The Transforming Brain in Yoga Practice

The central mystery of human life is consciousness: the relationship between mind and body, the origin and process of subjective experience. These questions remain confounding, but this is not to say we have not come a long way. While we are by all accounts humbled in the face of both the brain’s extraordinary complexity and the completely unique nature of consciousness, the last 25 years have been a period of exponential growth in our ability to look at these questions scientifically.

Of course, yogis have been inquiring into consciousness for a very long time, but this is purely from the other side of the conversation. Spiritual practice is an entirely subjective affair, whilst science seeks objective evidence.

In a way, consciousness is at the junction of subjectivity and objectivity. It has simultaneously a neurobiological substrate with neuronal and biochemical correlates we are slowly but steadily identifying and brain regions that are being mapped, and a mysteriously private 1st person expression. How exactly the two relate remains inscrutable, but the fact that they are inextricably related is undeniable. With lots of research being done on how practices that train us in mindfulness affect the brain, this dance between subjectivity and objectivity, spirituality and science is more fascinating and exciting than ever before. Far from negating the mysteries of consciousness, this feels like a celebratory exploration.

Up until about 20 years ago it was thought that the brain was “hard-wired” by the age of five or six. But there has been a revolution in neuroscience, based in the discovery of how experience changes the brain’s function and even structure over time. This is called neuroplasticity. Any meaningful conversation about how yoga practice can effect transformation now has a reference point in brain research.

I offer you my Three Principles of Transformational Neuroplasticity, as gleaned from the current neuroscience literature.


It is the repeated, consistent patterns created by new experience that change the brain, and therefore who we are, how we feel, how we deal with our emotions, how aware we are of our bodies and how integrated we are on all levels. The emphasis on consistency in all practice-based traditions is connected to the observation that staying on the path produces results over time. Proponents of spirituality have always understood this intuitively, but now we are closer to understanding why it works! Consistent practice is essential—it is where the rubber meets the road.

From Rumi:

Commit yourself to a daily practice,

Your loyalty to that is like a ring on the door.

Keep knocking and eventually the joy that lives inside

Will look out to see who’s there…

Linkage: “What Fires Together, Wires Together”

This is a catchphrase from the research referring to the phenomenon of linkage between neural pathways. We can create powerful chains of association that form strong and complex neural networks with multiple links when we practice. Linking the experience of removing shoes, rolling out and sitting down on our mats with activating breath awareness, becoming oriented to the shared sacred space, and starting to pay closer attention to our bodies constructs a set of positive, safe, disciplined and communcal associuations.  Each time we begin our yoga practice we are stimulating this neural network until it is second nature.

Linking the experience of being “resourced” (in touch with resilience, compassion, mindful relationship to our stream of inner excperience) to the experience of consciously and compassionately staying present with what scares us starts to change how we deal with stress and trauma in ourselves and in others.

Linking what I think of as the “practice trinity” of breath, presence and compassion to one another similarly develops a new, interwoven brain skill.

In the way I teach, adding the evocative elements like music or poetic images can enrich this still further.

Your Just Desserts: Utilizing the Reward System

Mindfulness activates neuroplasticity, but when the reward system is firing, those new pathways grow even stronger. The reward system releases feel good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins. In the biochemical matrix created by the reward system, the possibilities of neuroplastic transformation are amplified.

Deep breathing, music, poetry, communal experience and physical activity all stimulate the reward system —that’s why they make us feel good.

So experiencing the process of inner work, resourcing, healing and even the discharge of emotional energy in contexts that also make us feel good, means that the transformational pathways will be formed that much more strongly.

Enjoy being in your body when you are practicing, let the good feelings in, maintain a sense of connection to the community around you, radiate and receive compassion, permission, and gratitude and use all of this as fuel for the journey of shifting old patterns, healing wounds and learning new habits.

From The Radiance Sutras:

Rocking, swaying, undulating

Carried by the rhythm,

Ride the waves of ecstatic motion

Into a sublime fusion of passion and peace.

Think of the above three principles of transformational neuroplasticity as a doorway into the “sacred biochemistry” of yoga practice. They represent both a poetic and science-informed way of seeking to frame the experiential processes of self-transformation through yoga practice.