on smaller components of the food, such as the substances that will be metabolized by the human body into usable nutrients, we find an entry way into viewing the similarity between the food and ourselves. We can focus on seeing how the atoms in the food are like the atoms in the human body. And even more than seeing the similarity, it is crucial to feel it. What is subjective sensation of life, of bio-energy? With progressive practice, feeling literally in-corporates other into self – it makes object into part of the body, or corpus, of the self. 

Such awareness practices rewire neural connections that foster a refreshed relationship between ourselves and objects of interaction. As we attune to the subtle bio-energy in the human body and the food it ingests, as well as breathe consciously and find the fundamental unity in things, we can also allow an expansion of emotional qualities, such as gratitude, joy and humility. By taking each of these components that can seemingly function in isolation from one another and deliberately conjoining them, we can expand our capacity to experience the latent unity in things. Intelligently and intuitively constructing wholes from parts of experience is part and parcel of the science of yoga. 

The Elements of Movement (Your Brain On Yoga series)

[Originally published on US News Health, 13 November, 2013]

When we conduct a series of physical movements, we experience them as simple willful intentions that translate into bodily movements. Our conscious awareness registers the aspects of actions that are relevant to our personal goals at that moment and beyond. Underneath the layer of conscious mental activity lies an astounding array of interconnecting nerve cells, firing electrical signals that regulate movement from its planning to execution and its end. In this way, the mechanics of movement can rely on the memory and wisdom of the body for their lightning-speed execution, while conscious mental awareness can be used for more appropriate purposes such as thinking and planning. The broad effort of yoga utilizes the freed up real estate of mental awareness to become attention on the components of the unconscious. This allows us to reprogram subconscious mental and physical patterns, habits and tendencies. Tuning into the body can yield many rewards in our yogic journey as we disassemble the automatic parts of our behavior and purify them so that we function like a well-oiled machine that is cooperating with our highest intention.

The rudiments of all physical actions have certain qualities, which can be described in many ways using different systems. One useful way of understanding them is through the basic elements that comprise and pervade consciousness on physical and mental levels: earth, water, fire, air and space. In their true sense, these elements generally do not refer to actual materials, but rather to qualities of consciousness. In terms of physical activity, earth is the quality for solidity, stability and strength; water represents cohesion and fluidity; fire is exertion of will, decision-making,and drive; air is freedom and openness; and space simply refers to the void in which all movement occurs, time and idea-based planning of action. Feeling our way into these qualities by using our imagination and creating movement plans that embody their characteristics assists greatly in the deepening of our capacity to relate with the body and in the broadening of the ways we can express movement itself. These elements have served as the foundation for many forms of yogic and martial arts, both internal and external, across the ages all over the world.

In terms of the brain, each element holds a quality of physical and mental operation that is represented by certain neurological functions. The execution of physical movement activates a set of brain regions connected through a set of circuits, each of them directing a specific function – often more refined than the language used to explain it – that when combined together form a complete program for coordinated execution. The element of earth can be represented by the motor cortex, which directs the strength and force of an action, and the brain stem, spinal cord and motor neurons that execute the muscular contractions as solid movements. When it comes to the cohesion of a set of movements within a movement, the synchronized fluidity that gives the appearance of elegant coordination, water is the associated quality. When we make willful decisions to execute a movement using the prefrontal cortex, that is fire. It encompasses the aspect of directed change in movement. The basal ganglia, with its cholinergic activation in the striatum and the firing of GABA neurons that inhibit and disinhibit movement that taken together trigger and initiate voluntary movement, there is fire. The freedom of the air element can be represented by the function of the thalamus, the part of the brain that acts as a relay station or switchboard for all the various brain parts associated with physical action in order to form an interconnected whole. The element of space includes the contextualized planning of movement by the prefrontal cortex, the orientation of body and objects in space by the parietal cortex, and the sensory and spatial guidance of movement by the premotor cortex. Space also takes into account time, which is partly represented by the clock-like aspect of the cerebellum, the "mini" brain located below the cerebral hemispheres that is responsible for parsing out larger decisions to move into millisecond-by-millisecond micro movements.

When working with these elements in physical activity or exercise from a yogic standpoint, the idea is to place both physical and mental attention on a particular elemental aspect of the activity, say water, and consciously amplify it. One could ask, "How can I be more fluid like water? What would this movement look like if it were more cohesive like water?" As Bruce Lee said, "Be like water." This also opens up a broader topic, that of feeling the elements around oneself and using them as contemplation. For example, if one is standing by a river, simply feeling the flow of water – which utilizes the brain's mirror neuron system – and thereby feeling the element of water and its qualities (physical and mental/subtle) within you, there is more inspiration and fuel stored for future movements, an ability carried out by the parietal cortex. Such contemplations and acts of resonance serve to improve the quality of our physical arts and ultimately to fuse the world around us with the world within. Each of these deliberate acts of yoga – yoking, uniting – have their corresponding correlates in the nervous system and act on all levels of being to evolve our actions, as well as improve the sense of connection with the elements around us, in order to foster a path of integral health and healing.

Scientific Stretching (Your Brain On Yoga series)

[Originally published on US News Health, 30 October, 2013]

When I began the practice of yoga, I did not yet have a solid and balanced exercise routine. My physical workouts consisted of bouts of jogging, weight lifting and rowing. These activities were inconsistent and generally resulted in increased tightness of muscles all around. I began the practice of yoga asana (the physical postures) by exploring various standard poses (side angle, triangle, warrior, forward bends, etc.), patiently letting the body gradually enter the poses over time in a passive manner. As I entered a more formal era of personal yoga training, I learned that yoga is about how we engage our lives. How can we engage our activities in a more complete manner, bringing online more of our body, mind and spirit in a conscious manner? It was when I began my yoga training with Skanda Yoga in Miami, Fla., that I learned to actively engage the simple practice of stretching in a way that exponentially deepened the limits of what I imagined was possible on a physical level.

Stretching our muscles is an essential component of any healthy workout. Before and after a run, we sink our weight into a forward bend to lengthen our hamstrings, increasing the chances of muscular strain. Muscle tension is a natural function of the body that maintains tendon, and thus joint, stability, by monitoring and protecting the range of muscle extensibility. This tension is maintained in part by the Golgi tendon organ (GTO), an innervated organ made of collagen that connects muscle fibers to the tendons, which then attach to the bone. The nerves in the GTO conduct electrical signals from the muscles through the spinal cord to the cerebellum, a part of the brain near the brainstem that regulates movement, initiating a reflexive contraction that prevents excessive and potentially dangerous elongation of the muscle. A muscle strain or pull happens when, despite the best efforts of the nervous system to maintain muscle tension, overstretching occurs. This is the most common athletic injury, and the most common in yoga asana.

Fortunately, it is possible to hack the stretch reflex of the GTOs in order to stretch more deeply and safely. Normally, we approach stretching in a passive manner, resulting in a rather slow increase in flexibility. By applying an understanding of how this stretch reflex works, we can actively engage stretching in a way that strengthens and stabilizes neuromuscular patterns and memories. We can use a technique called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) that achieves safe musculotendenous lengthening by first applying a strong contraction to the muscle that is to be stretched. For instance, in trying to stretch the hamstrings, instead of going immediately into a passive stretch, the hamstrings (agonist muscles) are first contracted by actively resisting the stretch for at least six seconds, the minimum time required to offset the GTO stretch reflex. Then one would relax the hamstrings and engage the quadriceps (antagonist muscles) as the hamstrings are lengthened and stretched. This technique can be exemplified by a leg split (also known as Hanumanasana), in which the front knee is initially bent as the foot is pressing into the ground in order to engage the hamstrings, followed by relaxing the hamstrings and gradually straightening the knee and pushing the leg forward. This technique works to retrain the nervous system by activating conscious awareness during stretching and increasing the capacity of the muscles to utilize and store bio-energy.

In my previous post on the Complete Breath, we learned that the inhalation naturally stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and that the exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. If we combine constant mild muscle engagement as we stretch, along with conscious breathing, we have what in Skanda Yoga is termed Active Dynamic Stretching. Combining the inhalation with engagement of the agonist muscles (resisting the stretch) and drawing them concentrically toward the core of the body will signal the GTO that there is adequate muscle tension, and that it is therefore safe to stretch. Subsequently exhaling while eccentrically (towards the periphery of the body) lengthening the muscles as we maintain some engagement relaxes the nervous system as a whole and results in a deeper stretch more safely and quickly than if the stretch were simply passive, or without agonist engagement prior to stretching. This technique can be done vigorously with strong muscle energy for gross and observable results, or it can be applied to a softer degree as we enter poses by skillfully pruning the strength of muscular tension. The degree of strength applied should depend on the context and desired results. At first it is useful and motivating to feel the overt physical results of these techniques, and gradually one can apply them more subtly. The Sanskrit language has a term called the spanda that refers to the pulsation or throbbing of consciousness on every level. This is observed in the constant play of opposites – the polarities of inhaling and exhaling, of contracting and lengthening, of engaging and disengaging. Eventually, the stretching techniques can reveal in experience the more subtle principle of the pulsation of consciousness underlying thought, emotions, desires, time and life itself.

Actively stretching in this way is a powerful way to bring greater flexibility into your yoga practice and any athletic activity. It is generally recommended to avoid vigorous stretching before a workout, as it will decrease strength output during the workout and increase susceptibility to injury. It is important to honor our limitations, understanding that persistent and patient discipline rather than rushed pushing paves the way for progress in yoga, whether physical or otherwise. Performing PNF and/or Active Dynamic Stretching after a workout will result in a greater release of muscular tension. It adds greater awareness to the process of stretching by utilizing the biophysical properties of the neuromuscular system to one's advantage, and by creating a deeper link between the physical body, the breath, the nervous system and conscious awareness. Actively approaching our stretching methodology from a scientific and functional perspective becomes a way of more completely and consciously engaging our physical activity. This is our yoga.

The Complete Breath (Your Brain on Yoga series)

[Originally published on US News Health, 16 October, 2013

If I trace back my yogic journey into the depths of the mind and body, I can immediately recall certain events and encounters that made a powerful impact on the larger unfolding of the Path. The simplest of these was learning how to breathe properly. By this point I had already made substantial headway in the physical domain of exertion, strength, flexibility and control in yoga. All of these undoubtedly helped to form a solid foundation for further progress; however, it was unlocking the potential of the breath that opened new doors. It cultivated an experiential link between gross physical awareness and the more subtle perceptions of the body and mind. It actually empowered the physical movements by building vitality, endurance and steadiness of mind.

When most of us breathe, we employ shallow chest breathing. This looks like holding the belly relatively still while the sternum lifts, and it feels like only the upper lungs exchange air. If you place one hand on your chest and one on the belly, see which one moves first. If the upper hand moves first, that is shallow chest breathing. Conversely, the Complete Breath makes use of the full capacity we have to breathe. The mechanism of the Complete Breath has four components: pelvic, abdominal, thoracic and clavicular. To start, relax your abdomen like you're holding a basketball inside it. Feel that it is expanding forwards, sideways and even backwards into the kidneys and adrenal glands. Then gently let the belly open downwards and relax the pelvic floor, almost as if you are releasing the bladder to urinate. When you inhale, the breath should similarly relax the pelvic floor downwards and the abdominal area in all directions. Once the belly fills on inhalation, let the rib cage, chest and shoulder blades expand passively as the breath fills that area, feeling as if there is another basketball there. Once the thoracic (chest) area fills, allow the clavicles (collar bones) and shoulders to naturally lift and feel as if they are expanding outwards. All of the above – pelvic, abdominal, thoracic and clavicular expansion – filling up in order upon inhalation and emptying in reverse order upon exhalation, all with smooth even breaths, together comprise the physical mechanism of the Complete Breath.  

When consciously breathing in this way, we affect control over physiological mechanisms that directly correlate with physical, mental and emotional health. The vagus nerve, which runs from the brain down through the viscera/organs, is intimately modulated by the breath. This nerve regulates autonomic physiological functions such as heart rate, respiration, digestion and immune response. The responsiveness of heart rate to changes in respiration, termed respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), is directly linked with the vagus nerve, and 'vagal tone' is often used as an index of the whole state of the parasympathetic nervous system, for the readiness with which we can calm the body's stress responses. On the micro level, inhalation increases heart rate and decreases vagal tone, and exhalation decreases heart rate and increases vagal tone. Therefore, performing a 1:2 breath ratio (exhaling twice as long as the inhalation) can result in a greater sense of relaxation. On a macro physiological level, greater vagal tone is associated with vasodilation, decreased inflammatory responses, and decreased circulation of stress hormones. Moreover, studies have demonstrated a direct correlation between loving-kindness meditation, superior emotional regulation, positive social behavior, and a decrease in headaches, chest pains, congestion and weakness.  

Learning and practicing the Complete Breath helped me to progressively feel more relaxed, open and aware, and it increased conscious performance in many areas and activities. It also served as the basic training to control physiological responses and provided experiential proof that conscious attention can alter bodily processes. Experiencing this principle along with feeling the scientifically demonstrated biological effects served as the jumping board for more advanced practices that improve bone health, neuroendocrine functionality, cognitive stability and strength, sexual vitality, intuitive ability, and much more. 

In addition to the physical benefits above, as well as massaging the internal organs, breathing in this way – when applied to any activity, physical or otherwise – also increases the awareness of subtleties that the mind may otherwise not notice due to habitually higher immune and stress defenses. Both of these are correlated with the lower vagal tone experienced most of the time by the majority of people, in which the mind's scope is dialed into a more gross/solid physical state of awareness. After learning the physical mechanism of the breath, being able to perform it automatically and joining the components so that it occurs in a fluid manner, the next step is to open up the nervous system to greater subtle awareness. By increasing and sustaining the resolution (fineness) of attention, the nerves increase their connective strength, capacitance and sensitivity. Feel the interconnection between the air outside of the body and the air inside of it. Become aware of the larger system of respiratory exchange within you and in all of nature. Feel the ionic charge of the air around you and that electricity continuing in through your body. Play with carrying this conscious, smooth full breathing into daily activities such as eating, showering, thinking and exercising. Play with combining it with these four-dimensional breathing exercises. It can also be coupled with sound and mantra by inhaling and exhaling the subtle sensations of sound. Observe the differences in sensation and experience over time, and continue playing.  

Without the Complete Breath, I would probably still be struggling to find a sense of inner calm and steadiness of mind, two invaluable factors for a healthy body, mind and spirit – and certainly necessary for further progress on any serious path that cultivates higher human potential. It is a prime example of how yogic tools are designed as technologies for improved health and wellness. The breath is a gateway that can, with conscious attention and intention, unite the physical with the subtle, the outer world with the inner world, the physiological with the psychological, movement with stillness and the mundane with the spiritual. 


Your Brain On Om: a Brief Intro to the Self-Science of Mantra

[Originally published on US News Health, 2 October, 2013]

In response to my first post on yoga and the brain, I received a thoughtful question from a reader: "Why would my brain want to love saying Om?" We have often heard (or heard of) yoga students or ourselves chanting the sound Om or Aum at the beginning or end of a yoga class. When I first took a yoga class, I was curious as to the reason and significance of using this sound, feeling slightly awkward uttering aloud this unfamiliar sound. Indeed, in some of my yoga classes, there may be students who opt out of participating in this part, instead choosing to remain silent. As a scientist by birth, so to speak, and thus a true skeptic in the sense that I enjoy questioning unfamiliarities to a healthy degree – rather than the self-serving doubting of everything that doesn't agree with the limited convictions of the personal mind – I figured that chanting such a sound may have a functional purpose if I experimented with it. I soon discovered that there is a vast science of sound in yoga used for increasing awareness and expanding emotional states of the human personality in ways that align with some recent investigations in neuroscience.

In the course of human evolutionary history, the auditory faculty evolved to process some set of constant features in nature, which make up the core grammar of auditory perception. These are the bite-sized pieces of sound information that the brain has evolved to process and of which to make sense. Through our sense of hearing the brain detects forms in space, much like echolocation in bats, by recognizing the sounds of interactions among solid-object physical events. Imagine that you hear the sound of a car's tires screeching, followed by a crash, and then the reverberation of the impact. What you've just heard is a series of events: a slide (tires screeching), a hit (the impact) and a ring (the reverberation), the three major types of physical interactions. Neuroscientist Mark Changizi has posited that the major phonemes of speech have evolved to resemble these kinds of interactive events, in a sort of onomatopoeia, where the sounds of the words resemble the events themselves, such as in "screech" and "crash." Speech, and even music as an ordered narrative of sounds, make use of our brain's evolved capacity to perceive natural sounds.

Mantra is a Sanskrit word for "sound tool," and Om is one of myriad such mantras. Sanskrit and some other ancient languages such as Tibetan, prototypical Egyptian and ancient Hebrew evolved as complex systems of onomatopoeia, where the sounds evoke movements of energy. This evocation is qualitative and subjective and is linked with interoception (inner body sensations) and emotional sense of self, both predominantly represented in the right hemisphere of the brain. Conversely, the narrative strand of sounds in which we give them meaning is done predominantly through the left hemisphere. What is fascinating about mantras is that from a physics standpoint, the sounds themselves, before they are assigned meaning, will resonate in different parts of the body and mind, creating actual interactions or events. Mantras are information, in the literal sense of in-forming: the creation of form, or interactions. The Sanskrit language is an information sequencing system that mimics the process of nature's repeating patterns. As the Sanskrit scholar Dr. Douglas Brooks has said, "Sanskrit tells us what Nature shows us. A limited number of rules gives an arbitrarily large number of outcomes. The way Nature goes about its business, Sanskrit goes about its language." Much like the emotive quality of immersing oneself in music, mantra uses sound to evoke movement of physical and emotional energy through stimulation of the nervous system, from which emerges meaning and narrative.

In order to have insight into and validate a mantra for ourselves, it must be experienced and felt through introspection. Let's take the mantra Om, or Aum, one of the most common in Sanskrit and Tibetan. If Aum is indeed onomatopoeic, then performing it can create an event inside the nervous system, which can then become an object of concentration and meditation, and thereby a focal point for expanding physical and emotional awareness. In terms of phonemes, we notice that it does not have any plosives or fricatives, only sonorants. From the types of solid-object physical events that the brain evolved to perceive, this respectively corresponds to an absence of hits and slides, and the presence of only rings. A, U and M are sonorants or rings, so this particular mantra qualifies an object that inherently has no interactions (hits or slides). In terms of physics, this means our object is formless. Try resonating the mantra aloud, allowing air to flow through the nasal passage, smoothly transitioning between the three sounds. If you do not wish to disturb anyone that may be around you, you can whisper the sounds subvocally. The A (pronounced ä, as in "car") can feel like a wide opening and has a broader vibratory effect on the physical body, approximating the gross consciousness of the waking state. The U (pronounced o͞o, as in "soup"), has a funneling effect, narrowing the consciousness into subtler sensations such as thoughts and impressions, approximating the dream state. The more nasal M sound is like the drone of a bee; it makes the cranium vibrate in a kind of undifferentiated and ubiquitous earthquake over the convolutions or valleys in the cerebral cortex, approximating the deep dreamless sleep state of consciousness. Traditionally, Aum represents and has the capacity to progressively open up the practitioner to the ever-present formless and timeless reality, the background radiation of the cosmos that echoes the Big Bang. Aum is found in the form of Amen in Christianity, Judaism and ancient Egyptian, where it also codes for the immutable eternal aspect of consciousness.

The feelings and symbolic representations of the sounds will differ from person to person because, like any tool, the effects of the sounds depend on the user operating them and the object of use, namely the condition of the body and mind. The practitioner should first develop a state of relaxation through proper breathing. It is also important to take interest in or to have a healthy curiosity for the practice so that the effect of actually enjoying the learning process may help the mantra get a foothold in the system. Mantras can be done vocally, sub-vocally (whispering) or silently in the mind. It is recommended to start aloud, and then proceed with the more silent variations. Silent repetition does have an effect; when the frequency of any sound is high enough, it extends beyond the human range of hearing and eventually achieves stillness, which is beyond sound itself. It has been demonstrated in a double-blind study that ultrasound probes applied to the skull can improve subjective mood, and it has been evidenced that even imagining performing musical exercises rewires and strengthens nerve connections. Both of these studies speak to the capacity of mental recitation of mantra to activate and affect the physical nervous system. Moreover, group chanting or recitation of mantra can synchronize the brainwaves between the participants, achieving yet another level of collective effect, as has been shown between musicians, which can help to understand the functional basis for group chanting in many of the world's wisdom traditions.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said: "Architecture is frozen music." The Sanskrit language is code for the patterns of nature, sonic representations of the way nature works. Mantras hold within them the latent forms of the universe. From supreme stillness and subtle ultrasonic vibrations, these latent forms cascade into being as audible sound, which then has the capacity to in-form, or shape reality, as has been demonstrated by cymatics. By practicing mantra, we can tap into the source of that power to manifest – we can drive our awareness deeper into the bones, muscles and tissues of the body to gain a greater sensitivity and understanding of our makeup and amplify the emotional energies latent within, much like the potential energy present in mountains that then becomes kinetic in the form of an avalanche when the earth quakes. By aiming with intention the practice of mantra into progressively deeper layers of ourself, we can bring more of ourself online, as it were, and therefore more on board the journey of health and fitness towards union and wholeness. Through mantra, we have the opportunity to practice yoga.

The Brain in Four ['integral' quadrant] Dimensions

 [Originally published on US News Health, 18 September, 2013.]

Rise and shine. It's morning (presumably), and you've just begun transitioning from the slower brain wave states of deep sleep and dreaming into the externally embedded reality of your waking life. Depending on your routine, life circumstances and disposition, you may selectively notice certain aspects or attend to the contents of awareness in a particular order. Your brain activates in a certain way, creating a pattern or neural groove that you then follow by habit, which in turn coordinates your behavioral patterns for the time being. We begin this general process when we wake up, extend it throughout the day and dwindle down in the evening, often in an automatic unconscious rhythm. Let's take a brief tour through the fundamental dimensions of awareness that the brain is wired to process, followed by a one-minute exercise for balancing them.

As you're reading this, perhaps among all the contents of your awareness you may come to feel your somatic sensations through interoception, the detection of stimuli from within your own body. Involuntary functions such as heart rate, digestion, muscle tension and breath are communicated up our brain stem (the oldest part of our brain that encodes basic drives) and the limbic system (associated with emotional coloring and subconscious assessment of our world) to the insula (a critical region that encodes interoception and self-awareness). You may notice the emotions you are feeling, the thoughts you are having and the motivations or intentions you have. These internal perceptions arise once signals from the aforementioned brain regions travel up to the middle prefrontal cortex, one of the most evolved brain regions in humans where we integrate our many perceptions to make a map of our internal world, allowing insight, morality, empathy and intuition to emerge. This completes the "resonance circuit," which allows you to feel yourself as a whole individual personality through introspection. This whole aspect of awareness is your interior individual ("I") dimension. 

You may become aware of another dimension: the exterior individual("It"). The five senses allow the space exterior to you to penetrate your inner awareness. You may notice individual objects along with their visual properties; physical sensations of touch such as clothes against your skin, or perhaps perspiration following a workout; the sounds around you, such as the electrical hum of your computer, human chatter and the sounds of nature; the smells and your capacity to distinguish them; and taste. See if you can take in the information from all the senses simultaneously. Each of these senses has its own pathway through the brain, integrating in the prefrontal cortex, where we make meaning of our senses. A template of the environment is formed as a spatial map in the entorhinal cortex, processing directional information that helps us orient ourselves in space. Our relationship with a physical object through touch is formed in part in the somatosensory cortex; after we learn to use a particular tool or device, our brain programs it as a virtual extension of our body, akin to a prosthetic limb, so that it becomes an operational "part" of us. You can also take in all your senses at once. Observe your behavioral in relation to the senses. Notice how this data is immediately available.

As you go through the day and observe more of your environment, you may notice that beyond the individual objects there is a strand of connectivity between them. Groups of objects come together in organized networks and interdependent systems of interaction. The arrangement of a chair, desk and laptop together is a purposeful and functional arrangement of objects in space. The distribution of city roads and highways that conduct traffic patterns is a system of seemingly separate objects functioning together. The awe that we can experience from recognizing the fractal patterns of nature, how the intricate designs of flowers, organisms and landscapes seem to follow some underlying blueprint facilitated by DNA. The way giant rocks in the solar system billions of years ago began rotating around the sun and spinning on axes to give us gravity, keeping us grounded in our day to day lives. The way the letters you are reading form words form sentences form a narrative structure that makes sense. The learned associations between objects from the senses is encoded in the perirhinal cortex. In case your head hasn't already exploded, see if you can grasp all these systems all at once for just a moment. This awe-full dimension of our awareness is theexterior collective ("Its").

The fourth and final dimension is the interior collective ("We"). In this dimension you become aware of your relationships. This is the felt sense of connection with another person or group of people. Feel into the connections you have with family, with co-workers, with friends and the core values that thread them together. Notice the difference in the "we"-ness between these groups. These are the codes of shared understanding that allow us to coherently relate with one another. The neural correlate of the experience of this shared meaning is the mirror neuron system, which allows us to reflect, as it were, and empathically resonate with the intentions and motivations of others, and to align our own emotional and physiological state with theirs. The capacity we have to resonate with others is closely linked with our capacity to reflect on our own mental state, as they both make use of the resonance circuit described above.

These four dimensions, the "I," "We," "It" and "Its" are all accessible to us at any given moment. Perhaps you noticed that there were one or two that may have been easier to access than the others. Since they are all integral to healthy brain function, it is important to work out all of them. Below is a one-minute exercise called "Integral Breathing" that you can do anytime. It is especially useful between tasks or when approaching a new situation.

1. I Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, become aware of what is arising within your subjective awareness. Rest within.

2. We Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, notice what arises between you and others, and rest in that connection of shared experiences and meanings.

3. It Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, open your senses and notice the qualities of surrounding space. Abide here.

4. Its Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, notice the larger context around you: the ecological and planetary information, legal, economic, environmental and educational systemic intersections. Rest everywhere.

5. Whole Breath: Inhale deeply. As you exhale, become aware of and rest in all four dimensions at once.

Repeat three times, for a total of 15 breaths. Play with this every day for a week and see what happens.

Your Brain on Yoga: A Blueprint for Transformation

[Originally published on US News Health, 4 September 2013]


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.

Yoga starts as the process of harnessing the brain's capacities and naturally evolves into the art of living well. As negative habits, patterns and influences within ourselves and from the outside are progressively dropped in favor of more sustainable ones, yoga can become a way of life – it becomes not about what we do, but how we do things. The principles of yogic science and brain science mesh together to create a blueprint for transformation. There is tremendous power in combining a technology that has stood the test of thousands of years of human evolution with a rigorous science of the most complex and fascinating organ in the human body.

These fascinating discoveries have moved me to the degree that I have felt compelled to share them. In this post we have focused on why we can and ought to be interested in this subject. In upcoming posts, you can look forward to exploring together principles that dovetail the insights of brain and yogic sciences into sets of techniques tailored for growth and that can be applied to your daily life and fitness routine. Together, we will practice with the brain in mind.

Technovidya: Zombie Apocalypse or Symbiosis? (Part 1)

We hear it frequently: technology is invading our lives and isolating us from each other. The increasingly ubiquitous sight of human masses staring down into their pocket-sized screens, ironically absorbed in social media platforms. Answering the phone at dinner was once considered rude. Now it is commonplace. Not to mention texting and driving.  We dread a zombie apocalypse. But is it upon us?

A myopic analysis of the status quo would suggest so. And yet, a bird's eye view may reveal much more. The Kosmos (the Greek denotation for all of existence, including but not limited to the observable physical cosmos) is made up of perspectives, and it is important to acknowledge the point blank situation as well as the broader strokes. Technology is part of a larger evolution of consciousness on Earth, co-evolving with its human users. Technology is inert without human minds behind it. How and to what end technology is used is dependent on the human sentience behind it. The degree of consciousness of the individual and collective minds behind both individual and wide-scale tools will determine their output. The first step is that we must realize we are in control of ourselves and how we use our technology. Then we must ask, which part of us is in control? The lower aspects of mind or the higher and more virtuous reaches of mind?

I use technology as a way to contemplate the nature of mind and how we interact with the world around us. One of the most fascinating things I have observed in my studies of the brain and consciousness is the fractal nature of the Kosmos. That is, the patterns of a close-up view are similar in nature to those of a zoomed out view. A close up of a broccoli floret is similar to the larger bundle of broccoli. Zooming in on a brain reveals an intricate structure of nerve connections. A bird's eye view of a metropolitan city shows how the intersections of highways and the vehicles in them look much like the electrical signals in the nerves of the brain (and in fact have been demonstrated to bear mathematical resemblance). Similarly, views of the universe and the internet show such patterns. These are all signs of the intelligent organization of consciousness as form, whether they occur with or without human hands. This organic self-assembling movement of technology has been termed by Kevin Kelly as the techniumTechnology is much like an organism that co-evolves with humans. The fact that we can learn to recognize new tools and adapt to them so quickly speaks to the depth of symbiosis we share with them. 


Assuming a larger view of organic intelligence in the Kosmos allows me to blur the boundaries between myself and the tools I use. I allow myself to be a conscious willful participant in the movement and evolution of the technium. The evolution of the internet is looking much like the organization of the brain, with dedicated centers for specific tasks and functions. Our brains and bodies are extensions of nature, and technology is an extension of our brains. All of these material manifestations are nature, and nature is in us—that is, the unlimited core of I/us: unified consciousness. Our brains have helped our consciousness organize itself in the world around us through technology. In a deeper sense, technology is an extension of us. This is a very empowering stance, rather than adopting the view of us vs. them. That view will perpetuate the struggle, the sense of otherness and alienation. I have chosen to adopt the view that our techie tools are extensions of our nervous system, lengthening and broadening the reach of our senses. As a yogi, it is a powerful practice to see these extensions as part of the "I", the Self. In fact, it doesn't even start or end with me in this body. It starts non-locally, everywhere and nowhere, weaving a tapestry of interconnection. It is as if consciousness has spilled itself over the world of form and objects, lighting everything up in the fire of transformation. There is a Sanksrit word for this: skanda, which means "to spill". Is there a limit to which I can allow my awareness to spill through the tools I use, or is the beauty to be found in the ever increasing complexity of our interconnection? Recognizing that we are in a deep evolutionary symbiosis with the technium is the first step to waking up from the separateness we experience from our tools and gadgets. Changing one's own perspective is the most transformative action that can be taken, and it must be the first step, as it is the only one what promises life-changing benefits as we loosen the grip of our limiting beliefs. 

Nonetheless, there are other dimensions to the evolution of technology around us that together form an integral picture: there is the subjective consciousness domain (discussed above), the physical material domain, infrastructural domain, and the domain of intersubjective technology in culture. As we work with the various dimensions of the development of the technium, it is important to remember that we are in a birthing process in terms of the way we manage our relationship with it and we will experience growing pains on many levels due to unsustainable patterns and behaviors (such as unhinged security and privacy violations)—all part of the process and also signs that change is necessary. If technology appears to separate rather than unite, it is a matter of mismanagement, whether of one's own use or perspective, or of a combination of inefficiencies that are to be ironed out in due course. 

The consciousness of the user determines how a tool is used. A hammer can be used to harm or to fix a loose nail. And it is therefore key to develop our own awareness through right living and healthy relationships. Technology can connect us harmoniously, fostering cooperation and community presence on local, global, and eventually galactic levels, or we can use it to perpetuate separatism, fulfilling the prophecy of the zombie apocalypse. The choice is (y)ours.

I have termed this piece "Technovidya" as a compound of the Greek  tekhne 'art, craft' and the Sanskrit vidya 'knowledge, learning'—the study of technology or knowledge through the technosphere. this includes technology as we know it (gadgetry and how we develop and use it in healthy ways individually and collectively), and the subtle aspects of how humans are bio-energetically driven agents of Nature's creative acts of art and craft. It is a subject, relevant to myriad applications and an integral analysis. In the future, I will cover:

 1) Tips, exercises, mediations, and contemplations that help to view and use technology as an extension of the Self.

2) Meta-perspectives on how to improve the shaping of our technology to better foster a natural and comfortable state of being with our tools.

3) Creative applications of various forms of technology that further blur the boundaries between us humans and our tools, from interactive multimedia to music and design.

4) More to come…

Stay tuned! 

 - Gabriel


New WORKSHOP TOUR begins: Your Brain on Yoga

I am excited to announce a workshop tour for "YOUR BRAIN ON YOGA", beginning at Kula Yoga Shala in Jupiter, FL on JUNE 30th. This will be a practical exploration of how neurological (brain) principles are applied in different forms of yoga. Practitioners will be given a set of take-home tools to continue their development. It is an honor to be hosted at wonderful spaces and serve the community! Updates on more tour dates will be posted here :-)

Om Namo Purnaya ,


10 Days of Silent Meditation

In this video I share insights from my experience at a recent 10-day Vipassana course/retreat as well as some of the functional changes that occur in the brain. This was one of the most impacting retreats I have been to among the various types of retreats and immersions I have visited over the years (and it was free, or donation-based). It helped me set the foundation for further development by increased meditative stability—meaning, the ability to remain aware and equanimous across all experience without reaction. This is no easy task and remains a work in progress, but 100 hours of mediation in 10 days results in changes to the brain that can remain with continued and consistent practice.