Your Brain on Yoga


There is a happiness researcher.  Yes, there is.

It is his research at none other than Harvard University that has generated the relationship between certain rituals and a measurable increase in experiencing what we refer to as happiness.  Even more important is that it is provable(like with charts and numbers and empirical data)that happiness as referred to above results in functional advantages in energy, creativity and intelligence.  These advantages even show up in measurable ways on a bad day when you are stressed or struggling.

I have personally hoped for a pill or an injection as a punchline, but even better it turns out that our meditation and yoga practice takes us most of the way there.

Meditation is a key ingredient in delivering to your brain a juicy cocktail of joy.

Many ask me what is really meant by meditating.  It is fair to be confused because in yoga we meditate in motion and also in stillness.  In general, meditation is calming the mind to a state of ease and peace while continuing to be alert with a certain amount of awareness that is focused inward. It has been referred to as “thoughtless awareness”.
It is easier to know when it is over than when it is happening.

But, what happens in your brain can be measured there,  although the effects are total body.

Some important changes happen in the frontal lobe or cortex.  This is the most highly evolved part of the brain, responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness in meditation it goes offline.  Practically, this helps you out of the planner loop.  The parietal lobe which processes sensory information about the surrounding world, orienting you in time and space slows way down. This accounts for the lack of awareness of the passage of time.  Often when I teach meditation, a full hour will have passed but the students will feel like they just put their head down.

The thalamus, gatekeeper for the senses focuses your attention by drawing selected sensory response data deeper into the brain and in some way slowing the number of messages that get in.  Meditating dials back the arousal signals so what is urgent and heart pounding lands softly.

Meditation has also been shown to diminish age-related effects on gray matter and reduce the decline of our memory and actual cognitive function.

This, I suppose has become my pitch.  I have called my meditation class everything just to encourage the fearful, the disinterested the non-believers to try.  I think it is finally time to call it what it is; meditation.  So many people tell me they are not able to sit still.  The insist that others can but their special type of brain is not available for calm.  This drives me nuts.

Meditation is a skill.  It takes practice.  It is true that it is easier for some, but so is everything.  It doesn’t impress me to tell me that you are too busy to meditate or slow down.  I know extremely productive people and the most productive and accomplished among them, understands this…the human body and mind love and require stillness to function at their peak.

Physics teaches us that bodies in motion tend to stay in motion.  It is within the capacity of a human to intend to adjust that.  There are many ways to get started.  Only some of them involve another person’s guidance.  I think you should handle this practice by understanding the way you like to take on a new skill.  Would it help you to have a teacher? Can you learn from internet tutorials? Would you like a class?

These are useful inquiries but I am going to give you the secret that will change the trajectory of your body currently in motion.  Ultimately, you will develop the skill of sitting still.  Do that.

A simple approach is to sit with your back supported in a comfortable seat.  Do not expect to sit in full lotus ommmmming to have the real experience.  That is not necessary and frankly, not possible for many.  Just sit.  Not with anything to do.  With nothing to do.  You may make that work for a few breaths and start to work out why this is not for you.  But you just got on the path.  From here you may simply begin by counting your breaths.  Finding the sound of them and listening for them and then counting them.  I am not advocating for any particular style of thoughtless awareness.  I am advocating for you.  This path to quiet and still will eventually call to you and when you have practiced you will gladly visit.  Until that day, take the body in motion and even if just for a breath or two; stop it.


Put your middle finger back where it belongs; directed toward the chaos and darkness

We might just be directing our frustration at the party in closest proximity. It makes our outrage simply an expulsion of rattling irritation and drains it of the values it purports to express.  It also generates a demand for an otherwise unnecessary apology. We are just adding to our list of hanging unfulfilled apologies and not actual lightening what is dark for us or calming what is chaos.  Those we love the most, or spend the most time with are incidentally in the path of our frustrated energy.

Here is what I mean, if you have a terrible drive home and there is inexplicable traffic, I do not care how evolved you are, humans are not meant to live bumper next to bumper for long stretches of time. I have heard yogis tell me that in their enlightened condition after class they are not subject to the vagaries of the common human. You don’t believe that, do you? You shouldn’t and I don’t.  You have created in your system the energy of driving properly and keeping the car and its passengers safe against the challenges of every other obstacle in a commute.  It is extra building energy in your system and it is not sweet loving energy.

When you arrive home or your destination, you may be able to hold onto it briefly,  but at some point that energy converts and releases.  This sounds like the description of another type of conversion we do that is more gastrointestinal.  But, it is like that.  It is more often than not directed at someone or thing completely unrelated to the source of your agitation.  I mean, we all get this.  There is just a time delay in our awareness.  I think we should figure out how to be more immediate.  We should let out in real time.  Don’t get out of the car.  Let anyone else out.  Sit quietly and let out what I would like to refer to as a the urban dwellers version of the primal scream.

Studies show that those who release in the form of cursing feel measurably better and sometimes show reduction in their level of pain on an objective scale.  This may mean that what we have termed bad words can take the charge of your anger and frustration and handle one for the family team.  I don’t think indiscriminate cursing is a great idea, but what about finely tuned, purposely generated and not specifically directed.  A curse at the air, if you will.  I say be creative with it also.  Use curse adjectives and really explicit modifiers before you get to the biggest baddest words.  These are words.  But they feel good and should not be leveled at people.  But, my dashboard has graciously accepted its role in my life.

You can choose quieter means, for sure, but I don’t think we should give ourselves too much credit.  We are capable of great deeds of injustice towards innocent parties who move into our line of site at the wrong moment.  What I am advocating for is clarity about that and quick and well, dirty option to clean up the remains of the day.  Busy times call for efficient measures.

So, redirect the middle finger to nothing in particular or let a full on expletive go into the void.  Then return to your regularly scheduled programming with love and a big sigh.

middle of nowhere is sometimes the best place to be

it’s not quite summer.  it’s not quite fall.  it’s not hot out or really sunny.  it’s not fully dark early yet.  it’s just this half light.  it is hard to be motivated.  there is no obvious deadline. the holidays are a little too far off for a countdown.

there is a certain potential for malaise right now.  the beige synthetic wrinkle free off the rack days before the lovely moments of autumn emerge in the damp swirl of leaves raked off the front porch.

i feel it is tough to be soft and light.  i feel sodden and damp and musty.  sleep comes hard and then lands harder.  morning comes soon and brings no change. nothing changes.  no switch is turning on and nothing is big or important or pivotal.


the simple turn of the seasons when it is not at a harsh vertex that is a direct line into the next clearly defined place.

that is where i am.

it is disconcerting. sort of itchy like a sweater that just slightly irritates but not enough to get rid of or take off. it is a low grade sense of agita.

maybe this is good.  maybe this is how transition happens naturally.  not in abrupt screeching directional pivots but by pressing through routine.

this may be where the rubber really hits the road.  it is so easy to be energized when energy is abundant.  it is easy to be active when all lights are green and you are without immediate obstacles and there is a project or life change on the horizon.  a project  of your making or not.  maybe this is the down time during which we can reflect or pause from reflecting but allow the next thing to arise.  to watch the horizon.

maybe nothing will arise or many things may and i will be able to choose the one that calls me.

but today. i am quiet. it is quiet.

maybe, not everything has to feel like a fire that needs stoking or putting out.  maybe the good stuff is hidden in these mild mannered transitions, waiting to be called on like the quiet hand raised in the back of the class.  so, i will relax into this and not allow quiet to be labeled boredom or inactivity, lazy. i can let quiet be vital and inspirational.  i know that there are things to look forward to that get placed in my path; but this quiet asks me to generate something or just accept what shows up.  i will work with that.  for today, i don’t need to create anything and if something shows up, i don’t need to do anything about it.  for today, i will just re-caption the space between the seasons.  i will allow the dough of my spirit to rise unforced and see what i can make happen when i am ready to make something happen but not a moment before.

i think it feels better just to agree to be waiting.  it feels better to agree that i might not do anything, and i might not respond to possibilities that come my way or i might.  this means nothing about who i am, lazy, determined, inert or driven, ambitious, dull.  it only says something about how i am being right now. maybe, i will choose to learn the lessons of pulling up the covers and lying quietly for a little while before i jump up and take on the next thing.