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Posts Tagged ‘Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’

Shakti
Image by alicepopkorn via Flickr

Some of the most epic and beautiful of the yoga sutras are found in the final book IV.  One of them popped into mind when I came across a recent neuroscience report entitled, “Predicting Persuasion-Induced Behavior Change from the Brain” by Emily Falk and colleagues at the Department of Psychology at the  University of California, Los Angeles.  [DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0063-10.2010].  Here, a research team asks if there are places in the brain that encode future – yes, future actions.  More specifically, they asked 20 volunteers to lay in an MRI scanner and listen/view a series of messages on the benefits and importance of sunscreen.  Then, 1-week later, they inquired about the frequency of sunscreen use.  It turns out that sunscreen use did increase (suggesting the subjects read the messages), but more interestingly, that there were correlations in brain activity (in several regions of the brain) with the degree of increased sunscreen use.  That is, some individuals recorded a bit of brain activity that predicted their future use of sunscreen.

Very neat indeed!  although, there are likely many reasons to remain skeptical.  This is because the brain is a very complex system and, with so much going on inside, its likely anyone could find correlations in activity with any-old “something” and “some area of the brain” if they looked hard enough.  In this article however, the authors had preselected their brain regions of interest – the medial frontal cortex and the precuneus – since another group had shown that activity in these regions were able to predict future actions (on the order of a few seconds).  Thus, the research team was not looking for any willy-nilly correlation, but for a specific type of interaction between the brain and future action (this time on the order of weeks).

The particular ancient sutra that may have some poetic tie-ins here is IV.12 atita anagatam svarupatah asti adhvabhedat dharmanam “the existence of the past and future is as real as that of the present.  As moments roll into movements which have yet to appear as the future, the quality of knowledge in one’s intellect and consciousness is affected.”

Might there be neural traces predicting one future actions?  This research makes it seem possible.  Are these traces accessible to ordinary folks or advanced meditators?  Who knows.  As always, the joy lies in trying to find out and trying to reach ever deeper states of harmony and unity.  One thing I found intriguing was that the research team picked the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus because these brain regions,

“are reliably co-activated across a host of “self” processes and the extent to which people perceive persuasive messages to be self-relevant has long been thought to play a part in attitude and behavioral change”.

Certainly, when something feels relevant to “me” and reinforces my own “self” image, I’m more prone to remember and act upon it.  Yoga, for example! I hope I’m encoding signals now that will predict my attendance in class this week!

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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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Samadhi Statue
Image by koolb via Flickr

In some ways, the 8 limbs of yoga described in the yoga sutras, seem a bit like a ladder, rather than a concentric set of outreached arms or spokes on a wheel.  It seems like I’m working toward something.  But what?  I certainly feel healthier, and also enjoy the satisfaction of getting slightly more able (ever so slightly) to shift into new postures – so am quite motivated to continue the pursuit.  Perhaps this is how yoga got started eons ago?   Just a pursuit that – by trial and error – left its practitioners feeling more healthy, relaxed and more in touch with their outer and inner worlds?  But where does this path lead, if anywhere?

I was intrigued by a report published in 1973 by an 8-day study carried out on the grounds of the Ravindra Nath Tagore Medical College and Hospital, Udaipur, India and subsequent letter, “The Yogic claim of voluntary control over the heart beat: an unusual demonstration” published in the American Heart Journal, Volume 86 Number 2.  Apparently, a local yogi named Yogi Satyamurti:

Yogi Satyamurti, a sparsely built man of about 60 years of age, remained confined in a small underground pit for 8 days in what according to him was a state of “Samadhi,” or deep meditation, with all bodily activity cut down to the barest minimum.

The medical researchers had the yogi’s heart and other physiological functions under constant watch via electrical recording leads, and watched as the yogi’s heart slowed down (their equipment registered a flatline) a remained so for several days.  Upon opening up the pit, the researchers found:

The Yogi was found sitting in the same posture. One of us immediately went in to examine him. He was in a stuporous condition and was very cold (oral temperature was 34.8O C) [the same temperature as the earth around him].

After a few hours, the yogi had recovered from the experience and displayed normal physiological and behavioral function – despite 8 days underground (air supposedly seeped in from the sides of the pit) with no food or human contact!

An amazing feat indeed – one that has some scientists wondering about the psychology and physiology that occurs when advanced meditators sink into (very deep) states.  John Ding-E Young and Eugene Taylor explored this in an article entitled, “Meditation as a Voluntary Hypometabolic State of Biological Estivation” published in News Physiol. Sci., Volume 13, June 1998.   They  suggest that humans have a kind of latent capacity to enter a kind of dormant or  hibernation-like state that is similar to other mammals and even certain primates.

Meditation, a wakeful hypometabolic state of parasympathetic dominance, is compared with other hypometabolic conditions, such as sleep, hypnosis, and the torpor of hibernation. We conclude that there are many analogies between the physiology of long-term meditators and hibernators across the phylogenetic scale. These analogies further reinforce the idea that plasticity of consciousness remains a key factor in successful biological adaptation.

Practice, practice, practice – towards an ability to engage a latent evolutionary adaptation? Sounds hokey, but certainly an interesting idea worth exploring more in the future.

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Walt Whitman. Daguerreotype
Image via Wikipedia

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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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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