June 30, 2013

What is the Root of Yoga? ~Scott Lewicki

[Photo via noahg on Flickr]

A curious video has shown up recently on my Facebook news feed and on several other sites.

The video is entitled “Synchronization of Thirty Two Metronomes” though most of the description is in Japanese. The experiment shown in the video is utterly simple in its set up and at the same time engaging and hypnotic, as if it triggers something deep in our psyche.

A grid of metronomes all start with different timings, creating a cacophony of rhythms then ever so slowly (over a period of about two minutes) become synchronized, beating together almost like magic.

The ultimate process of bringing all of these oscillators into synchronization is called entrainment.

Entrainment describes a process whereby two rhythmic processes interact with each other in such a way that they adjust towards and eventually “lock in” to a common periodicity.

The physics behind this is well-known and is not particularly mysterious or complex. In fact, it was first identified by the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens in 1665.

A key part of the setup is the surface:

The metronomes are on a table that is allowed to shift slightly from the forces of the movement coming from the oscillating metronomes. Since all of the metronomes are attached to that one table, the metronomes themselves and the forces they impart are coupled.

Entrainment shows up everywhere, in mechanical and biological systems of every scale: from galaxies and stars to quantum particles; from the ecology of the planet earth to the firings of neurons in living creatures.

We experience entrainment directly in our lives constantly, though sometimes it might not be obvious or even conscious to us. Sometimes it might come about unintentionally.

Sometimes entrainment can be easily and scientifically measured. Entrainment can show up in systems that have too many variables and are too complex to be measured.

Entrainment also has profound metaphoric implications for life, the connections that individual humans make to each other—whether in society, community or pairs—or to the environments and systems around us.

That’s what gives this simple video its power, a kind of gestalt. At some level each of us recognizes this.

Entrainment shows up in the lives of everyday people and everyday yogis in many ways: scientific and metaphoric, conscious and subconscious, intentional and unintentional, simple and complex.

Humans form connections in ways that have evolved over eons and continue to evolve through technology (and the growth of the population itself). These connections define societies, villages, communities, committees and other groupings and delineations. Each member of these groupings can join together, or entrain.

Positive entrainment: think of a community that comes together to support a cause. The power of that coupling can be immense, affecting great positive change that could not come from “uncoupled” individual contributions. The result of the entrainment is beneficial to all of those involved.

Negative entrainment: cults and societies are created based on stereotypes or targeted hatred and entrainment creates a detrimental result. History has many examples of leaders who exploit and manipulate the group dynamics and the simple human desire to create community.

Photo: John

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of this danger in the late 1800’s, foreshadowing awful things to come.

“In individuals, insanity is rare, but in groups, parties, nations and epoch, it is the rule,”

he wrote in Beyond Good and Evil (1886).

Another place to experience the energy of a group is in a yoga asana class.

Each person is moving and taking poses in time with the breath individually (like the individual metronomes), but the group dynamic is obvious. Each student is inspired and affected by all of the other students in the class. Often, there is an experience of going deeper into the asanas physically, energetically and spiritually that is shared by the group as a whole.

As a yoga teacher I can see this happening in the class. In fact, that experience is what has inspired me to write this blog post.

“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” ~ Herman Melville

Look back at the video above again.

Another wonderful thing happens in the video. If you pay attention to a single metronome near the lower right corner of the frame, you’ll see that it doesn’t want to join in with the others.

In fact, for up to a minute, that metronome appears to be doing the opposite of the others. In physics, this metronome would be said to be oscillating anti-phase relative to the other metronomes that are oscillating in-phase.

In this example the coupling is strong enough and that lone metronome eventually joins the rest. The final condition where all of the metronomes are in-phase represents the ultimate lowest energy state.

Of course, when we see that lone metronome not cooperating, it makes us want to smile. We see it as “going against the grain,” as being “eccentric” or “iconoclastic.” We might even want to root for that metronome.

It reminds us, though, that to be the loner can take more energy, when the simpler choice might be to join the others. And again to do so might have positive or negative results.

Sometimes the action of the loner may be found to be synergistic.

A common catch word in industry right now is disruptive thinking or disruptive innovation to generate creativity and bring ground breaking products to market. In other words, consumers and manufacturers sometimes need to be disrupted from their entrainment to certain products and technologies.

Sometimes the action of the loner may be found to be antagonistic too. (Think of the times an individual in a yoga class has consciously or unconsciously disrupted the energy of the entire class.) The loner metronome that doesn’t fit in could also represent the bumps in the road of a relationship—maybe that little annoying habit that your spouse has.

Entrainment can happen between two humans too, and there exists the scientific way to examine and measure it.

Just a few years ago, neuroscience made a revolutionary discovery about mirror neurons.

When an individual observes another person performing an action, mirror neurons fire as if the first individual were performing that action. The neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

The function of the mirror neuron system is a subject of much speculation. Many researchers in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology consider that this system provides the physiological mechanism for what they call perception/action coupling. This could be the physical basis for such human traits as understanding intentions, self-awareness, motor and language mimicry, speech perception and even the foundation of empathy.

This perception/action coupling could be the input to the conscious and unconscious entrainment of two individuals.

When two individuals experience a deep connection—emotional, psychic, physical—this is a kind of entrainment. Since it can’t yet be measured scientifically, I refer to it as “metaphoric” entrainment, but I believe the analogy to be valid.

The words friendship, bonding and love engender an image of a metaphoric entrainment of body, mind, heart and spirit. Times when you feel as if you know what the other person is thinking, when there is an unspoken language, a kind of synchronicity that each knows is there.

“Two souls with but a single thought, two hearts that beat as one.” ~ Friedrich Halm

Even within an individual body, there are physical systems within systems that may all be acting in modes of entrainment.

Certain physical activities exhibit what is referred to as self-entrainment. In the literature of motor control, it has been observed that a gesture by one part of the body tends to entrain gestures by other parts of the body. See for example: “Self-entrainment in Animal Behavior and Human Speech.”

Of course, in vinyasa-style yoga classes, the student is taught to purposefully entrain the breath patterns to certain movements. The surya namaskara (sun salutation) sequence is meant to be linked precisely to the breath. Once learned, to do anything else feels awkward and not as effective.

“Other examples of the strong tendency toward self-entrainment may be found in difficulties faced when learning to play the musical instruments that require using both hands—that is, instruments like guitar, piano, flute and drums (as opposed to trumpet). In these instruments, the novice must learn to control the phase relations of the two hands appropriately.”

In other words, a conscious effort is required to break the entrainment.

The paper goes on to discuss how even speech can become self-entrained with other activities an individual is performing. Within the brain itself, activity in one part has been shown to be in entrainment with adjacent or even distal parts of the brain.

In fact, there is a particular neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. This is called synaesthesia.

In one common form of synaesthesia, known as color-graphemic synaesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored, while in ordinal linguistic personification, numbers, days of the week and months of the year evoke personalities. The firings of neurons in areas of the brain, usually considered functionally separated, become coupled.

Babies are born with a highly interconnected brain.

As they grow older, the cross-wiring is trimmed down naturally. In some families, a genetic condition causes this trimming to be less effective, producing synaesthets (people with synaesthesia), who have areas of cross-wiring still intact. This can cause normally separate areas of the brain to remain linked.

V.S. Ramachandran (in a wonderful TED talk) argues that this cross-wiring of the brain leads to a greater propensity for metaphorical thinking and creativity. The condition is eight times more common in creative people like artists, musicians, poets and novelists. This again is a kind of positive entrainment.

Recent work in physiology appears to confirm something that yoga practitioners have known all along: all parts of the body are always in connection and operate in unison. Even the most distal parts of the body can affect one another. The body forms a continuum of soft tissues, connective tissues, and fascia.

Folks like Tom Myers have coined terms like anatomy trains as “a unique map of the ‘anatomy of connection’—whole-body fascial and myofascial linkages. This concept joins individual muscles into functional complexes within fascial planes, each with a defined anatomy and ‘meaning’ in human movement.”

Tom Myers also likes to apply a physical model called tensegrity to describe how the different parts of the body act upon each other and which ultimately describes a “coupling” that forms a balance between tension and compression, between “push” and “pull”. One can easily imagine an optimal coupling where essentially each part of the body entrains to all of the other parts through optimal alignment and posture. Often I believe I feel this effect in a yoga asana.

You might remember certain balancing yoga poses where there must be an integration of the entire body or the balance cannot be found at all. When we are not in optimal alignment or working with an injury, we can feel how this entrainment can amplify effects throughout the body.

Some of these are obvious, such as bad shoes causing problems in the back. Sometimes it is more subtle like a misaligned hip causing pain in the neck or in the opposite shoulder. Body workers often have a keen sense of this.

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” ~ Joseph Campbell

An individual moving through vinyasa yoga poses linked to breath patterns feels the entrainment of body and breath. The sensitive yoga practitioner experiences the coupling of breath, body, emotions, minds and spirit.

Here the roots of the word yoga itself—yoking or union—tie to all of the physical and metaphoric examples given above.

The key is to make all of these examples of entrainment conscious. Then we as individuals have the ability to bring about the optimal, the beneficial, and the harmonious for ourselves and all of the hearts that we connect too.


Rizzolatti, Giacomo; Craighero, Laila (2004). “The mirror-neuron system”. Annual Review of Neuroscience 27: 169–192.

V.S. Ramachandran and E.M. Hubbard, “The Phenomenology of Synaesthesia” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, No. 8, 2003, pp. 49-57


Scott Lewicki is a certified yoga instructor in Los Angeles teaching with heart and passion for life for over 15 years. He also has worked for NASA exploring the Earth and Solar System for over 25 years. “I attempt every time I teach yoga to engender in my students the simple wonder of a universe inside of ourselves as beautiful, rich, complex as the universe around us.”


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Assistant ed: Catherine Monkman

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