Dear Yoga Students,
Trauma can show up in many forms. One need not have lived in a war zone to know the reality of a traumatized brain and body. Small hardships can morph into full-blown stress reactions and, conversely, full blown stress reactions, can, with time and practice, weaken and be replaced with greater equanimity. The word here is plasticity -neuroplasticity- the brains ability to form new neural connections and rewire itself.
The yogi’s of the past- who were sophisticated psychologists without the benefit of tools such as fmri and other brain imaging techniques- understood that our human neurophysiology lives in our sensory and hormonal systems and this becomes what behavioral psychologists call “conditioning”. The yogis word for this phenomenon is “samskara”.
Sam- to join together
The yogis, through inward based inquiry, understood how thought, action, word, experience and behavior could join together and cause psychological conditioning. If the brain’s executive function is not able to discern a past trauma from the reality of the present moment, the body moves into a hyper aroused state where danger is over- perceived. Hyper arousal causes dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system and increases our suffering.
Neuroscientists act on the proof of the principle that neurons that “fire together, wire together”. If fear gets activated over and over again, neurons link together and the fear stimulus will gain traction. Sounds a lot like samskara to me.
Yogis cultivated a refined understanding of the reality of human software; and, modern science is giving us the gift of more precise insights into the working of the hardware. Call it what you will, I find it wondrous.
Fact: 30 minutes of daily meditation for only 8 weeks showed a reduction in gray matter (neural connectivity) in the threat detection areas of the brain including the amygdala and hippocampus.
The good news is that the innate neuroplasticity of a healthy brain is ready, and willing, to get rewired. Yoga practice, pranayama, meditation, yoga nidra and other attention/awareness practices will help you build a more supple brain.
In class, as we move through asanas we are literally creating breathing room in our bodies and brains. We are encouraging our nimble and supple selves to grow stronger. When life puts the squeeze on us (which it will until the end of our days) we can rail against it or learn to live with it.
A warrior does not necessarily need to fight or freeze when a foe shows up. A warrior can try widening into the difficulty, act with suppleness, maneuver with practiced skill and in doing just that, she just might find that she can dance her way through the mud.
We have within us what I have come to call a “Freedom Zone”. This is the sweet spot where insight and action meet and we decide that we don’t have to give credence to the old samskaras. This freedom zone is waiting for us to notice it and walk through its doors. Bodies are resilient. Brains are resilient. When brains and bodies are not blindly following the wayward directions of old, tired patterns they find the place where the refresh button is waiting to be pressed.
The yogis knew it. The neuroscientists in the labs know it. When you are practicing genuine yoga, you know it.
Yours in practice,