THE BLOG
12/20/2013 09:01 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Yoga and the Brain: How to Be Attentive Through Spirituality

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

In his TED talk, "The Art of Misdirection," Apollo Robbins gives a brief and accessible overview of how our mind allocates attention and then, with an incredible pickpocketing performance, shows how susceptible we are to misdirection.

For 15 years, fueled by frustration over my own fear-based thinking, I've observed how I allocate my attention, studied how to meditate, and sought teachers to inspire and help. As Robbins says, attention steers perception, so it stands to reason that if I put my attention on cultivating interior spaciousness, I will perceive more space. And if I put my attention on judging folks around me, I'll be more susceptible to perceive that I, too, am being judged. Both have served me as shining examples of this theory, that how we place our attention determines how we see.

To take this a step further, I've observed that as I placed consistent attention on many judgments, daily over several years, my brain became much more likely to call upon those neuronal connections of judgment, which was perpetuating the experience that the 'world is against me.' That fear-based thinking led to destructive and draining behavior that needed to shift. Learning how to place my attention intentionally on the vastness of my inner world regularly through meditation and yoga, I can focus more readily, practice patience and cultivate my relationships with less judgment, more steadiness and loving care. I can be more alert to the threads of cause and effect, especially when it comes to my family and my work.

So in his talk, Robbins implores us to "play" with the "security guard" in our brain, who's in charge of the ways in which we place our attention. How could the security guard let any judgments enter? Likely because this guard hasn't had enough training, therefore permits thoughts like judgments, doubts and limiting beliefs. And in our experience of a lazy brain, somehow it all seems as though it's "happening" to us, rather than an inner state we've (subconsciously) created. Time to train our brains, by educating the guards at the gates.

Meditation, mindfulness and yoga are the ways in which we can train those "guards." Regular practice helps me choose how I spend my attention, so I can be present wherever I am. When I forget to choose how I pay attention, doubt comes roaring in, refinement dissolves and my body doesn't feel like my own. With practice, we can begin to train our minds to be more attuned to love, to subtlety, to listening. We can communicate and relate with more kindness, notice when we aren't, and avoid own our missteps - with ourselves and others.

...the true miracles are always worked out in silence first. -- Baird T. Spalding

In a September 2013 Huffington Post piece by Gabriel Axel entitled "Why Your Brain Loves Yoga," the neuroplasticity of our brain is shown to make it "hackable" and therefore capable of deliberate positive change. We can, with practice, rewire our brains to be more susceptible to err on the side of love and listening. Scientifically proven to be what creates a sensation of space, time and healing in both body and mind, yoga appears to modulate stress response systems, which decreases physiological arousal signs such as heart rate and blood pressure. There's also evidence that yoga practices help increase our capacity to remember, increase pain threshold, and our heart rate variability (an indicator of the body's ability to respond to stress more flexibly). And in the past decade, yoga has been found to significantly mitigate symptoms of PTSD in veterans, anxiety in recovering addicts, depression and general psychological distress.

To gain anything real, long practice is necessary. Try to accomplish very small things first. -- G.I. Gurdjieff

Axel talks about how practices and processes of yoga and meditation "work the brain and nervous system in a synchronized and harmonious manner." For me, this harmony is slowly becoming a benchmark with which I can align my inner state, a state which I can call upon when I feel challenged, confronted or constricted. And yes, I forget, allow the "guards" to be distracted and lose ground within myself, revert to old patterns and habits that don't serve me. Luckily the practices are there, waiting for me to begin again. Am I less likely to be susceptible to misdirection when I'm actually practicing? Absolutely.

But I'm certain I still would've gotten my pockets picked by Apollo Robbins.

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