Yoga knew this five thousand years ago
by Stephani Sutherland
As a practicing psychiatrist for over 25 years, Marilyn Granger, MD, knows something about the inner workings of the brain. But unlike most psychiatrists, Marilyn is also training to become a certified Yoga Therapist with AVI. In an upcoming workshop co-presented with Mirka Scalco-Kraftsow in Sebastopol, CA, Marilyn will lay out some of the ways that Yoga and particularly Viniyoga can promote neuroplasticity—that is, how it changes your brain.
Not so long ago, neuroscientists thought that all the brain cells we’d ever have got wired into relatively fixed circuits. Once you’re an adult, the conventional wisdom went, well, you were pretty much stuck with the brain you had. But recent findings have shown that not only are new neurons born in adulthood but also that the existing cells of the brain can dynamically re-form circuits and patterns throughout our lives. This process of neuroplasticity—the making and breaking of communication points between cells—is thought to underlie learning of all kinds. If this isn’t sounding familiar to you yet, think samskara—patterns laid down in the mind by experience. In fact, Marilyn says, everything that neuroscience is discovering can really be considered a confirmation of what the ancient yogis knew. And now modern research techniques are being used to describe the human mind much as the Sutras did.
In the workshop, Marilyn will discuss some of the key elements that research has shown to support neuroplasticity. (Hint: some of these will seem familiar from your practice.) Not surprisingly, repetition tops the list. When you’re learning something new, try, try again. Mirka says she’s intrigued by neuroscience “because it shows what we can do through carefully focused attention,” another key factor for promoting neuroplasticity. “We can choose our own qualities,” Mirka says. “Our quality of attention, our quality of thought, of emotion.” New experiences and those carrying some emotional weight also seem to nudge neurons toward remodeling.
Ten years ago, Marilyn faced what she described as a midlife crisis. “Everything was crumbling apart, and I needed something to keep myself together.” She felt the need to examine her life—her job, her family, her relationships—which led her to become aware of Ayurvedic teachings. “They were saying the universe is textured in every cell of your body. That idea just felt right.” This may have been considered a leap for someone trained in Western medicine who weights scientific evidence heavily and is less accustomed to following her intuition. But for Marilyn, “something clicked” about the notion that there’s a connection to everything within ourselves. “That helped me in a time of crisis.” And it provided her with the entry point to Viniyoga. After a week-long training in breath, movement, and sound provided by Kaustaub Desikachar, the grandson of Krishnamacharya, she developed a profound energetic awareness through the simple practices. This new awareness fed her curiosity and eventually led her to undertake training in yoga therapy with AVI.
Marilyn’s re-examination of her work as a psychiatrist included the practice of prescribing medications that, for many mentally ill or traumatized patients, have only a limited effect. And while there’s usually a counseling component to mental health treatment, Marilyn says, “people need more.” As she sees it, the toolkit for treating mental health is missing tools that involve working with the body, and she sees the potential for yoga therapy to be among them.
Modern neuroscience has begun to describe the brain processes that underlie suffering—emotions, thought, habits, altered perspective. “Yoga speaks to this,” Marilyn says. “If you look at the sutras, the first chapter is about suffering and blockages.” And science now confirms that we can reduce stress by using the breath, that it’s an entry point to the nervous system, and that we can affect change by going through a process of focusing the mind, as in meditation. But, Marilyn points out, “Yoga knew this five thousand years ago.”
Stephani Sutherland, PhD, is a freelance writer, neuroscientist, and yogi who has been practicing for over 15 years. Stephani is currently training with AVI in the Viniyoga Foundations Program and actively contributes to AVI’s blog. You can find her other writings in Scientific American Mind, Spirituality & Health, and online at stephanisutherland.com.