Thinking (& Dreaming) Yoga: Integrating Left & Right Brains to Change the World.

Via on Mar 30, 2011

Back when I first stated taking yoga classes, I was preoccupied with whether I could meet the concrete physical challenges they presented.

Coming in feeling proud that I could touch my toes (having long considered this a note-worthy feat of flexibility), I’d experience some angst mixed with the thrill of a newly ambitious goal when instructed to do some previously unimagined variation such as Padahastasana (“hand-to-foot pose”: standing with feet covering upward facing palms, left over left and right over right.) And that’s what I thought it was all about. Could I “do it” – that is, achieve some particular physical posture – or not??

It’s funny for me to think back on those days. Because now when I get on my mat, I’m much more absorbed in working with my emotional and energetic bodies than in honing my physical practice per se. While I still try to learn new poses and believe that that’s a valuable process, nailing them is far from my primary aim. Instead, I’m much more immediately concerned with the psychological and spiritual dimensions of practice. The visible physical practice is the vehicle, but what really matters to me is invisible – at least to the untrained eye.

Just as I feel my own life force revitalized by asana practice, I have as a teacher “seen” students’ Prana visibly amplify. Which is a strange and wondrous and inspiring “sight” – a vision seen with some intuitive capacity of mind that I previously didn’t even know existed. But it’s also a difficult one to translate into the empiricist rigor and cultural limitations of words as I’m trying to do now – really, I’d have to be a poet to do it justice.

But that’s OK. Because even though I’m not a poet, I do value the process of translation – taking experiences processed through that non-verbal, extra-rational, intuitive right hemisphere of my brain and representing them through the medium of its linguistically structured, rational, analytic counterpart. Trying, in other words, to write in a more-or-less straightforward way about some of the more mysterious and esoteric dimensions of yoga.

In fact, I’ve come to see this kind of writing as part of my own personal practice. Because if yoga is about union, then doesn’t using all of our mental capacities – creating an integrated dialog between those left and right hemispheres – make perfect yogic sense? Sure, I’ve heard a lot of “turn off your mind” directives during my years in the yoga community. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to turn anything off. Process and drain off accumulated mental and emotional crap? Yes. But “turn off” the innate and incredible human capacity to think? No.

As I see it, yoga is not about turning any part of ourselves “off,” most certainly including our brains. Rather, it’s about learning to work with the multi-dimensionality of our minds and beings more adeptly and fluidly. Yes, I want to dial down the distracting thoughts and hopefully (eventually) root out all that negative internal chatter. But I also want to amp up both my ability to think and my capacity to intuit – sometimes serially, and other times more in tandem.

Through practicing yoga, I’ve gradually come to realize that our brains and the larger bodymind in which they’re embedded offer us much, much more to work with than we’ve been habituated to believe in our culture.

Before I got heavily into yoga, I was super-invested in learning via what we’d normally call “thinking” – but what might more accurately be called analytic rationality. So I spent a lot of time reading and studying, interviewing and analyzing, taking notes and writing outlines. Learning through asana, meditation, synchronicities, and dreams was most certainly not on the agenda.

And while I could certainly see that the “big questions” could not be answered that way (logically, if therefore ironically in line with what Kant called “the limits of practical reason”) – I didn’t have anything else in my life at that point to enable me to work in an alternative way. So I believed that questions that took us beyond the limits of rational consciousness (as we used to jokingly say in grad school, “why is there air and what’s the meaning of life”), put us squarely into the realm of either existentialism or religion.

We might hope and hazard that God would speak to us there – and there were periods in my life where I was convinced that He Did. But I also always remembered – and respected – the heart-felt anguish of a friend who confessed to me that while he wanted to believe in God, and wanted God to speak to him, he couldn’t and He Didn’t.

Now I’m not at all interested in pronouncing on any ultimate questions. Some of the people that I respect most are serious Christians. Others are nontraditional Buddhists, observant Jews, and/or Leftist intellectuals. Many are simply life-affirming souls who don’t necessarily care to grapple with vexing theological and/or existential issues. So if I’m committed to any religious/spiritual view, it’s that there are many paths up the mountain, that the mountain is a metaphor that resonates with us deeply even if we can’t categorize and explain it, and that those tracks have been forged in ways that confound all our culturally-bound categories of atheist, agnostic, or believer.

But what I think is so profoundly valuable about yoga and meditation is that they are accessible practices designed (among other things) to train our minds in ways that allow us to access both the left and right hemispheres of our brains – the rational and the extra-rational, the logical and the artistic, the analytic and the intuitive. This was not a skill that I was taught – or even led to believe might exist – in grad school.

Since the 2000s, however, there’s been a lot of interest in connecting Buddhist-based mindfulness practices with contemporary neuroscience. And there’s more and more empirical evidence coming out everyday that the claim that yoga and meditation can, in fact, “change your brain” is not some airy-fairy, woo woo, flaky New Age-y notion. The fact of the matter is that practiced properly, these methods work.

The Dalai Lama at MIT (Harvard University Press, 2008)

Which doesn’t necessarily mean that we get our ultimate questions answered on our mats and/or cushions. But it does mean that we have tools for working with the mind that are capable of bringing us to a state of consciousness that’s bigger than any such question/answer dichotomies allow. This is, I think, what the yogic tradition points to when teaching about Samadhi – a state of realization in which human consciousness becomes integrated into and one with all that is.

Now yoga traditionalists might insist that attaining (and remaining in) this state is the only true aim of yoga, but I don’t agree. While that may be the right aim for unique individuals, I don’t believe that there’s ever been a time in human history when such an absolutely ambitious goal made sense as a mass movement. And today, of course, we have millions and millions of people who practice yoga and meditation but are not devoted to Realization. On the contrary, they spend most of their time fully engaged in the super-demanding practicalities of everyday life.

Not to mention, of course, that most contemporary practitioners have most likely never even heard of Samadhi.

But if I disagree with those hard-core purists who might insist that if practitioners don’t set their sights that high, they’re not really practicing yoga, I do agree with them that most of us are setting our sights too low.

Once you move beyond the purely physical, essentially athletic dimensions of yoga, most of us today are in it for stress relief. Which is deeply, and often desperately needed, and shouldn’t be disparaged in any way. Yoga (and meditation) give millions a means of siphoning off stress in order to function in an increasingly psycho society. But surely we need to set our sights higher than this? Because if stress reduction is vital for coping, ultimately it would be much better to go beyond coping to positive change.

What about viewing yoga and meditation as practices that allow us to develop our human capacities to both reason and intuit – to value both science and spirituality – to care about teaching our children both math and art? What if we insisted that this is not some post-hippie flaky fantasy, but rather grounded in what some of our most sophisticated neuroscientists are discovering about the innate capacities of mind?

What if we got hard-headedly rational and insistent about the intrinsic value of our heart-felt, extra-rational experiences and revolutionized our world?

Because if there’s one thing that most people today can agree on, it’s that we need to radically change the dominant paradigm. And based on what I’ve learned through yoga, I believe that this might best be done by learning to equally develop and value the capacities of both sides of our brains.

Cross-posted on Think Body Electric.

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About Carol Horton

Carol Horton, Ph.D. is the author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism, (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body. With Roseanne Harvey, she is co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. Carol blogs at Think Body Electric, and enjoys social media via Facebook and Twitter.

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44 Responses to “Thinking (& Dreaming) Yoga: Integrating Left & Right Brains to Change the World.”

  1. MadTownYogi says:

    Thanks for the article, Carol. It's an approach my sangha, and others in Madison, are exploring. We practice under the guidance of amazing classically trained yogis as we follow (and participate in) the fascinating research of the neuroscientists at UW (www.investigatinghealthyminds.org). And we practice beside the scientists in yoga class! Such an adventure to explore both approaches, and so important to maintain a mindset of non-duality when doing so. It's not either/or; it's both/and. Soon we may be the most brain-balanced city in the Western hemisphere!

    • Linda Buzogany linda buzogany says:

      Hey MadTown yogi, I'm from Madison also, but in Colorado now for many years. Utilize the research from UW a ton and miss being so close to great resources (and a GREAT town!). Say hey to the lakes for me.

    • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

      Hey MadTown: Thanks for your reply & the link! It didn't work for me so I Googled it & came up with this one which I'm reposting for others to use if they wish: http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/. "Contemplative neuroscience" – wow! This sounds so cool – and I love that this Center is in Madison, too, and working with your Sangha. Growing up in the Chicago area in the 1970s my friends used to call Madison "the Mecca of the Midwest" . . . still true in some ways, I think . . . I myself will be making a pilgrimage there soon to do the Michael Stone workshop in May. If you are involved with that and/or interested in connecting further please follow up via e-mail (address available on my blog, linked to at bottom or this post or on profile) or via FB message. I'd really like to hear more about this connection between practitioners and UW, sounds fascinating, important, and in my opinion, cutting-edge.

  2. Love this essay, Carol. I've been fascinated and personally absorbed in this issue since my early 20s, when I was simultaneously a flamenco guitarist and studying to be a CPA. I felt a deep tension between the right side of my brain and the left.

    Luckily, about that time, I came across a book, new then but now famous, called, appropriately enough, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It covers the same issues as you pose above, with copious references to how all the philosophers in the past have weighed in.

    That helped me reconcile my own insides. But I'm still fascinated by right brain vs. left brain to this day, so I relished your essay, and look forward to the discussion.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

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  4. Kimberly Johnson kajyoga says:

    Carol,
    I love reading what you write.
    I do not resonate with the left/right brain dichotomy, because of a lot of neural plasticity research that shows this construct to be somewhat inaccurate.

    However I do resonate with a call to invite all aspects of ourselves to practice, and utilize the function of our bright mind as well as what you call the extrarational. It actually seems empowering and refreshing and as you mention a specific kind of practice to attempt to name the unattainable and engage the multiple dimensions of our intelligence.

    "It’s about learning to work with the multi-dimensionality of our minds and beings more adeptly and fluidly."

    I love what you say about asking too little. In addition to swaying towards being stress relief, I might add that physical therapy has been another demand placed on yoga that can limit the eventual outcome/scope.

    I also found this sentence:
    "While that may be the right aim for unique individuals, I don’t believe that there’s ever been a time in human history when such an absolutely ambitious goal made sense as a mass movement." provocative and I hadn't thought of it in that way.

    Thanks for this!

    • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

      Hi Kimberly – Great to hear from you! I must admit that my utilization of the L/R brain paradigm is based only on how well my own personal experience maps onto the limited reading that I've done about it. I'm not aware of the critiques that you're referring to, but would be interested to know – if you happen to come back and have links to share (or others reading this may as well), that would be cool.

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful and challenging post, Carol. I particularly love this: "What if we got hard-headedly rational and insistent about the intrinsic value of our heart-felt, extra-rational experiences and revolutionized our world?" I think the potential in this is incredible.

    • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

      Thanks, Anna. I think that the work you're doing to move yoga away from its over-preoccupation with the external appearance of the body and toward the lived experience of all different types of bodies is crucial in this regard. Obsession with how we look and the poses we can perform is in my view a pathology of an overly left-brain driven conception of both yoga and the self – as the little image I posted suggested, "looking at parts" (body image and bodily achievements), rather than the whole (which, as yoga practitioners, is what we want).

  6. matthew says:

    You scooped us, Carol! We're just editing a piece for next week on the implications of Jill Bolte Taylor's experience for how we understand the right-brain nature of mystic ecstasy.

    Great work, as always.

    • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

      Ha ha, well, not intentionally . . . it's that Zeitgeist again. Even a little spooky as I sat down planning to write something entirely different yesterday and this poured out instead. I hadn't even been "thinking" about it . . . funny.

      I forward to reading your post.

  7. Ramesh says:

    The fundamental goal of yoga is to bring to light the illusion of separation. When the boundary between the I and everything else that are perceived dissolves, actions still happen execept that they are authorless. Goals still happen, goals are still fulfilled … Achieving realization has never ever meant cessation of activity. Except that there is no I to claim ownership of the goal or its fulfilment. Sure, the ego can barge in and claim ownership and if we are identified completely with the ego, we will not see it, and feel superior and claim to be the cause of the achievements that arise. This is clearly explained in advaita vedantin tradition and suggested in the Gita.

  8. [...] between them it was one of discord and disagreement. Science, I had been told, was devoted to logic and empiricism; while spirituality was rooted fundamentally in that esoteric thing we call [...]

  9. NotSoSure says:

    Carol: Before I plugged in my headphones, the dancer in the embedded video was spinning clockwise. Then she briefly started to spin counter clockwise before changing directions again. After I plugged in my headphones and heard the word "clockwise" I cannot make her spin in the other direction no matter how hard I try. She only changed directions for me before I knew that that one had to "work" to make her do so.

    So, according to the video I am "right" brained. But I am a natural skeptic and analytical/logically minded. I work as a computer programmer. I'm not sure how someone like me fits in the left vs. right paradigm. Maybe it indicates a deep seated need for intense therapy.

    Split brain research has shown that some people process analytical thoughts using their right brains and intuitive thinking using their left brain. The left vs. right brain distinction is not always clear cut.

    • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

      Hi NotSoSure: It certainly would not surprise me in the least if the L/R brain distinction is not always as clear cut as my little opening graphic makes it out to be. Life is never really so simple when it comes to understanding such things . . . nonetheless, there is most likely some real science to it, plus it makes a great metaphor regardless. It seems evident that humans have these very different mental capacities – and that our society currently strongly favors the rational over say, the intuitive. Yoga is about balance and since I'm not a scientist, the most important question for me is how to we help ourselves and each other work toward it. If current scientific paradigms such as this help to shift our perspective, spur thought, and make the ideas that both the rational and the intuitive are important, then in all honesty, that's enough for me.

      Re the dancing girl – I think it's pretty incredible and fascinating that I can be looking at exactly the same image as someone standing right next to me and yet we each see her spinning in a different direction. WTF? Again, the L/R brain paradigm may be too simplistic to explain it. But what's more important from my perspective is that there's certainly something interesting to explain.

      Thanks for commenting!

  10. TamingAuthor says:

    The right brain – left brain theory does not hold up. It is a part of pop psychology urban legend that has taken on a life of its own.

    In addition, the more advanced study of yoga, Buddhism, Christianity et al has nothing to do with the brain. In all those practices consciousness is seen as other than the brain. Thus, bringing the brain into the picture is irrelevant.

    Part of the problem has been the cultural ignorance regarding the brain and mind problem. Materialistic science leaps off the cliff and abandons actual observation and inserts the a priori bias of brain mind equivalency into the culture. We repeat the unfounded nonsense as though we know what we are talking about.

    However, the actual observation based on yoga, Buddhism, and Christianity is that brain mind equivalency is an error. Consciousness exists independent of a body/brain. The practices lead one to this observation…. so when one is really cooking one leaves the left-right discussion behind and discovers the spirit – mind – body paradigm is more accurate.

    • NotSoSure says:

      Your comment about that science "abandons actual observation" shows a complete lack of understanding of the scientific method. Modern science ONLY concern is about actual observation and the ability to make measurements from observation. And publishing the results of observations and measurements so that others can confirm or deny the conclusions.

      And you comment about right/left brain theory being pop psychology is completely baseless and disingenuous. Split brain theory is based on the initial research of Jeffrey D. Holtzman of Cornell University Medical College over thirty years ago. In that time myriad studies have shown a differentiation of brain functioning between the two halves of the brain. The majority of people have been found to fit in the classical left/right brain model. A few people have been found to have the left/right brain model reversed.

    • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

      Hi Taming (or should I say, "Not-Really-So-Tame-At-Least-in-Terms-of-EJ-Commenting"? :) – If you want to dismiss the entire L/R brain paradigm as "pop psychology," I'd be interested to see references from top scientists publishing recently in peer-reviewed journals supporting this claim, as it's not my impression. Perhaps they are out there – if so, I'd be curios to see them.

      I don't think that the brain needs to be connected to yoga, Buddhism, etc. Certainly one can have incredible spiritual practices without ever considering such issues at all. But I don't think that there's any problem with making such connections either. And, for reasons that I stated in comments above, I can also see a lot of very pragmatic reasons why it could have a positive impact given our culture and society.

      It's also worth pointing out once more that the Dalai Lama clearly does not agree with your rejection of science as he's worked extremely hard to get Tibetan monks to cooperate with MIT researchers. Read through the Mind and Life Institute website – it's very interesting. http://www.mindandlife.org/

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  12. SnowYogi says:

    "So if I’m committed to any religious/spiritual view, it’s that there are many paths up the mountain, that the mountain is a metaphor that resonates with us deeply even if we can’t categorize and explain it"

    EXACTLY!

    ahhh! when i first looked at the dancer she was only splnning to the left, then all of a sudden she started spinning to the right and now I can't get her to spin left again! what does it all MEEANNNN??? hehe love it.

    I'm always interested when people explore the spiritual/artsy aspects of life with the scientific. Because I feel they have to be intrinsically related – our science just doesn't have sophisticated enough language to explain everything yet! Probably never will, but not trying to understand things scientifically leaves us with as much of a void as ignoring the spiritual and artistic elements as well. Your article was much appreciated!

    • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

      Thanks SnowYogi: Yes, I totally agree! In fact, wouldn't it be oppressive in a sense if either science or religion or whatever really had ALL the RIGHT answers? Then there would be nothing to be curious about or to explore and discover on our own – and no possibility of worthwhile cultural differences on the big issues – no, we'd all just have to sit down and listen as we'd need be told what's what.

      Of course, a lot of people WANT that and so take such systems as absolute truths when they're really not. Which is OK in my view as long as you can still respect the fact that other very intelligent and spiritually accomplished people will have very different views. The one perspective that I don't embrace at all is insisting that you have the only right answers to all the big questions AND that everyone else SHOULD agree with you – and if not, they are hopeless, lost, evil, or whatever. Particularly in today's globalized, multi-cultural world, this is, I think, a very counterproductive and potentially dangerous attitude to hold.

  13. yoga-adan says:

    fantastic stuff carol, from kant to poetry, it's all true, it's all there ;-) just gonna take me awhile ;-)

  14. yoga-adan says:

    oh, i had a follow up comment, or sorta question –

    what if i see the dancer in the video doing flips? ;-) naw, never mind ;-)

  15. Madison Moross Madison says:

    Carol, beautifully written. Speaks to me very intimately, like it was from my own samadhi mind, and so well stated. Thank you, it's so encouraging to hear others truly interested, passionate and active in changing the paradigm.

    • Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

      Thanks, Madison. Yes, it's important for us to connect so that we feel part of a larger community of like-minded people. So easy to feel alienated today.

      Checked out your website and it looks great! Looking forward to exploring more later.

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  18. Ramesh says:

    Great article, Carol. Yes, the two brains are for real. So are the nadis, the ida and the pingala, that respectively relate to each part of the brain… that would be a good article–connecting the brain and the chakras, kundalini and the nadis….yoga is, after all, body, mind, spirit. Not just spirit!

  19. [...] to Carol Horton for her insightful introduction to right and left-brain themes in her excellent post of last week. If you’re unfamiliar with the territory, her piece breaks excellent ground for the [...]

  20. Chelsie Stanick says:

    Solder the poor connections on the pins on the blue convergence integrated circuit.

  21. Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

    Hi Linda – Thanks so much for your response – I am including a link to your article here: http://www.suite101.com/content/the-yoga-of-hemis…. I read it this morning & it's uncanny how much overlap there is with my post – wow – there is clearly a Zeitgeist here.

  22. Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

    Thanks both of you – I know (if from nothing else than an email that I got in response to this post this morning) that there are people out there working on connecting this kind of contemporary science to at least parts of the ancient Indian yogic tradition. I myself do not have the knowledge base to do this – nor, I must admit, the interest, at least at this point in time, although I'm certainly interested to learn about the work of others who do feel called to pursue these connections. (If anyone has any good writing like this to recommend, please post a link!)

  23. Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

    Thanks for your comment! I've been consciously working on connecting brain and heart, reason and intuition, for awhile now, and it's a long process . . . but one that I do think it's useful to have (again) both a clear, logical paradigm to work with AND a practice that takes you into the realm of wordless, extra-rational experience. Also, one key thing that I didn't write about here b/c it's too much for one post, is how this plays out in the body – or at least my body . . . My understanding of these mental issues has very much developed in tandem with my awareness of chronic L/R imbalances in my body AND chronic jaw/neck/shoulder/up chest tension – literally an energetic wall between brain and heart, feeling and speaking (this could also be translated into the language of chakras, but again, too much to go into here). I believe that the powerful connection between bodily practices (yoga, bodywork) and mindfulness/meditation needs to be investigated more from this neuroscience angle – right now, the lit refers almost exclusively to sitting meditation practitioners – and the body has been largely left out of the discussion.

  24. Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

    Hi Chelsea: Thanks for your comment! Great points – what exactly are we trying to prove here by trumpeting facts like "meditation changes the brain"? Since I was trained in social science, not neuroscience, I tend to think of it in terms of cultural synthesis, legitimation, and dialog – the more that yoga and meditation are taken seriously (and respected) by scientists, the more space opens up for some interesting new developments in terms of their role in our society. I have read some interesting reports on how the Dalai Lama had to work really hard to persuade Tibetan monks to cooperate with the researchers – they had a lot of very compelling reasons that they found it to be shallow and pointless. Conversely, there was an interesting flap the first time HHDL came to MIT that I remember reading about – I think that a group of scientists signed a petition saying that this sort of flaky New Age-y crap (although it was more politely put) had no place in the hallowed halls of academe.

  25. Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

    Thanks, Hilary. I would love to hear about your lecture, sounds really promising. The health care system is so f-ed up. This is another big reason that I like the science/medicine/yoga/meditation connection – it's probably the most promising way to get a better model of health out to the suffering general public. While there's certainly exceptions, most people who are comfortable with yoga and meditation are white, college educated, and relatively affluent. While I don't feel that it's the magic cure for everyone, it does really bother me that this is just one facet of a whole set of healthy lifestyle issues that divide along class lines: access to safe neighborhoods so you can go running and kids can play outside, access to fresh fruits and vegetables, being able to afford a gym membership, having a job with health coverage . . . etc. etc.

    I also agree that both sides of the open movement/dance + precise alignment/asana are valuable; and certainly they correlate with different mental states. The mind and body are one and yet not.

  26. NotSoSure says:

    Yo Hillary: On the subject of drawing I am reading a book called Drawing on the right side of the Brain. The author's premise is that anyone who can write has the skills to draw. But to draw the artist has to turn of the left brain and draw with the right. The book is full of exercises which are designed to engage the right brain. Its a great read.

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