April 19, 2013

Neuroscience, Yoga & Gut Wisdom: Talking About Embodied Awareness with Bo Forbes.

“The goal is embodied awareness…in order for lasting change to happen, we have to have embodied insight. It can’t just be a mental construct. I think it’s both the goal and the means of getting there.” ~ Bo Forbes

Neuroscience is one of my pet passions. I love learning the “whys” behind why the things I do in my massage practice help people effect change beyond the physical level. When I learned that Bo was going to be teaching several classes exploring the connections between neuroscience and yoga at the Yoga Journal Conference, I was ecstatic!

As we dove into “Gut Wisdom,” we began by talking about the cultural construct of the belly, especially as it relates to yoga practice. Our culture celebrates hard, flat bellies, yet in order for prana, or strong life energy, to flow in that area of the body, hard and flat may not be what’s needed.

Bo spent a great deal of time during this class discussing and then demonstrating and walking us through a different way of looking at our bandha work. While the bandhas are an important tool within our yoga practices, engaging them incorrectly can do more harm than good.

Both Uddiyana Bandha and Mula Bandha are an integral part of the physical asana practice, but what I learned in “Gut Wisdom” was that in engaging in this specific Breath-Bandha Vinyasa, these locks can help ground me and support emotional boundaries as well. What happens in the body, happens in the emotions. They are not separate.

How many times do we hear it? Trust your gut. Gut instinct. This idea of the wisdom of our bellies goes far beyond the colloquial expressions.

Bo also touched on the idea of the enteric nervous system.

We think so much of the brain and spinal cord as running the show where our nervous systems are concerned. What’s interesting to note is that there are 100 million nerves withing the digestive system—more than even the spinal cord. The enteric nervous system and central nervous system have reciprocity—the extent to which new information emerges all the time.

In order to grasp this idea of embodied awareness, it isn’t enough to discuss it; that would defeat the purpose.

We spent the second half of the class in “asana laboratory,” experimenting with how different approaches to postures and sequences affected us—internally and externally.

A little while after the class, Bo and I met up for lunch to geek out some more over neuroscience and the enteric brain and how this fits together with yoga therapy. (If you’d like to hear more of our discussion over omelets, see below)

On Sunday, I took Bo’s follow-up class specifically on neuroscience and yoga.

It was wonderful to hear some of the NIMH and similar position statements on the proven benefits of yoga on our mental health.

It is my firm belief that lasting healing—either physical or emotional—needs to begin in the body. It was wonderful to hear that both the medical community, and largely due to Bo’s work, the yoga community are realizing the amazing transformative power of embodied awareness.

The most staggering statistic to me was to hear that the World Health Organization has identified that by 2020, depression and anxiety will be our number two health concern—worldwide. The way to address this is not more medication. If as mindful people we are interested in lasting physical and emotional wellness, we need to examine

We live in a world that prizes activities that keep our nervous systems in a constant state of hyper-arousal. In fact, many of us seek out stress coping mechanism that further stimulate the nervous system. (How late are we on Facebook at night before bed?!) This hyper-arousal is keeping from better physical and mental health.

We talked about the need to shift from an idea of “stress reduction” to one of “stress resilience.” Life is going to continue to bring challenges. If we want to create lasting change in our responses to stress and in our depressive and anxious reactions to life, we need to experience new things in the body. It won’t always be a comfortable change; in fact, much of our asana laboratory during that class was slow, awkward and unfamiliar at first.

What helps us heal and change isn’t more of the same old thing. What helps us change and form new neural pathways and keep expanding our neuroplasticity is that awkwardness. I loved Bo’s explanation of this phenomenon:

“Cellular awkwardness is necessary for change.”

That discomfort we feel when we cross our legs the other way is a great example. Or the slight irritation of taking a different route than usual to work. Within our asana lab, one experiment with “cellular awkwardness” was to play with therapeutic sun salutations.

Slowing down the move into lunge was awkward for many; when we change up old patterns in the body, we move from just having flexible bodies, to creating flexibility in our minds as well. This is the basis of neuroplasticity.

As Bo and I discuss further, it is this initial mental and physical discomfort of moving beyond our routines that helps lead to lasting change:

 This is one of my favorite topics, and both the classes and our discussion were a huge inspiration to me. To condense these ideas to one article is impossible, but hopefully it has piqued your interest on the subject, or made you consider ways you can change up your own habits. The most important take away, to me, is that none of this is useful if it remains solely part of our asana practice.

“If it doesn’t have a translation into your life off the mat, then what are we doing?”


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