Home' Nova West : May 2011 Contents develop mindfulness.
A much bandied about term in many
circles, “mindfulness” is at the heart of
most meditation including yoga. It has
been Buddhism that science has really
engaged with perhaps because of its
philosophy of personal enquiry and the
lack of requirement for a belief in God.
have closely interwoven histories and
techniques. The research findings from
Buddhist meditation or the modern
version, MBSR, (Mindfulness Based Stress
Reduction), can be applied to yoga as well.
Indeed, the field of yoga research is also
expanding exponentially as academics seek
explanations of the shift in consciousness
yoga practitioners experience and describe.
Positive psychology is interested in the
outliers, the “happy for no good reason”
monks and yogis.
Simple breath awareness has been
shown to increase gamma waves in the
brain, immediately inducing a positive
cascade of neurotransmitters. It is not so
difficult to access bliss after all.
We are equally well programmed to
experience happiness and contentment
as we are anxiety and depression. It is
through repetition that we begin to feel
we have no choice any more; the neural
pathways are easily triggered so that the
smallest of disappointments can feel like
major depression. The reverse is also
true. If we tune our mental default
position to optimism, the smallest aspects
of beauty can light up the pleasure
centres of the brain. We actually do have
freedom to choose how we feel.
Feeling happy has more benefits
than simply feeling good. It also helps
us achieve our goals. Four year olds were
motivated to feel happy by being asked
to think of their happiest memory. They
were then invited to build with blocks.
The children in the control group who
had not activated a positive memory first
build fine structures, but the children
whose brains had been primed with feel
good hormones and neurotransmitters
displayed greater focus, creativity and
speed in their constructions.
A similar experiment was done
with doctors. The researchers thought
these would be the most analytical, least
emotion motivated group of people to
study. Yet when one group was offered
candy (but didn’t eat it), one group was
not offered anything before the test,
and a third group was asked to read
through medical journals before the test,
the differences support the idea that
happiness helps us do everything better.
The test for the doctors was about
diagnosis making. They had to go
through cases quickly and make their best
diagnostic attempts. The happiest group
displayed the most intellectual flexibility
and were the most accurate. It seems
that your baseline emotion can influence
how well you do in many areas of life.
Since psychologist Donald Hebbs’
“neurons that fire
together, wire together” way back in 1949,
lay people, meditators and researchers
have come to accept the neuroplasticity of
the brain. Initially, it was thought that our
ability to lay down new neural pathways
ended in childhood, then adolescence.
Now we know that lifelong learning is
possible and although it can be challenging
to change a “hard wired” response, we
do have conscious control over where
our minds go. The familiar tracks of our
thought patterns are termed “neural
attractors”. They are a sort of mental
shorthand that allows us to do many things
on autopilot. They help us make sense
of things which are similar but slightly
different, like recognising words in various
fonts or handwriting when reading. We
skim a little because we know what to
expect. The more we have practised, the
easier it becomes.
However these shortcuts also go into
action when we have a repeated negative
emotion, thought or experience. In fact,
one strong negative emotion such as anger,
leaves us primed to blow up at the next
little thing that annoys us. The challenge
for yoga practitioners and anyone who
seeks mastery of their own mind, is to
circumvent the “easy ” response and
Contentment is one of the guiding
principles of a yogi’s inner life.
In Sanskrit it is santosa, the state
of acceptance of what is present.
Contentment means being happy with
things received unasked for, a feeling of
ungrudging acceptance and cheerfulness.
In a world where material desires
dominate, it is a rare and peaceful state of
Many ancient traditions including yoga
have long held that simple techniques
of awareness, reflection, contemplation,
visualisation and meditation could bring
us to such a contented state of being.
Those techniques have become the focus
of much research in the last 20 years.
Suddenly, everyone wants to know how
to be happy. The repercussions of lost
security from financial crises and natural
disaster may be renewing people’s quest
to sustain their happiness from within.
It looks as if humanity’s love of chasing
after more and more ephemeral “stuff ”
could be turning sour.
Neuroscience is the latest discipline
to attempt to explain the mechanics of
what yogis and contemplatives have
known about contentment for millennia.
As scientific enquiry has evolved, it is
neuroscience’s unique multidisciplinary
appeal that has brought deeper
understanding of our states of mind.
Blending anatomy and physiology with
psychology, it utilises the latest scanning
technology to identify the physiological
changes different states of mind bring to
the structures of the brain.
20 © NOVA MAY 2011
So how can we access these positive
pathways in the brain? What is it that
makes us optimistic and can we learn it
at any age? Overwhelmingly, the research
in neuroscience is saying yes. Anyone
can learn to meditate; there are no
prerequisites. With or without a physical
practice, there is a form of yoga accessible
to virtually everyone. Seated in a chair,
lying down, or moving the body into
postures, the possibility is available
to breathe with awareness, to feel the
sensations in the body and to observe the
present moment without judgment.
Like anything worth having, it takes
some effort at first. The brain/mind well
versed in mental chatter, faultfinding
and analysis has some deeply ingrained
neural pathways. So the power of breath
awareness can be supported with
autosuggestion or self talk. Some
methods use mantras, in the language of
the practitioner or in Sanskrit – they are
more than a positive affirmation, they are
the road builders of the brain. New areas
light up when people attempt meditative
techniques. Highly adept practitioners
can enter that space instantly, whereas
beginners may take longer. Biofeedback
can help make clear to the observer
when the practitioner has found that
new groove, but most people are content
to simply feel the power of their own
Canadian researchers used MRI
(Magnetic Resonance Imaging) before and
after simple yoga practices. They saw that
there were dramatic changes to the blood
flow through different areas of the brain.
This research is now being furthered to
assess whether yoga might help deliver
chemotherapy drugs more efficiently to
brain tumours. When it has been through
the necessary trials it could potentially
lead to oncologists advising patients to
do some yoga before treatment.
In relatively well people the shift in
consciousness from before practice to
after is health promoting. Not least it
can shift priorities from rumination and
worries to a more accepting and contented
feeling. Knowing that happiness increases
productivity, it’s a wonder all workplaces
don’t have inhouse yoga. For individuals
it can clearly help us achieve our goals.
And yet the urgency to achieve some
external gain is less intense, life seems less
pressurised, when we come back to our
own experience of simply breathing.
Taking even a few minutes a day to
become quiet and observe the breath
will alter the way we process everything
else that happens to us. No longer are
we stressed until we sleep and anxious as
soon as we awake with all the ensuing
cellular and relationship damage that goes
with it. Instead, we have unencumbered
tools to work with. We can structure our
minds the way we want them to be and
direct our consciousness to focus on the
things that matter to us. Along the way,
we might find that “things” don’t matter
much at all, and we are simply at peace
Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic
yoga teacher and naturopath
Contentment at the heart of yoga
is a powerful tool for health and
happiness. By Chandrika Gibson
ND M.Well (cand.)
‘Research is now being furthered to assess whether yoga might help
deliver chemotherapy drugs more efficiently to brain tumours.’
Web: www.suryahealth.com.au • Phone: 9404 5445
Experience the full potential of your wellness through
Naturopathy * Yoga * Counselling
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