January 15, 2013

Exercise Your Empathy.

Photo: Jade Beall

Admittedly, I am not your average yogi.

I can’t get behind all the suhka-duhkah-mudra-mantra business and in the face of all things woo-woo I find myself just thinking…huh?

Though I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a cynic, I confess that I don’t just blindly believe what someone is telling me simply because they are saying it in Sanskrit or it came out of some big ancient book.

Energy, crystals and chanting might be enough for some people to quit their jobs, declare a new path and follow their mystic leaders to Bali or India—but not me.

The simple fact is that yoga saved my life. Straight up. And I wanted to know how that happened.

So, over the years I have educated myself. Not in the spiritual world, but the scientific one. Information was scarce at first, but over the years the research published on yoga and mindfulness has steadily increased. I buried myself in the scientific research and in 2009, I began to design a program for trauma survivors based on these findings.

Now, my professional life is dedicated to sharing and educating others on these findings and my program and it is often profoundly empowering for yoga teachers and students to discover the scientific facts behind their own personal transformations and spiritual beliefs.

While there is so much fascinating and interesting information regarding how yoga and mindfulness practices change the brain—one of the most interesting is the roll of mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are a relatively recent discovery (1980s and 1990s) and are helping scientists understand the neurobiology of social and emotional connection and empathy. Originally discovered by a team of scientists in Parma, Italy, mirror neurons were found to be the neurons behind the observing and imitating of motor activities.

Further studies showed that mirror neurons not only activate when imitating a movement, but that just by watching a movement (such as ripping a piece of paper) mirror neurons and other neural networks activate as if the watcher is physically executing the movement.

Later, mirror neurons were implicated in the ability of human beings to understand the actual feeling of the person being watched. They are thought to be the neural network that recreates that feeling in the observer of the action. It is now understood that mirror neurons correlate with the emotional centers of the brain and provide a neurological basis for empathy as well as self-awareness.

Mirror neurons are thought to be what’s behind the specific human condition of feeling with someone; watch this to feel what I mean:

Mirror neurons have also been found to be an integral part some very important regions of the brain—the anterior insular cortex, which is thought of as the seat of consciousness, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is thought to be where awareness and the regulation of emotion occurs.

These two brain regions form a network that works conjointly (along with other prefrontal brain regions) and is activated simply by focusing on things like non-judgmental present moment awareness, awareness of feeling states in the body and the consideration and execution of complex motor movements (ahem…yoga and meditation).

So in January of 2005, when I was in the darkest time of my life and planning my one shot at doing something right (ie. removing myself from the world via swallowing a butt load of pain killers) I happened to stumble into a yoga class. And as I learned how to really breathe and concentrated on how to move my body in class and pay attention to how my body was feeling inside, I activated these brain regions.

I exercised my empathy.

Humans are social creatures and empathy is one of our most mystifying yet wonderful attributes; but as they say neurons that fire together wire together. In other words, use it or lose it. So in addition to my yoga practice, I spend my downtime watching sappy movies and television shows that make me cry.

Because without empathy, we begin to stop being kind to ourselves. And when that happens, we begin to withdraw from others and the cycle of insidious self-destruction begins. Our brains are social organs and in isolation they begin to suffer.

Mirror neurons are just the tip of the iceberg.

The brain and body are profoundly complex and integrated. But I found my answer to how did yoga save my life? By breathing and focusing my attention, I was unknowingly activating my brain centers that govern self-awareness, empathy and consciousness.

I began to wake up to myself. I began to wake up to the kind of life I was living: an isolated life that led me to lose any sense of who I was. I began to take risks in connecting (risk-taking is also associated with activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and has been associated with drops in stress hormones).

The more connection I began to make, the stronger my awareness, empathy and self-compassion.

My thoughts began to change from committing suicide is my one chance to give something good to the people that I love to I want to live and make a contribution to the world.

And so one breath at a time, I will continue making a contribution to the world, for as long as I naturally live.



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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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