Can yoga help reduce the stress that makes you look and feel older than your years? Does yoga help elevate your mood and make you mentally sharper? Will meditation enhance your spiritual outlook or give you a sense of peace and calm? As a Harvard neuroscientist and a yoga practitioner for more than 40 years, I’m pleased to tell you the answers are a resounding “yes.” As nearly everyone knows, life can be stressful—and it’s only getting worse. In the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey, nearly half of the more than 1,000 respondents reported having more stress in their lives than in the past five years.
Is avoiding all stress possible? Not really. But we can learn ways to reduce or manage our perceived stress and related anxiety through yoga and other contemplative mind-body practices, which have been scientifically proven to change our brain behavior and chemistry and, thereby, reduce our stress. Although there are a few prescription medications that have been used for stress, practicing yoga and meditation are simple and much more desirable ways to cope with stress because they address the root of the problem and do so without any negative side effects – in fact, they often have a few positive side effects.
In this book, you will learn how yoga helps build a resilience to stress so you are able to accept it, deal with it, and get on with your life. After brief sessions only 10- to 15- minute long, you will start noticing positive physical and mental changes. If you practice regularly, you will experience positive changes in both your body and your attitudes and perceptions, which will support you in moving towards a healthier lifestyle. I will explain why yoga helps us get a deeper, more restorative sleep, which is crucial to keeping our minds and bodies vigorous as we age. When you add proper nutrition and physical exercise to this equation, all this can lead to life-altering behavior and improved mental and physical fitness.
And while yoga helps rejuvenate our bodies and minds, you can also benefit from an elevation of mood, quality of life and even a deeper sense of spirituality. Practicing yoga ultimately allows you to perceive the world in a more relaxed, non-judgmental, positive way, countering the stress reactivity that sends your nervous system into overdrive. Yoga might not literally be a fountain of youth, but it can lead to a transformative experience that will improve your quality of life, your sense of well-being and your outlook on life.
YOUR BRAIN ON YOGA will explain how yoga and meditation can change your brain and, thereby, your life. The way you think about yoga probably depends on your age. In the sixties, yoga was linked to the counterculture and to experimenting musicians like the Beatles. Those who were born in the seventies and beyond will likely picture Madonna’s “yoga arms” and soccer moms—their lithe and Lululemon™-clad bodies twisting into seemingly impossible positions.
But yoga is far more than the images we see in the media. In fact, at its very essence, it encompasses a range of practices, from sitting quietly to a sweat-producing, heart-pumping physical exercise. But you don’t need to begin a yoga practice with the goal of performing gravity-defying positions. The word yoga is translated from the Sanskrit word “yug” or “yuj,” which means “to yoke” or “union” and traditional yoga practice had the goal of achieving a unitive state of mind in which there is balance between mind and body.
If you are new to yoga, you will find many different types to choose from, (I will describe the most popular practices and advise on selecting the one that is right for you in Chapter TK). But all traditional or classical yoga involves not only physical postures and exercises, but also breath control techniques, deep relaxation techniques, meditation and concentration practices, and the cultivation of mindfulness or awareness. For centuries yogis and saints have understood the mind-body connection, and now today’s scientists are realizing its potential within medicine. To some traditional Western physicians, yoga is just another type of workout to be taught at gyms around the country along with spinning and aerobics. But yoga is far more than that.
This book will reveal compelling neuroscientific evidence that demonstrates the variety of ways yoga can change your brain, including brain activity, biochemical and even structural changes. Brain scans (fMRIs), which show pictures of our neural patterns, have demonstrated the positive changes that take place in the brains of people who practice meditation. These neural imaging studies reveal how regions of the brain that are responsible for such fundamental human traits as attention, body awareness, higher-level cognitive function and self-perception grow and become stronger — in some cases the transformation occurs immediately.
Neuroscientists are only beginning to understand yoga’s role in preventive medicine, and its ability to treat a range of maladies. I will tell you about some of the groundbreaking studies that I am conducting at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School and other research institutions, some of which are funded by the National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Many ongoing yoga research studies internationally are examining yoga’s role in improving mood, reducing perceived stress, decreasing heart rate and blood pressure, increasing lung capacity, improving muscle relaxation and body composition, and helping treat conditions, including anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
My Scientific and Spiritual Journey
Although I am a member of the Sikh faith that has its origins in India, I am not of Indian descent or ethnicity, nor did I grow up practicing yoga. My journey with yoga started in the early seventies while I was an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in Canada. During that time in my life I was deeply interested in transcendental states of consciousness. I was particularly influenced by the book The Master Game: Beyond the Drug Experience by Robert S. de Ropp, a biochemist who wrote about realizing human potential through contemplative practices such as yoga. De Ropp’s book was in part a reaction to the mind-expanding quests of people like Timothy Leary, who experimented with LSD. But rather than supporting the idea of using hallucinogenic agents, The Master Game introduced the idea of practices such as meditation and yoga to more safely and effectively alter one’s state of consciousness. I continued to read literature on contemplative practices and spiritual development, including books on meditation and yoga. I discovered that yoga was a discipline that worked holistically on many levels, not just meditation for the cultivation of mindfulness/awareness, but also practice of physical postures and exercises, deep relaxation techniques, breathing techniques, and even recommendations for a healthful diet, and changing one’s relationships and behavior.
I finally reached a point in my understanding when I realized it was time to stop reading and start doing. I happened to walk into a student lounge where a few friends were talking about a new yoga course being offered for credit at the University; and the synchronicity was too good to ignore. I went to my first yoga class, where the teacher was instructing in the style of Kundalini Yoga, as taught by Yogi Bhajan – and I never looked back. I continue to practice Kundalini Yoga today, which is one of the more contemplative and meditative forms of yoga with a strong focus on cultivating one’s inner development, awareness/mindfulness, and creative spiritual potential that incorporates the full range of practices in traditional yoga.
The more I practiced Kundalini Yoga, the more I gravitated to the yoga ashram (the spiritual community of Kundalini Yoga students and teachers) in Toronto, to engage in classes and in weekend workshops. My transformation of mind and spirit did not occur overnight. As young as I was, it took a number of classes before I could fold my legs properly and get more deeply into the meditation practices.
There were no dramatic revelations or fantastic experiences as I began my practice. The yoga simply uplifted and resonated with me on a deeper level. As I gradually became a part of the ashram community, I could see how yoga was positively affecting my life and my fellow yogis. I knew in my heart that it was something I wanted to commit to, so I joined the ashram community in 1973 and I’ve been fully involved in the yoga lifestyle ever since.
After receiving my undergraduate science degree, I left academics to work full time as a member of the yoga ashrams in Canada working with community businesses both practicing and teaching yoga. Eventually my passion for science reemerged, and I was strongly attracted to the idea of conducting research on the psychophysiology of yoga and how these practices create such real and positive changes in people’s lives.
It was clear that in order realize my dream I would first need a doctorate in conventional physiology and neuroscience (there were very few labs doing research on yoga and meditation at the time). After completing my Ph.D., I inquired about a post-doctoral fellowship with Herbert Benson, M.D., the well-known meditation researcher and founder of the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard Medical School, who was one of the very few consistently engaged in meditation research, although he did not have funding to support a post-doctoral researcher. So for the next decade, I took a post-doctoral position at the University of Virginia studying circadian rhythms and sleep, followed by five years of post-doctoral research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School.
While this was fascinating and rewarding research, my ultimate goal was to align my research with my interest in yoga. In the late nineties, the academic medical world had become increasingly accepting of alternative medicine practices. As a result, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) came into being within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and began offering research grant opportunities. I submitted an application for a research career award for a study of the efficacy of yoga for the treatment of chronic insomnia—and was fortunate enough to get it. This grant finally allowed me to begin my yoga research career in earnest and at long last (a full 25 years later) my dream finally came true.
I am currently an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a neuroscientist at the Harvard–affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. My research focuses on the clinical effectiveness of yoga and meditation techniques on a variety of disorders, including insomnia, anxiety, depression, chronic stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among others, although I have now become very deeply interested in evaluating the efficacy of yoga in school settings with children and adolescents for both mental and physical health and prevention.
I am also the director of research at the Kundalini Research Institute and the research director at the Institute for Extraordinary Living at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, MA. I have developed strong associations with yoga researchers internationally, especially in India, and I work closely with the International Association of Yoga Therapists in facilitating yoga research through yoga research conferences. I am also leading an elective course in mind-body medicine at Harvard Medical School. Coincidentally, Dr. Benson is now a close colleague who participates in this course and I am also directly involved in a research study with him as a coinvestigator, so I have come full circle.
I think it is important to address some of the recent press about the dangers of yoga that came out in a book by William Broad in an excerpt which appeared in a New York Times entitled “Yoga can Wreck your Body.” Can yoga hurt you? Yes, but like any activity it depends very strongly on how you are practicing it and what your physical and mental conditions are. Can it kill you? Not very likely. What has been left out of this sensationalizing article is the issue of relative risk of yoga compared to other life activities. Every life activity has risk associated with it. Examples are easy to find. Anyone walking is at risk of being hit by an automobile and being injured and even being killed. In fact, in 2009 the NHTSA put the number of pedestrians killed at over 4,000. Therefore, the relative risk of walking, which we consider a safe and benign activity, is in fact much higher than that of practicing yoga.
Consider whether a newspaper would be willing to publish an article entitled ‘Walking Can Kill You’. We can take this comparison further. What is more dangerous: practicing yoga several times a week or sitting on the couch every day in front of the TV eating junk food? Obviously, inactivity and poor nutrition will put you at greater risk of getting sick or dying from cardiovascular disease. Conversely, yoga will actually reduce the risk factors for such lifestyle diseases. If you practice yoga incorrectly, you might injure yourself. But it’s a lot safer, I submit, than many other physical activities such as jogging, contact sports, or skiing, which are higher impact activities with higher risks for injuries. With the growing popularity of yoga, it is inevitable that there will be yoga teachers who are not as well-qualified as they should be. This can be particularly problematic for yoga students who have preexisting medical conditions or limitations. Furthermore, not everyone practicing yoga exercises common sense. If you have a pre-existing condition or just want to be safe, consult your doctor before practicing yoga or any new activity. Yoga is not meant to be a competitive sport. The aim of yoga is not to lunge or bend deeper than the person next to you. The goal is to enhance your own mind and body within your own reasonable and individual limits. Always be aware of discomfort and pain and stop or step it back if you feel that going too far is going to hurt you. Use your common sense and stop or change what you’re doing whenever you are in pain.
I hope that the scientific and anecdotal evidence in YOUR BRAIN ON YOGA will help build the case for yoga and meditative techniques becoming an integral part of our culture which, arguably, is already happening if you consider that some reports suggest that one in ten people now practice yoga in the United States. Moreover, my hope is that yoga and meditation will soon be incorporated into our medical and educational systems. Yoga is not a simply a hobby or a sport, nor is it a religion, nor can its benefits be dismissed as a placebo. My life’s work and that of many others has begun to show that there is a real biological response that occurs when you practice yoga and that there is scientific evidence that a “yoga brain” and “yoga body” functions not just differently, but better than other brains and bodies. I promise that if you follow the simple instructions outlined in this book, including the meditations and yoga poses, you can have less stress, less illness, and lead a calmer, more fulfilling life. To all of you who are reading this e-book—namaste (I bow to you) and Sat Nam (truth is my identity).
Chapter 1: Your Brain on Stress
Artist Sigrid Olsen, began doing yoga in the seventies, but took a 25-year hiatus to raise two children and run a highly successful fashion design company. “I want to say I didn’t have time to do yoga, but the truth is I just didn’t make time for it,” admits Sigrid, now 58. She describes how she was forced to put the brakes on her on her career after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. She took a 30-day leave of absence to convalesce before plunging back into her work. “It was the first time I had taken more than a week off in 20 years,” Sigrid says of her frenetic lifestyle. “I thought I was happy, but wasn’t paying attention to how I felt on the inside. I felt exhausted by the end of day.” Three years later, the other shoe dropped when she lost her business and, with it, a huge part of her identity. “When my business closed, I suddenly had all this time on my hands and had to figure out who I was again. I didn’t want to wallow in self-pity, regret or anger. I went through the common stages of grieving because losing my clothing business was like losing a loved one.”
Sigrid briefly took Pilates to help regain her upper body mobility after having a bilateral mastectomy, before returning to yoga. “A few months after my business went under, my husband and I went to Mexico on a yoga retreat,” she recalls. “We spent a few weeks doing yoga every day, just walking and meditating and peeling away the layers of stress that had built up over the years. That brought me back to a much more open, less complicated way of living in the world. I used to wake up every day feeling frustrated that I didn’t have control over my day. Plus, I was working my body to the bone without replenishing it, which I believe makes us susceptible to disease. I realize now that there has to be a balance in order to lead a healthier and happier life.”
Today, Sigrid operates a thriving art store in Sarasota, Florida, where she does yoga and meditation 5 or 6 days a week and continues to go on yoga retreats. “I prefer classes that are challenging, but also understand that postures are simply a method for quieting the mind and getting in touch with your breathing in order to meditate. That’s what yoga is about for me. The extra benefits are building muscle strength and stamina, which is especially great for women. I have the usual aches and pains of middle age, but I feel like my body, mind and spirit are in alignment. Now, when I’m presented with conflicts, whether it’s my business or family, I have learned to be patient and to let the universe take its course. Stress comes up in life every day, but you don’t have to let it keep you awake at night or put your stomach in knots.”
The Toll of Stress
Much like Sigrid’s experiences, studies show that Americans struggle to balance work and homelife and to make time to engage in healthy behavior, including exercise. As a result, stress not only takes a toll on our emotional and mental well-being, but also affects our physical health in a variety of ways. According to the 2010 American Psychological Association’s “Stress inAmerica” survey, Americans say their stress levels remain high and exceed what they consider to be healthy. Out of the more than 1,000 people surveyed adults 18 and over appear to understand the importance of healthy behaviors such as eating right and getting enough sleep and exercise, but they say that everyday life challenges stop them from putting these behaviors into action. Most report that they are “too busy to manage stress” or lack the “motivation, energy or time” to be active.
Of course, stress is not just an American problem. According to the International Labor Organization, approximately a third of the workforce in developed countries, and possibly a higher proportion in newly industrialized nations, suffer from work-related stress—a figure that seems to be on the rise.
Wherever you live and whatever you do for a living, it’s important to understand that there are different types of stress. If you feel overwhelmed, prone to outbursts, and incapable of handling your life, you are not successfully managing your stress. This kind of chronic and unmanaged perceived stress increases your risk for anxiety and depression, as well as medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, hypertension and heart disease.
And though unmanaged chronic stress is a risk factor that can cause or exacerbate health problems, there is also stress that is positive and important. You can have a stress response on your wedding day, for example, or when your child is born. Riding a roller coaster can be horribly stressful if you’re over 50, but it’s a good stress if you are a 16-year-old. Some stress is negative and some is positive—it depends on how you manage and perceive it.
Many people believe that life would be better if we eliminated stress entirely, but as a neuroscientist I can tell you that we actually need some stress in our lives to keep our brains engaged. Let’s say you are stranded on an island with nothing to do. The boredom will likely drive you crazy. If life isn’t challenging it ceases to be fun and engaging. The critical issue is our perception and relationship to the stressors or challenges in our life, which determines how we will react to and cope with these stressors. What we’re really concerned about is distress, chronic stress, and unmanaged stress. And what yoga and meditation can do is to facilitate a change in your perception of the stress in your life and provide you with effective skills to cope with it. In fact, these skills may even allow you effectively manage more stress so you can take on additional challenges in your life.
Yogis and scientists like me have discovered that, in addition to being a great physical exercise, yoga and meditation are one of the best antidotes to the stress of modern living. I won’t go as far as saying it is a fountain of youth (although people who practice yoga may tend to look and feel younger than their actual age), but I will say it is fountain of calm and equanimity.