I spent four hours yesterday listening to a replay of Yoga Injuries: Facts and Fiction, a telesummit organized by Yoga U, a platform for high-profile yoga teachers to host webinars. Not multitasking is not my strong suit, so while I posted a bit about it on the YogaRose.net Facebook page, I mainly used this span of time to listen to the interviews with eight speakers while cleaning out my home office space — the last room of our new house to receive a cleaning-out-the-closets treatment.
The cleaning-out was great. So was the telesummit — particularly the first two speakers. Roger Cole rocked out a refutation of the infamous New York Times article by William Broad that triggered the telesummit (I think paying for the full pass for the event would probably be worth it for this segment alone), and Timothy McCall, M.D., the medical editor for Yoga Journal, provided some juicy elevator pitches for the benefits of yoga.
I say “elevator pitch” probably because I enjoy teaching beginning yoga students and find myself thinking about how to quickly explain the benefits of yoga, and because I work in the public relations arena, in which you frequently need to assess whether your clients have a clear sense of their goals and objectives. What message are they trying to get across? Can they distill it into a pitch short enough to make during an elevator ride? If they can’t, maybe the overarching message is too muddled.
Anyway, based on his presentation, I looked up some of McCall’s past work and found a little gem. Unless you’re in an elevator ride gone awry, McCall’s 2009 piece titled “Your Brain on Yoga” is a tad too long to qualify as an elevator pitch, but at a brisk 332 words, it’s still a short, breezy and extremely accessible read. I’m sure there are excellent distillations out there, but this is one of the best I’ve stumbled over that supports, from a scientific and holistic point of view, why we should practice yoga consistently:
When I was in medical school in the 1980s, we were taught that after a certain stage of childhood development, the architecture of the brain was fixed. Brain cells, or neurons, couldn’t be replaced; at best, we could slow the rate of their loss by cutting down on alcohol and other damaging habits.
But now, due to the growing sophistication of neuroimaging technology like PET scanners and functional MRIs, we understand that brain structure can change over time based on what we do. Recent research shows that even aging brains can add new neurons.
Scientists coined the term neuroplasticity to refer to the brain’s ability to reshape itself, confirming what the yogis have been teaching for millennia—the more you think, say, or do something, the more likely you are to think, say, or do it again. With every activity, neurons forge connections with one another, and the more a behavior is repeated, the stronger those neural links become. As neuroscientists like to say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali offers a recipe for success in yoga: steady and enthusiastic practice without interruption over a long period of time. This ideal formula takes advantage of neuroplasticity to rewire the brain. Swami Vivekananda once said, “The only remedy for bad habits is counter habits.” As your yoga practice deepens over time, it becomes a strong new habit that can compete with old patterns.
In yoga, you are systematically awakening your ability to feel what’s happening in your body, heart, and mind. As your awareness becomes more refined, it can guide you in all areas of your life. You begin to observe which foods make you feel best, which work you find most fulfilling, which people bring you joy—and which ones have the opposite effects.
The key is steady practice—whether it’s asana, pranayama, meditation, chanting, visualization, service, or all of the above. Just a little bit every day is enough to steer you step-by-step toward true transformation.
Establishing new habits to compete with old ones . . . in the telesummit, McCall talked about how that is a weakness of the medical system — when people are told to quit smoking or eat healthier or whatever the case may be, but aren’t given any tools to create new habits. I know nothing except for yoga has ever truly worked for me when it comes to trying to be a less reactive person, to eat better, etc. etc. — so where would I be right now if I didn’t have these tools?
I’ve been writing quite a bit lately about how redirecting my practice pattern — practicing at least a little bit six mornings a week versus only a few evenings a week — has totally !!! my world. (By the way, I do promise to blog about something else soon! ) I wondered if I could distill the neuroplasticity idea even further — into the 140 characters of a tweet — and ashtanga-fy it a bit (not because other methods don’t work, but because this is the only method I can personally attest to) while alluding to the concepts of a conditioned mind and illusions that arise from the Yoga Sutras. I came up with:
Using the body to get beyond the body, a 6-day-a-week Ashtanga practice rewires us to experience life without filters created by illusion.
What do you think?
What would your elevator pitch be?
So what is it that happens when we are capable of practicing detachment?
Bringing this up reminds me of workshop I attended last year with orthopedic surgeon, yoga practitioner and author Ray Long, M.D. I loved how he brought up painkillers in an analogy for how yoga helps decrease human suffering. I am paraphrasing big time here, but basically, he discussed how local anesthesia works to numb an area, while morphine works on the central nervous system. What people have recounted about being on morphine is that they are still aware of the pain, but it doesn’t bother them.
I’ve heard Tim Miller use a line he got from a Vedic astrologer in India: Yoga makes us human shock absorbers. And I just found this interview with David Swenson in which he responds to a question about finding peace (definitely not an elevator pitch, but good stuff):
I think that peace just means, that even though I may die today, I’m living my purpose. And that’s the peace. It doesn’t mean that there’s no stress in life. It doesn’t mean that we just float along and there’s never any problem. Peace just means that we feel like we’re living the life that we should be living. And many times we have to live a lot of lives that we realise we shouldn’t be, in order to find out what we should be doing. It’s an ongoing journey. To find balance, sometimes we have to understand imbalance by moving through extremes. In my life there have been different extremes… to swing like a pendulum. And the balance or the peace comes from the middle road. As humans we find it easier to live in extremes, “I’ll only do this. I’ll never do that.” That’s where religion plays a part, where you’re just told to do this and that and you follow. But peace comes from some sort of inner feeling that the life we’re living is a life that we should be living. And it doesn’t have to be that you’re in a monastery, or that you’re doing some grandiose thing. It could be aligned with raising your children, getting them to soccer games on time, being at peace with the life that we have chosen, or the life that has chosen us, but finding our place within that. Certainly I can’t say that every moment at the day I’m walking around in some bliss bubble. Certainly I have problems, I have stresses, or I get upset. But underneath all that, as a yogi, we learn to observe our emotions, these ups and downs, and we try not to become too attached to one of them. Great joy or great sadness, both of those are going to change. Instead of this rollercoaster ride, we can become the observer, but it doesn’t mean that we’re some emotionless robot.
(Photo credit: Elevator photo via Zero-X’s Flickr photostream.)
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