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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Comments

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!

  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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  3. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  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!

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

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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!

  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.

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

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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.

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