Brain Chemistry and Yoga

March 24, 2018 Opinion, Science

I recently came across an interesting article coauthored by three researchers of neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge. In it they describe a practice that’s been going on in Silicon Valley for awhile and is now spreading to other industries called, “microdosing,” which “involves taking minute quantities of drugs such as LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) or mescaline (found in the Peyote cactus) every few days.”

The doses are so small (about a tenth of recreational use) that there are no hallucinations or feelings of euphoria. Instead, it is reported to heighten alertness, energy, creativity, reduce stress and anxiety, and produce an overall sense of well being.

I had to laugh because those are the same qualities Yogis experience when we practice regularly. But then I began to wonder: Are all the feelings of equanimity that we get from our practice just the results of changing our brain chemistry, no different than microdosing? Yeah, pretty much it turns out.

Happiness is all about brain chemistry. One neurotransmitter is actually called “The Bliss Molecule.” Anandamide (from the Sanskrit “Ananda” meaning Bliss) is a well known endocannabinoid, a self-produced cannabis that is responsible for creating the “light in me honors the light in you” feeling. And GABA, “The Anti-Anxiety Molecule,” is an inhibitory molecule that slows down the firing of neurons and creates a sense of calmness. Studies show that GABA naturally increases through the practice of Yoga.

So Instead of saying, “I had a really good practice today. I felt a oneness with the universe.” It might be more accurate to say, “My GABA levels were really high and my neural receptors were binding effectively with my endocannabinoids!” It’s not as mystical sounding or new agey but it’s probably closer to the truth.

Dopamine is another important neurochemical to consider in our practice. It is “The Reward Molecule.” Whenever we achieve a posture that we’ve been struggling with for six months (or six years) we get a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. It’s so desirable that we will push our bodies past their limits to get another bump. We like to think that it’s “the ego” that is to blame for a lot of Yoga-related injuries but it may have more to do with our dopamine habit. And it’s amplified even more when we post pictures of our newly perfected poses on social media and get a lot of rewarding feedback. It’s so addictive.

Oxytocin is especially relevant to Ashtanga. It is “The Bonding Molecule.” It is a hormone linked to human connection that gives us a sense of belonging and community, which is very common among Ashtangis. When balanced these connections can be deeply enriching and productive but when out of balance they can lead to nationalistic fervor and cult-like behaviors.

Our entire perception of reality may just be chemical reactions in our brain but wresting control of them takes hard work and is tricky business. Pantanjali seemed to intuitively understand this without knowing the neuroscience behind it when he wrote the second sutra: Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah. “The restraint of the mental modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.”

The same transmitters that, on one day can produce the experience of overwhelming joy and illumination, can also produce crushing sadness and suffering the next. The practice of Yoga seems to keep our brain chemistry balanced so that we tend to experience more of the former, and less of the latter.

What keeps us coming back to our mats day after day is not necessarily the physical practice but what the physical practice does to our “mind-stuff.” If we view our asana practice through that lens it takes on a somewhat different purpose.

What remains a mystery (at least to me) is how altering our brain chemistry can manifest in the material world. What we think about, and how we think about it, not only changes our internal landscape but can also shape our external circumstances. That’s something to think about.