Tarka #012

On Yoga and Neuroscience

On Yoga and Neuroscience

Yoga transforms.  Given recent poles that estimate at least 20 million people do Yoga in the United States alone, it’s not difficult to find individuals who can attest to its mental, physical, and/or spiritual benefits.  In addition, the growing field of Yoga studies demonstrates that the tradition of Yoga is itself malleable, shifting over centuries from an ascetic, meditation based practice, to the practices of medieval era haṭha and tantric Yoga that emphasized care and cultivation of the physical body/mind as a vehicle for moksha/liberation, to the global phenomena of today that widely recognizes Yoga for therapeutic effects.

The discipline of Yoga has also long acted as a partner and central facet of religious practice and experience.  Yoga itself is not necessarily religious, yet it is a critical component of religious life for many, and the contemporary appreciation of Yoga as therapy often integrates a kind of a-religious “spirituality” that is accessed through the integration of mind and body.  Qualitative research that measures the potential therapeutic benefits of Yoga necessarily omits the discussion of spirituality, yet this dimension lingers at the margin of the discussion and consistently points researchers and practitioners towards the greater mystery of human experience.  Recent scientific studies are now verifying the more personal, anecdotal evidence and, as a result, more people can have access to Yoga through school and hospital programs, doctor referrals, and in a variety of therapeutic settings.

Keynote speaker for our recent conference, Embodied Brain, Stephen W. Porges, Marlysa B. Sullivan, & others, co-authored the first article in this issue that looks at Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory.  This article compares Polyvagal Theory (a theory that connects physiological states with behavior and psychological well-being) with the Yogic conception of guṇas (a precept noted in the Yogasūtra and fundamental to Yoga and Sāṇkhya that divides all experience into three parts, sattva – sweetness, ragas – fire, and tamas – lethargy).  The result of this study is a coherent link between scientific studies of Yoga and early Yogic philosophical systems and texts.

Next, researchers Chantal Villemure, Marta Ceko, Valerie A. Cotton, and M. Catherine Bushnell, examine the “Neuroprotective effects of yoga practice.” In particular, the authors researched how different forms of Yoga and meditation helped individuals to retain greater levels of grey matter, a key indicator of age-related brain decline.  The study focused on experienced Yoga practitioners and considered various types of practice to determine which aspects of practice were most effective.  The findings of this study strongly suggest that a practice of Yoga āsana combined with meditation was most effective at preserving brain health.

Julian Walker then offers “The Transforming Brain in Yoga Practice” as an accessible look at three principles for transformation that relate how Yoga can best influence positive neuroplasticity.  The article combines practitioner insight, reflection on current research, and poetry, in a way that is useful for teachers and students alike.

Returning author and professor of Yoga Studies and Loyola Marymount University Christopher Miller’s, “Preparing the Internal Sacrifice in Hatha Yoga: Measured Diet to Move beyond the Mind,” considers the relationship between diet and transformation in traditional texts of Hatha Yoga. Miller draws from these key texts to demonstrate how a “measured” diet is a critical facet of Yoga practice.

Subsequently, a co-authored paper from Shan Liang, Xiaoli Wu, and Feng Jin, offers a clinical look at the relationship between food and mental well-being.  The article, “Gut-Brain Psychology: Rethinking Psychology from the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis,” looks at mental disorders and neurological disease and their relationship to microbiota. The relationship between gut/digestive system and brain may account for certain mental diseases and, therefore, therapies that target gut microbiota may need to be considered as an important facet of psychotherapy.

Taking a different approach to the issue of digestion, diet, and neuroplasticity, Katy Jane explores the narrative traditions of Hindu literature and recounts the power that is gained through fasting.  While the analogies of myth do not translate directly into the scientific realm, it does set a precedent.  Among Yogic and ascetic feats, fasting is one of the longest standing practices that has the power to transform the practitioner and the world around her.

Joann Lutz’s “Using Nervous System-Informed, Trauma Sensitive Yoga as an Intervention for Trauma and Related Diagnoses,” provides a preview for next month’s Tarka and the upcoming Trauma & Embodiment Conference.  Lutz’s article discusses the autonomic nervous system and particular ways that yoga can help an individual to regulate this system after an experience of trauma.

In what follows, Sonia Sequeira, instructor for this month’s Embodied Philosophy course, “Yoga and the Neuroscience of Healing: Harnessing the Power of the Brain,” shares an article co-authored with Mahiuddin Ahmed and Shakeel Modak, “Acute Pain Relief After Mantram in Children with Neuroblastoma Undergoing Anti-GD2 Monoclonal Antibody Therapy.”  The study focuses on pain management for children undergoing intensive cancer treatment and found that meditation associated with repetitive sound/mantram repetition lowered the need for additional pain medication.

Lastly, “Tibetan Medicine: A Complementary Science of Optimal Health,” by Joseph J. Loizzo, Leslie J. Blackhall, Lobsang Rapgay, argues that the ideal system for health care will integrate knowledge from “alternative” traditions with conventional, allopathic medicine into a system of “complementary science.”  The article states, “Applying the lessons learned in this century by our colleagues in physics, we argue that no one medical model, however evidence based or effective, is absolutely preferred; that no one clinical or research paradigm is best fit for all aspect of all healthcare problems.”  As evidenced in several of the articles featured in this issue, scientific research is now available to back many of the anecdotal and myth/narrative based claims made by practitioners of Yoga and meditation.

This issue of Tarka complements the current course offerings, Yoga & the Neuroscience of Healing with Dr. Sonia Sequeira, as well as the recent conference, Embodied Brain (still available for download).

~ Stephanie Corigliano, TARKA Managing Editor