Yoga and neuroplasticity. Oh, and saving humanity.
When I was a kid and my parents wanted to have a “talk,” that meant something bad was about to happen. Usually I had done something thoughtless like forget to clean the birdcage, left a mess the basement, or hurt my sister’s feelings.
“Rachel!” a voice would shout up the stairs, “Did you leave the lawn mower outside?”
“Uhhhhh….” I would cringe, reading a Star Trek book in my room.
“It’s raining out! It could get ruined.”
“Ummm, not sure…maybe?”
A big sigh, “Let’s have a talk.”
I was a sensitive kid, so having a “talk” became cross-wired in my brain with an irrational, gut-level fear of my parents not loving me anymore. As an adult, those old habits from childhood still want to run the show. When a partner or good friend gets that serious tone and wants to have a “talk,” I still experience a stabbing fear and self-criticism that easily spirals into anxiety. Several relationships have even ended because I couldn’t figure out how to get past this fear of communicating about complex emotional issues. So, how do we change these old, ingrained habits? Yoga In the yoga sutras, Patanjali says that our practice must be “consistent, devoted, and for a long time.”
1.14 Sa Tu Dirgha Kala Nairantarya Satkarasevito Drdhabhumih
Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break, and in all earnestness.
“Take practice and all is coming.”
– Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga luminary
About six months ago, I started practicing Ashtanga again. Ashtanga is a set series of poses that are done again and again, day in and day out. I began very modestly, only practicing for about forty-five minutes when I began. My teachers would observe me, offer occasional insight, and sometimes add poses to the series as I was ready. However, from one day to the next, no remarkable change occurred, and my practice seemed to vary very little.
Six months later, though, the culmination of this consistent practice has yielded a remarkable transformation. However, this change is only visible through the lens of time. In our instant gratification society, I want to see results now and it’s easy to forget that change – real change – takes a long time. In fact, change may be imperceptible until we learn to trust the process and stay in the game for months, years, and decades.
As within, so without.
The physical yoga practice provides a mirror in which we can witness our capacity for radical change through slow and consistent efforts over time. Neuroscience has revealed that – like our bodies – our minds are plastic and adaptable, and our synapses can become re-wired. Re-wiring our brains is often extremely and strangely uncomfortable. (Trying to give up my morning coffee is excruciating!) Because real change requires time, we don’t get our usual hit of instant gratification. Also, although emotional and mental change is the deepest kind of change-work we can do, it is not tangible or particularly visible from the outside. To persevere, we must cultivate shraddha, or faith. In moments of doubt, our physical practice is a reminder that our dedicated and patient efforts can’t help but move us towards becoming the people that we want to be.
And world peace
Now consider the effect of evolutionary biology; if we think our childhood patterns are entrenched, just imagine the tenacity of the survival tactics that have evolved over millions of years! Although our technology has evolved radically, our old neurology (fear of the “other,” fighting for resources, showing no weakness) is still running the show, albeit beneath our veneer of civility. We can clearly see these drives propelling the dynamics of world politics, overfishing, racism, global warming, and materialism.
But take heart, fellow yogis. Look through the longer lens and remember how far we’ve already come. In the last one hundred years, women can vote, we are beginning to embrace diversity, and gay marriage is slowly becoming legalized. We acknowledge global warming, and we are questioning how we consume and relate to the planet. While we may not see it in our lifetimes, our slow efforts to mindfully evolve will eventually transform the world and how we live. The next step in our evolution as a species must be a continuation of our baby steps into conscious awareness, proactive learning, and a diligent re-education of our minds. We have to move faster than our prescribed evolutionary biology, and consciously step into our conscious power to transform. We have become the stewards of our world, and we must use our power responsibly. The next step in evolution is not biological – we don’t have time to wait. Our next evolutionary step as a species will be self-directed. And it begins with each of us being willing to step with faith and courage into our discomfort and make the small, daily choices that reveal us to be the best that we can be.
Change won’t be fast. But through dedication, effort, and consistency, we can – and will – get there. And it starts right now.
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
― Mahatma Gandhi