The Power of Yoga

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the right and left hemispheres of the brain (as you do).

So first of all, what are these? I saw an incredible Ted X the other day by brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor. In it, she talks about studying her stroke from the inside out, while she was having it. The embolism was in the L side so she experiences what it is like to live only from the R side, for a few minutes as a time. She describes it as ‘euphoric’, where all the emotional baggage, thoughts, stress and concept of separateness from any one or anything completely falls away. She saw the potential for what the world could be like if people could learn to use this side more, overwriting, the L, ‘me me me’ hemisphere, which priorities ‘getting things done’ systems, and processes*, and thinking thinking thinking.

She brought onto the stage a real human brain (!) and, I had never realised quite how separate the L & R hemispheres are. You can literally hold one in each hand (as she did), and they are linked only by the corpus callosum (a large bundle of nerve fibres).

Rainforest of Borneo

The two parts are sometimes described as the rational (L) and primitive (R) parts of the brain. Or as Jill described in computer processing terms – serial processor (L) and parallel processor. (R). I’m no techy but I think that means with the L side everything goes through the system, top down, whereas R side you are feeling your way out, 360 degrees around you. Taking in information from all your senses, and building up a picture of your experience right now, in this moment. The L side is all about the past and the future. The R is what is happening in my experience right now. This is what mindfulness and meditation ask us to do – bring our awareness into the present and focus on our breath, or our thoughts – be more aware of now, instead what happened yesterday, what you’re having for dinner later etc. In his recent film, Tawai, Bruce Parry explores how the Penan tribe in Borneo use the R side – hunting, watching out for the signals of birds and trees, connected to the earth and each other in a relationships based on mutual respect, sharing and love.

So, where does yoga fit in?

Well, this is what I’m aiming to do with yoga. Asking people to notice, to send tendrils of awareness out all around them. How does it feel? Where are you placing your body in space? What does the air feel like on your skin? Notice the contact of your feet with the ground. This is all the right side of the brain. More awareness of how everything fits together – seeing life as a whole, not cut up into parts. Everything affects everything and everything is affected.

This is different to L side / sequencing actions in a big way. If I ask you to notice the contact of the souls of your feet on the ground –that’s where your awareness goes.There are no thoughts about what to buy for lunch, or an email you need to send (well, maybe there are – but this gets easier with time!), because your focus on concentrated on the sensations you are feeling. Your skin is a living, breathing organ – and you are using it as an organism of awareness. If I say to you place your feet 3 inches apart, lift your arms to shoulder height, turn your neck 45 degrees to the left: – you are in your left side of the brain. Sequencing – this, then that, then this. Doing what you need to do to get somewhere. Separating you and your place in the world into parts. Yes, you’re being efficient – you’re getting something done. And this is why that side has evolved so extensively, with so much emphasis put on its worth. But, you are unaware of the subtleties of life, the bigger picture, how it all fits together, and how we all exist as a part of nature.

That’s not to say my classes don’t include any of this – of course they do. You need to protect everyone’s safety, and sometimes people feel more comfortable with ‘proper instructions’, especially to begin with.

But, with time, yoga can be a real moving mediation. Mindfulness for the body and mind. In fact, there is thinking now that physical practices like yoga, can sometimes be more helpful to people than the traditional mindfulness meditation or techniques, as it’s using the intelligence of the body.

‘ Psychomotor therapies, which bypass the rational brain and tap into the primitive, could be the way forward. Yoga, dance, qigong, and voice work are just some of the physical practices that can reach the primitive brain to heal trauma where it is deeply embedded in our physiology. This then opens the way for the healing process of mindfulness to take place.’

Uplift Connect article on The Body Keeps Score, by Clinical psychiatrist, Bessel Van der Kolk,

For me, sharing yoga in this way is really where the magic lies. How often do we give ourselves permission to just – stop! Listen, feel, hear, taste the present moment. Move, breathe and cultivate compassion for yourself, and the others around you. No judgement, no competition, just awareness and acceptance of the yourself, and others, in this – the present moment. You are perfect and whole, just as you are.

This goes so much further than the yoga mat. As one of my students put it ‘It’s not just yoga, it’s skills for life’.

*NB – I am no brain scientist, this is just how I understand it.

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