Sid Jordan | July 29, 2020

Yoga and meditation teachers encourage their students to study and know the biological structures that underlie their practices of asanas and meditation.  The basic tenet is that familiarity with these structures and functions will enhance their practices by giving them more conscious control over the inner working of their bodies and minds.

An obvious example of these principles is knowledge of the major muscles and glands involved in performing an asana.  To perform any yoga posture the first axiom is to move gently with your body (the word asana translates- “posture with ease”) within its limits that don’t evoke strain or pain.  As we incrementally advance in our performance of a posture, like the cobra, it is helpful to know the obstacle that the body encounters.  A few passages from Leslie Kaminoff’s excellent book of Yoga Anatomy give us more knowledge of how to refine this pose:

“It is important to find the deeper intrinsic back muscles to do the action of spinal extension in this pose.  Using the latissimus dorsi and other superficial muscles will affect the scapulae and rib cage and interfere with breathing by inhibiting the movement of the ribs….. In cobra, the serratus anterior is active to maintain a neutral position of the scapulae against the push of the arms.  When the arms push, the shoulders don’t elevate, but the spine is lifted…..The forearms should stay parallel to each other for the best alignment of action through the arms into the spine.”

In addition to this conscious use of muscles, the pressure placed upon the thymus gland by the sternum or breast-bone acquires the deeper benefits of the cobra.  This pressurizing and depressurizing of this neuro-endocrinal gland balances the release of thiamine, a major hormone in supporting our immunity to disease. Understanding this science that explores the physiology and anatomy of asanas will make us better practitioners and recipients of the deeper benefits of our asana practice.

The Somatic Yoga of Eleanor Criswell illustrates how attention to the sensory feedback from the muscles used in yoga postures allows the conscious forebrain to overcome the chronic muscle contractions maintained by the unconscious actions of the reflex dominated brain.

The same benefits of mindful concentration hold true for our practice of meditation.  The cakras that we concentrate on in meditation, defined as concentrated thinking, are composed of psychic centers and their allied neuroendocrine glands. These psychic centers are associated with root sounds (biija mantras) that provoke a particular action and the allied glands that support these actions.

An example would be the anahata cakra (heart cakra) associated with the thymus gland mentioned above.  The heart cakra is associated with the quality of affection/love (mamata) and the thymus gland associated with immunity.  This relationship between immunity and love is exemplified by the research of Harvard professor, David McClelland.  His immune study demonstrated that students watching a film of Mother Teresa lovingly serving the untouchables of the Calcutta streets showed significant increases in immunoglobulin on a saliva test measure of immune activity.   This enhancement of immunity induced by simply observing an act of loving service particularly protects individuals against upper respiratory illnesses.  This study raises the question of what would the immune enhancement effect be for individuals carrying out the acts of service?  Another question that needs to be studied.

There are also central nervous system functions associated with meditation that can be enhanced by knowledge of these functions.  One eight week study of mindful based meditation by Sara Lazar at Harvard Medical School demonstrated increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.  There was a decrease in gray-matter density in the amygdala associated with reduction in anxiety and stress. Knowledge of these changes that are part of your meditation can increase these beneficial results.

This blog simply touches the surface of what we know and don’t know about our bodies and mind.  Hopefully it makes you more curious and motivated to explore the growing body of scientific knowledge on yoga and meditation.   The real test is discovering how this knowledge can enhance your own practices at home.

To extend this investigation of how knowledge of our neurophysiology can enhance our yoga and meditation practices, the Prama Institute is offering a one-day program on Exchanging Stress for Harmony Within.

 

Sid Jordan
Clinical Psychologist
Staff, Prama Institute

About The Author

Dr. Sid Jordan (Acarya Vishvamitra) has combined a career as a licensed clinical psychologist and meditation teacher since 1971.  As a clinical psychologist, he taught individual, group and family psychotherapy, meditation, yoga and community psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the Medical University of S. C. from 1969-93.  During this period he also served for five years as director of the Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Services at the Franklin C. Fetter  Neighborhood Health Care Center in Charleston S. C.

In 1994 he moved to Asheville NC to develop an eco-village to support the service community of Ananda Girisuta (Blissful Daughter of the Mountain) on the French Broad River near Marshall, NC.  In 1997 he trained to be an Ananda Marga Family Acarya (Yoga Teacher) in India committed to giving personal instructions in meditation and yoga.  He currently serves as president of the Ananda Marga Gurukula Inc. Board in the US, supporting Neohumanist Education k-colleges worldwide. He is Director of the Prama Institute on the Ananda Girisuta property where he helps direct programing and teaches yoga psychology and spiritual practices.  At the Prama Wellness Center he teaches yoga therapy and stress management to individuals and groups.   He continues to offer his 40 years of experience and teaching of yoga psychology, philosophy and practices to audiences worldwide.

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