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Posts Tagged ‘Consciousness’

Paul Cezanne - Apples, Pears and Grapes
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The painter Paul Cezanne is oft remembered as an extremely focused artist who deeply scrutinized and meditated upon his subjects.  “The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.”, he once said, as well as, “With an apple I will astonish Paris.” His work tried not to capture an object as seen by the naked eye, but rather to capture the momentary experience of an object that is perceived by a thinking, feeling individual.  “For an Impressionist to paint from nature is not to paint the subject, but to realize sensations”, seems to capture his effort to use painting to capture his deep inward and outward reflections of everyday life.

In some ways, this reminds me of yoga, when, with much practice, one becomes more adept at paying attention to specific details in time and space and reflecting deeply upon one’s inner reactions to the outer world.  I thought that one of Patanjali’s yoga sutras, “Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.” (I.2) sounded a lot like the master painter patiently working alongside a river who said, “Here, on the river’s verge, I could be busy for months without changing my place, simply leaning a little more to right or left.”

With this in mind, I dug into a few quotes from Paul Cezanne and ran them past some of Patanjali‘s yoga aphorisms.  I think both Patanjali and Cezanne were working very hard at being present and mindful in the moment and trying to unify their outward and inward experiences – one through yoga and one through painting!  Here are a few selected quote pairs with Cezanne on top and Pataljali below:

“Cezanne”

“Patanjali”

“When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.”

“When consciousness dissolves in nature, it loses all marks and becomes pure.” (I.45)

“A puny body weakens the soul.”

“Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit” (II.46)

“Right now a moment of time is passing by! We must become that moment.”

“Study of the silent moments between rising and restraining subliminal impressions is the transformation of consciousness towards restraint.” (III.9)

“The artist makes things concrete and gives them individuality.”

“Constructed or created mind springs from the sense of individuality” (IV.4)

“There are two things in the painter, the eye and the mind; each of them should aid the other.”

“Consciousness distinguishes its own awareness and intelligence when it reflects and identifies its source – the changeless seer – and assumes his form.” (IV.22)

“Optics, developing in us through study, teach us to see.”

“An object remains known or unknown according to the conditioning or expectation of the consciousness.” (IV.17)

“If isolation tempers the strong, it is the stumbling-block of the uncertain.”

“Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness” (I.12)

“I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing.”

“When the object of meditation engulfs the meditator, appearing as the subject, self-awareness is lost.  This is samadhi.” (III.3)

“Don’t be an art critic, but paint, there lies salvation”

“Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations.” (I.13)

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Mood Broadcasting
Image by jurvetson via Flickr

Like many folks, I generally feel better ever since I started practicing yoga.  Outwardly, my body is (slowly) growing stronger and more flexible and perhaps (hopefully) soon, I’ll even lose a few pounds.  However, even if I was to convince myself that looked slimmer (skinny mirrors?), the only way to really know if I’ve lost weight, is to stand on a scale and record my weight each day (darn! no fatness lost so far).

That takes care of the body right – but what about the inner, emotional improvements I might be experiencing?  How to measure these?

Here are some mobile- and web-based tools to help one track one’s emotions.  Most of these websites, like Moodstats, Track Your Happiness, MoodJam, MoodMill, Finding Optimism and MoodLog seem to function as online diaries which keep a running tab on aspects of ones moods and emotions.  Perhaps such tools – if used over long durations – would enable one to verify a shift toward a less anxious and more contented inner feeling?  I don’t know.

Perhaps the real proof of “inner” progress would be that I had closed my computer and put away my mobile device and, rather, was outside enjoying the sights and sounds of nature.  Perhaps best to avoid mixing yoga and digital distractions.

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Walt Whitman. Daguerreotype
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I’m enjoying some summer reading of Jonah Lehrer‘s Proust Was A NeuroscientistChapter 1 does not disappoint! – on the life and poetry of Walt Whitman who was among the first modern western artists to reject dualist notions of a dichotomy between mind and body that stemmed from early Christian writings and the philosophies of Rene Descartes (1641), and rather, embrace  longstanding eastern notions of a synthesis and continuity of the mind and body.

This may relate to the ancient yoga sutra II.48 tatah dvandvah anabhighatah “from then on (after the perfection of asanasa), that sadhaka (yoga student) is undisturbed by dualities”.

Whitman’s poem, I Sing The Body Electric captures some of his youthful ardor for the unified human body-soul and the human condition.  Just 2 lines from Chapter 1, line 10:

“And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?

And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”

Ideas with such eastern influence earned him accolades as, “a remarkable mixture of the Bhagavad Ghita and the New York Herald” in his contemporary 1850’s press.  Lehrer also traces the birth of modern neuroscience to early pioneers such as the psychologist William James, who, it turns out, was a great admirer of Whitman’s poetry.

A wrong turn with Descartes in the 1600’s, steered back on track by Whitman and James in the 1850’s!

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Practice Yoga, Be Healthy! {EXPLORED}
Image by VinothChandar via Flickr

Have you ever noticed how everything healthy these days is “anti-oxidant” this and “anti-oxidant” that?  Green tea, dark chocolate, vitamin E and vitamin C – just to name a few.  Surely, its all the rage to be “anti” oxygen these days (indeed, there are currently 458 clinical trials open now for the study of anti-oxidants!).

But wait.  Isn’t oxygen the stuff we BREATHE?  Don’t we need it to live?  How can we be so “anti” oxidant?

Herein lies a very sobering chemical fact of life.  We need oxygen to breathe – while at the same time – the very same oxygen produces so-called reactive oxygen species (hydrogen peroxide, hypochlorous acid, and free radicals such as the hydroxyl radical and the superoxide anion) which cause damage to our lipids, proteins and even our genome.  What gives us life – also takes away life – a little bit each time we breathe.

Such is the basis for the healthy foods and myriad dietary supplements that (promise to) counteract and biochemically scavenge the toxic reactive oxygen molecules in our bodies.  But for the fact it would make me even fatter, I’d promptly say, “Bring on more dark chocolate!“.

But what if we could just forgo all those dietary supplements, and just USE LESS oxygen?  Might that be another way to enhance longevity and health?

With this thought in mind, I enjoyed a research article entitled, “Oxygen Consumption and Respiration Following Two Yoga Relaxation Techniques” by Drs. Shirley Telles, Satish Kumar Reddy and H. R. Nagendra from the Vivekananda Kendra Yoga Research Foundation in Bangalore, India.  The article was published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Vol. 25, No. 4, 2000.

In their research article, the authors noted that – with practice – yoga can help an individual voluntarily lower their cardiac and metabolic levels.  A number of previous studies show that advanced meditators and yoga practitioners can lower their heart rate and respirations to astonishingly low levels (more posts on this to come).  The scientists in this study asked simply whether a relatively brief 22min routine of “cyclic meditation” (CM) consisting of yoga postures interspersed with periods of supine rest led to a greater reduction in oxygen consumption when compared to 22mins of supine rest (shavasana or SH).  Their question is relevant to the life-giving/damaging effects of oxygen, because a lower metabolic rate means one is using less oxygen.  According to the authors:

“We hypothesized that because cyclic meditation (CM) has repetitive cycles of ‘activating’ and ‘calming’ practices, based on the idea from the ancient texts, as discussed earlier, practicing CM would cause greater relaxation compared with supine rest in shavasan (SH).”

In the results and discussion of the data, they found (using a sample of 40 male adults) that the when they measured oxygen consumption at the beginning and at the end of the session, that the yoga postures/rest routine (CM) resulted in a 32% reduction in oxygen consumption (this is the amount of oxygen used when sitting still at the end of the session) while just laying in shavasana led to only a 10% reduction in the amount of oxygen used at the end of the session.

Wow!  So even after moving through postures – which admittedly gets one’s heart pumping and elevates one’s breathing – I would be using less oxygen (when sitting at the end of the session), than if I had just decided to lay in a supine position.  In this instance, I guess I may be using more oxygen overall during the session, but perhaps would be glad to improve the efficiency of my breathing – and intake of oxygen – in the long run (after many years of practice I’m sure).  Maybe this is a physiological/biochemical basis for the longevity-promoting benefits of yoga?

How does the effect work?  Does the act of moving in and out of postures engage the sympathetic nervous system (something not observed for shavasana)?   Much to explore here.  The authors point out that these effects on improving the efficiency of breathing and oxygen consumption may not be specific to yoga, but to any MODERATE exercise regimen, where exercise and some sort of mental focus is practiced (Tai Chi for example).

Move and pay attention to your breath.  I will keep this in mind tonight in my beginners class.  By the way, there are currently 93 clinical trials involving yoga!

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The Karma Machine + Easy Photoshop Tattoo Tuto...
Image by vramak via Flickr

One of the themes that emerges in I.I atha yoganusasanam, and runs throughout the yoga sutras, is the notion that a yoga practice will bring one into a deeper awareness of the self.  To begin to explore the modern science notion of self-awareness, here’s a 2009 paper entitled, “The ‘prediction imperative’ as the basis for self-awareness” by Rodolfo R. Llinas and Sisir Roy [doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0309].  The paper is part of a special theme issue from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B with the wonderfully karmic title: Predictions in the brain: using our past to prepare for the future.

Without unpacking the whole (open access) article, here are a few ideas that seem to connect loosely to themes in yoga.

The main issue addressed by the authors is how the brain manages to solve the computational problem of movement.  Here’s the problem: to just, for example,  reach into a refrigerator and grab a carton of milk (a far cry from, say, scorpion pose) they point out that,

“there are 50 or so key muscles in the hand, arm and shoulder that one uses to reach for the milk carton (leading to) over 1,000,000,000,000,000 combinations of muscle contractions (that) are possible.”

Yikes!  that is an overwhelming computational problem for the brain to solve – especially when there are 1,000-times FEWER neurons in the entire brain (only a mere 1,000,000,000,000 neurons).  To accomplish this computational feat, the authors suggest that brain has evolved 2 main strategies.

Firstly, the authors point out that the brain can lower the computational workload of controlling movement (motor output) by sending motor control signals in a non-continuous and pulsatile fashion.

“We see that the underlying nature of movement is not smooth and continuous as our voluntary movements overtly appear; rather, the execution of movement is a discontinuous series of muscle twitches, the periodicity of which is highly regular.”

This computational strategy has the added benefit of making it easier to bind and synchronize motor-movement signals with a constant flow of sensory input:

“a periodic control system may allow for input and output to be bound in time; in other words, this type of control system might enhance the ability of sensory inputs and descending motor command/controls to be integrated within the functioning motor apparatus as a whole.”

The idea of synchronizing sensory information with pulsing motor control signals brings to mind more poetic notions of rhythmicity and the way that yogis use their breath to enhance and unify  their outer and inner world experience.  Neat!  Also, I very much like the idea that our brains have enormously complex computational tasks to perform, so I’m keen to do what I can to help out my central nervous system.  Much gratitude to you brain!

Secondly, the authors then move ahead to describe the way in which neural circuits in the body and brain are inherently good at learning and storing information which makes them very good at predicting what to do with incoming sensory inputs.  This may just be another strategy the brain has evolved to simplify the enormous computational load associated with moving and coordinating the body.  Interestingly, the authors note,

“while prediction is localized in the CNS, it is a distributed function and does not have a single location within the brain. What is the repository of predictive function? The answer lies in what we call the self, i.e. the self is the centralization of the predictive imperative.  The self is not born out of the realm of consciousness—only the noticing of it is (i.e. self-awareness).”  Here’s a link to Llinas’ book on this topic.

The “self” is not just in the brain? but distributed throughout the entire CNS? Whoa!  Much to explore here.  Many thematic tie-ins with ancient Vedic notions of self and consciousness … will explore this in the future!

One last passage I found of interest was written by Moshe Bar, the editor of the special issue, who suggested that neural solutions to these inherent computational challenges make the brain/mind a naturally restless place.  His words,

“As is evident from the collection of articles presented in this issue, the brain might be similarly flexible and ‘restless’ by default. This restlessness does not reflect random activity that is there merely for the sake of remaining active, but, instead, it reflects the ongoing generation of predictions, which relies on memory and enhances our interaction with and adjustment to the demanding environment.”

My yoga teachers often remind me that “monkey mind” is normal and with more practice, it will subside.  Very cool to see a tie-in with modern research.

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Pantanjali Statue In Patanjali Yog Peeth,Haridwar
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According to B.K.S. Iyengar, in his book, “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali“, the first chapter of Patanjali‘s yoga sutrassamadhi pada – deals with movements of consciousness, or citta vrtti.

Specifically, the very first chapter, first sutra: I.I atha yoganusasanam, “With prayers for divine blessings, now begins an exposition of the sacred art of yoga”.   Iyengar expands on this to suggest that Patanjali is inviting the reader to begin an exploration of that hidden part of man that is beyond the senses.

Beautifully said.  Indeed, as a new student, I’ve noticed my own awareness of my body, my emotions and my thought processes has increased.  I’m not sure if this is what Patanjali had in mind, but I’m finding that aspects of my physical and mental life that were hidden are now more apparent to me.  It feels good.

How does this work, and what might types of brain mechanisms are involved in gaining self awareness?  What is the self anyway?  What is self-awareness?  How far into one’s unconscious mental processes can one’s self-awareness reach?  Why does it feel good to have more self-awareness?  Lot’s to ponder in follow-ups to come.

Even though the sutras were written more than 2,000 years ago, a neural- and brain-based understanding of consciousness remains a topic of debate and intense research.  I’ll do my best to explore some of this research and ways in which it might reflect back to the poetic and admittedly broad notions of consciousness in the yoga sutras.

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