asana and the brain: the inside story

Monday, June 13th, 2011

I recently participated in a class at the Iyengar Institute in NYC which focused on alignment in all poses and anatomically precise terms to convey it. B.K.S. Iyengar pioneered the use of props as learning tools and the use of yoga as a therapeutic tool. His discoveries provided evidence of yoga’s power to deal with a host of maladies, and are recognized in the scientific and medical communities. The purpose of all Iyengar classes is to practice each asana by aligning and harmonizing the physical body and all the layers, or sheaths, of the subtle emotional, mental and spiritual body. This integration begins with awareness.

In class I often ask you to sense and feel an area in your body where you experience tension or resistance, to focus on that area by sending several breaths into that area, and to allow time for the minds signals to reach that area and allow it to release or ease up. This marriage between awareness of the body and that of the mind is the only way to create conscious movement and more action in the body. Yoga teaches us how to infuse our movement with intelligence, transforming it into action. This gives us the ability to question whether a movement is right or wrong, and what we can do to change it.

Following the class I went uptown to the Museum of Natural History to experience the exhibit, BRAIN: The Inside Story. It described how we sense the world around us. What are emotions, and why do we feel them? How we think, learn, plan, reason, and make decisions, and how our brains change over time. Visitors were able to look, listen, and touch to find out how the brain integrates the flood of information we receive from our senses. It explained the importance of the billions of neurons in our bodies and how some messages shoot through the nervous system faster than others. The focus of the exhibit was on intelligence and perception taking place exclusively in our brains. However, in yoga, with increased awareness, your body may send a signal from your hip to your brain in 10-20 milliseconds, letting your brain know that your hip is tight. Another signal reaches your hip a few milliseconds later, telling you to relax that area. Although, the brain moves faster than the body, according to B.K.S. Iyengar, “we must learn to move the brain a bit more slowly so that it follows the body, or you have to make the body move faster to match the intelligence of the brain. The brain must be willing to listen to the body and see what is reasonable and prudent within the body’s capacity. The moment you loose the feeling in the skin, the asana becomes dull and the flow or current of the intelligence is lost. This sensitive awareness of the body and the intelligence of the brain and heart should be in harmony. The brain does not know everything. If the brain receives knowledge from the body, it will be able to increase the intelligence of the body later. In this way, the body and the brain begin working together to master the asana.”

We think of intelligence and perception as taking place exclusively in our brains, but yoga teaches us that awareness and intelligence must permeate the body. Each part of the body literally has to be engulfed by the intelligence. Yoga is about communication and contact of all the threads and fibers of our being at every level. Let the body be the doer, the brain the observer. The duty of the brain is to receive knowledge from the body and then guide the body to further refine the action.
In each asana ask yourself, ‘What am I doing?” and “Why am I doing it?” This opens the mind and allows us to develop our self-awareness.

“Awareness brings life. Life is dynamic, and so therefore the asanas should also be.”
–B.K.S. Iyengar

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"I just wanted to say thank you and let you know that I really enjoyed your class. As I mentioned to you, this was my first yoga class, and I really did not know what to expect. Although I was sore the next day, I can feel that my body is beginning to get stronger and more flexible. The breathing exercises have helped me feel better as well. Every time I get stressed out by something or someone, I always think of your class, and am better able to handle the situation. You are a very caring and kind person, and I am glad that I attended your class. Thanks again for all your inspiration, encouragement, and compassion." Linda W.