4 Brain Facts
…and why they matter on your mat
“brain jelly” Sarah Schlesinger
1. Your mind likes new things
The brain is naturally drawn to novelty. We comprehend everything from music to other people and daily interactions in terms of contrast. The new and different automatically draw our attention, whether or not we eventually favor or loath it. This is true even in the most habitual situations, where our brain-functions might run in the background like a constant, unnoticed observer.
On the mat: Come to your practice with a beginner’s mind. Even practicing a set sequence of postures (like Bikram and Ashtanga) your brain will notice any slight differences. Rather than fight this tendency or retreat into repetitive mental patterns, you could make it a huge advantage. Try exploring that novelty – the new sensation of focusing on your fingertips might help handstand. Try new poses, new breathing techniques, new styles. Not only will you build strength in your body by avoiding plateaus, you’ll allow your mind to develop by engaging it.
2. Use it or lose it – brain firing can stagnate if unused.
The good news is results from isolated brain exercises last long after the exercise is done; by consciously activating neural activity you teach your neurons to fire even in less conscious states. In this way the electrical system of the brain is very much like working out your biceps. But prolonged results are not eternal results. To ensure continued firing of those neural pathways they have to be maintained. When practicing actions that trigger desired hormones and brain responses (ie. movement to trigger adrenaline) consistency is key.
On the mat: Is it too obvious to point out that we call it yoga practice for a reason? “Practice” implies prolonged repetition, not perfection or performance. It’s easy to think of “advanced” poses as the peak of physical practice, but often consistency is the surprise challenge. Whether it’s maintaining breath (check out: pranayama and the central nervous system), correct alignment, or just showing up – like practicing math equations to train the analytical regions of your brain, regular practice is the key to not getting stuck.
3. The brain gets high on participation
Though nicely encased in the skull, your brain is hardly isolated. Seperate regions of the brain collaborate; they are inextricably linked to other body systems; and your brain constantly interacts with your external environment. Each sensory experience, whether touch or smell or sound, triggers a certain reaction and builds a memory in your mind. This is why human interaction and tactile stimulation are vital for development in early childhood. The brain is highly participatory and develops with each engagement.
On the mat: Don’t be a passive practitioner. Rather than completely zoning out, actively participate in your yoga by taking notice of those interactions that engage your brain. This can mean taking a moment to really notice your environment before practicing, mindfully reflecting on the light, air, ground, sounds. Also literally participate in your yoga experience by engaging your community. Why not? Yoga teachers generally love to interact with students, you know you share a common interest, and having a strong sense of community is life-strengthening in more ways than one!
4. Feedback is key
Similar to #3’s participation, feedback gives your brain vital information. Since the brain is constantly changing and learning from new experiences, when different feedback comes in it stores that as memory for future reference. For a technical example: when something threatens you your sympathetic nervous system (think fight-or-flight response) activates testosterone and automatically stores memory of the experience so you can avoid it in the future. If you react but more feedback comes and tells your brain the threat was false, the parasympathetic nervous system is allowed to take over, releasing cortisol to try to calm you down. Of course this goes into your memory too. So, the feedback you get from reacting in certain situations will guide your future actions and reactions.
On the mat: With memories constantly forming and re-forming, moments of feedback on your mat build framework for the future. This can be a challenge: you fall out of crow and don’t want to try again. Or it can be incredibly helpful: one moment of balance in handstand means your body and brain have that memory to make next time even more stable. Part of what we practice on the mat is breathing through that feedback, allowing our brains time to process in a safe environment rather than reacting suddenly. By reflecting on and slowing automatic reactions to feedback, you’re more likely to store accurate memories. Allow those muscular and mental memories to form, but mindfully, knowing that you can always build new memories …by re-approaching crow maybe?