As we get older we start forgetting simple things like, “Why did I come into this room?” “Where are my keys?” or “What was her name again?” It can be very disturbing as it happens more and more often.
What’s even more disturbing is when it happens in your earlier years, your 20’s and 30’s. Our world is becoming so chaotic and over stimulated that this is happening more and more. Not only do we do too many things at one time, but we do so much unconsciously.
Mindfulness is a practice that is rarely used in our day-to-day activities. We yogis are mindful during our asana practice, but do we (or can we) take this practice off the mat? Can you be more mindful while driving, doing dishes, listening, etc?
Can yoga and meditation help stave off age-related declines in memory, concentration, and information processing? Can it improve the ability to regulate thoughts and emotions? Groundbreaking new research exploring the interface of yoga, meditation, and brain science suggests that this may indeed be possible.
For nearly a century, scientists believed that the trillions of brain cells that you’re born with are pruned and eventually die, resulting in a slow and inevitable decline. 21st century brain research has debunked this myth by demonstrating the brain’s phenomenal ability to change itself. New studies even suggest yoga and meditation may help to keep your mind healthy and sharp.
The landmark book, The Brain That Changes Itself, revolutionized the way that we think about how the brain works and its capacity for change. It demonstrates and explains scientific and real life stories of how the brain can rewire itself in the case of severe injury or illness, and can improve itself at any age. More and more studies provide evidence that this is indeed true – the brain does not progressively deteriorate – it has the capacity for tremendous transformation.
As Sharon Begley remarked in her book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, the discovery of the brain’s ability to generate new neurons (brain cells) “overturned generations of conventional wisdom in neuroscience. The human brain is not limited to the neurons it is born with, or even the neurons that fill in after the explosion of brain development in early childhood.” This is great news.
Ongoing research shows that connections between brain cells continue to be formed at any age when we learn new skills. These links become increasingly strong, powerful and efficient with practice and repetition.
This helps to explain why performing certain yoga poses, learning a new language or skill, or playing a musical instrument becomes easier with repeated practice. The brain creates stronger and more enduring connections or networks of brain cells that are responsible for performing the functions necessary to help you to learn something new.
There is some truth to the adage, “use it or lose it.” It isn’t realistic to expect a brain, or any other living structure, to thrive on a diet of poor food, inactivity, and no stimulation. The good news is, brains are malleable at all ages, and it is never too late to find new sources of stimulation.
Yoga and meditation provide the ideal vehicle for stimulating the brain’s ability to recreate itself. As Gabriel Axel eloquently writes in his recent article, Why Your Brain Loves Yoga, “Yoga starts as the process of harnessing the brain’s capacities and naturally evolves into the art of living well. As negative habits, patterns, and influences within ourselves and from the outside are progressively dropped in favor of more sustainable ones, yoga can become a way of life. The principles of yogic science and brain science mesh together to create a blueprint for transformation.”
Scientific research confirms the link between yoga and healthy brain function. In their book, Your Brain on Yoga, Sat Bir Khalsa and Jodie Gould review the encouraging evidence that yoga and meditation strongly influence brain transformation. Their work suggests that these practices can help to stave off age-related decline by improving memory, attention, concentration, motor speed, information processing and the ability to regulate thoughts and emotions.
One such study has revealed that long-term meditators show increases in the thickness of their cerebral cortex, a structure that plays a pivotal role in thought, language, memory and awareness.
This can also apply to people new to meditation. Recent studies show that structural changes in the brain can occur in as little as eight weeks following participation in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program of 20 minutes of meditation a day.
So let’s get on our cushions!