Neural Axis®

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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.

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.