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Can Yoga and Fitness Change Your Brain?

Updated: Nov 8, 2021

If you’ve attended one of my classes or follow my social media, you may have noticed that I often talk about yoga in terms of exploration and experimentation.


I believe that yoga (or any movement practice) is about exploring what is going on inside YOU. It is about self-study. Part of that exploration and that self-study in my mind, includes experimenting. Trying on different thoughts, different sensations, different emotions, even. Experimenting with what it might feel like to try something different, or to try something familiar, in a different way.


Dr. Dan Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, and author of many articles and books on the brain, mindfulness and neurobiology. Dr. Siegel tells us there are four ways that we can change our brain. He’s talking about neuroplasticity. If we can increase our brain’s neuroplasticity, we are increasing our ability to learn. Neuroplasticity can also help helps us increase resiliency, which is important in adapting and responding to the things that life throws our way and helps us avoid chronic illness or disease.


I like to use a mnemonic to help me remember the four ways we can change our brain: RAIN.

RAIN changes your brain!


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Repetition

Doing something over and over. Practicing. By the way, practice does not make perfect. Perfection is not the goal. Yoga practices are called practices because they are never perfected. Consistency, learning, growing, discovery; these are the goals. When we “practice” something, we do it over and over.


If I want to learn how to do a Sun Salutation, I need to learn the sequence, and practice each posture individually, and then together in the sequence. I need to go through it over and over, consistently over time until my body knows exactly what to do.


If I want to learn to swing a kettlebell, I need to learn the steps, the various parts of the swing. How to stand, how to pick up the kettlebell, how to initiate the swing, and what muscles and parts of my body need to work in order to do it safely. Again, I need to practice each part on its own and then together in a sequence until my body knows what to do.


Attention/Awareness

Doing whatever you are doing with focus. Being mindful. If you are folding laundry, just be folding laundry, not making your grocery list. Notice the smell of your fresh laundry, the feel of the fabrics. Notice the colors and textures as you fold each piece.


Being focused during your yoga postures or your kettlebell swings helps you engage your body. The muscles and joints work together to make the movement happen, and your attention helps ensure you use good form and do the movement in a way that won’t cause an injury.


You’ve probably heard a yoga teacher talk about awareness, or “listening to your body.” That’s because bringing awareness into our practice, and anything we do, helps us to be present, and to fully experience whatever it is we are doing or feeling or being. It strengthens the connection, the messages being sent from body to brain, and from brain to body.


It’s too easy to go through life disconnected from ourselves, our thoughts, and feelings, and from the sensations that our bodies are experiencing. By paying attention to sensations, emotions, feelings we become much more in tune with ourselves. We know what feels right for us. We know when something feels “off”.


Kristine Kaoverii Weber of Subtle Yoga MA, C-IAYT, eRYT500 is the found or Subtle Yoga, and is a leading world authority on the neuroscientific benefits of slow, mindful movement and an advocate for the use of these practices as a solution to the healthcare crisis. She's also one of my teachers. Kristine says, “when you know how you feel, you know who you are and you know what to do.”


If we can focus on how our body feels and responds in a certain yoga posture, we can change that posture to fit our body more completely. We can help our bodies get so much more from yoga postures by simply paying attention to what our body is telling us. The same is true if we focus our attention when we pick up that kettlebell and swing. If we are aware of what muscles are working, we can ensure we stay safe and get stronger.


Interoception - The ability to understand and interpret how our body is feeling, and to respond appropriately. If I feel tired, I rest. If I feel thirsty, I drink.


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Interest/Passion

Interest can help us change our brain. What is it about our practice that gives us that spark? Why do we enjoy it? What is it that holds our interest? The more passion or interest we have in something, the more we enjoy it, the more we are willing to repeat it, to experiment with it, and to explore it more deeply. What is your favorite exercise? I love kettlebell swings and TRX rows. Because I enjoy them, I want to do them, even if I’m feeling slightly less motivated that day, I get excited to pick up that bell or take a hold of that TRX. part of the reason I enjoy them is there are so many ways to work with them.


On my website, it says “Finding your yoga.” What I mean by that is, find out what yoga is for you. Explore what you like about it, observe what feels good for you and what doesn’t. Whatever direction your yoga practice or your fitness strategy takes, make it yours, use your passion and interest in it to cultivate a set of yoga practices and exercises that are exactly right for you.


Novelty

Doing the same thing, but in a new or different way.


Experimenting, changing things up gives the brain a challenge. We may do the exact same set of postures we always do because we like them, but if we experiment with how we do them, our brain participates more in the practice and responds. This “exercising” helps to strengthen the response “muscle” of the brain.


If you love the kettlebell swing, work with your coach to decide when you are ready to progress and learn new ways to do it. Examine what it is that gives you joy and do more of it. Play with it, explore it and experiment with it!


Certain movements, like cross-crawl type movements, like those that a baby first learns as they explore and experiment with how their body moves, can seem a bit confusing to us now as adults. But these types of movements in yoga and in our fitness practices can help us to cultivate awareness of our bodies and create a healthier connection with the body and the brain. These types of movements also help us to incorporate repetition and novelty into our practice.


Certain types of interoceptive breathing practices, using our awareness to help direct the flow of our breath, can also strengthen that connection between body and brain, building resilience. The same is true of meditation practices that incorporate sensations across the midline, and on both sides of the body.


Experimenting with different breathing and meditation practices lets us “try out” different sensations in the body and different thought streams. We get an opportunity to see how our body and our mind respond to these differences and we can grow our practice from there, all the while learning more about ourselves and who we are, and then, we know what to do.


So, experiment! Try your favorite pose or exercise in a different, but safe way. See how it feels in your body. Try different breathing practices – take note that some breathing practices or exercises (or progressions) may not be suitable for everyone.


Try meditating in different ways. If you always sit in the same position to meditate, change it up. Always be comfortable in meditation, but instead of sitting on a cushion, try sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, or lying down, or simply change the cross of your legs.


Observe! Notice what your body and your mind seem more drawn to. Notice how you feel during and after your practices.


Repeat! Create time on a regular basis for the practices that feel best for you, but also for experimenting with changing it up in some way. Studies show that practicing yoga or other movement practices with intention consistently, over time, changes the brain, strengthens the communication between body and brain, and decreases the likelihood of many chronic illnesses and diseases.


I hope this has given you something to think about. As with anything in yoga, in fitness and in life, take what you need, leave behind anything that doesn’t serve you. Explore, experiment, focus your awareness, and find your passion!


Adapted from a series of posts on Yoga and Life originally published in 2020 on https://lynnvanpattenyoga.com

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