Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Your Brain on Yoga

Aleister Crowley was one of the first Western teachers to recommend a simple, practical regimen of Hatha yoga to his esoteric students. While his system includes only a handful of postures rather than the hundreds you can learn today at your local yoga center, it is remarkably complete in that it does a good job of including one posture of each general type. In Confessions, Crowley wrote that one of the functions of his yoga method was to allow the student to produce genius at will, and according to a new study it appears he was onto something. The study found that after twenty minutes of Hatha yoga practice students performed better on various brain functioning tests.

Researchers found that people did better -- both speed-wise and accuracy-wise -- on brain functioning tests after just 20 minutes of Hatha yoga, compared with aerobic exercise.

"It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout," study researcher Neha Gothe, a professor of kinesiology, health and sport studies at the university, said in a statement. Gothe conducted the study while a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities," he added.

The ability to govern and direct thoughts in this manner is a benefit of magical practice that has implications in every area of life. The ability to focus on tasks and solve problems efficiently is a general skill that makes you do just about everything better, particularly in the modern world in which success depends so much on the ability to process and assimilate information. I routinely employ as part of my regular day job to enable me to code software more quickly and elegantly, and any programmer will tell you how valuable the "flow" experience is to producing really good products.

Not to be outdone by actual scientists, some conservative Christians believe that regardless of what yoga does to your brain, it invites demonic possession. E. W. Jackson, a pastor who is currently running for lieutenant governor in Virginia, explains in his 2008 book, Ten Commandments To An Extraordinary Life.

The purpose of such meditation is to empty oneself... [Satan] is happy to invade the empty vacuum of your soul and possess it. That is why people serve Satan without ever knowing it or deciding to, but no one can be a child of God without making a decision to surrender to him. Beware of systems of spirituality which tell you to empty yourself. You will end up filled with something you probably do not want.

Maybe if this were a remotely accurate description of the function of meditation Jackson could have a point. Not the nonsense about Satan, of course, but it is true that there are cults that use the "empty your mind" approach to meditation in order to induce trance and effectively brainwash their followers. The thing is, this is a complete distortion of how meditation works and has more in common with mass hypnosis than any sort of realization method. Forcing your mind to be empty has nothing to do with authentic meditation. The detached observation of thoughts as they arise is what the true practice looks like, and while a natural result of this sort of work is decreased mental chatter, a realized and awakened mind is anything but empty.

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John said...

What's a good book on yoga to follow?

Scott Stenwick said...

Trying to learn yoga from a book is pretty difficult. I learned it from taking classes, which I think is probably a lot more effective than reading about it. Hatha yoga is the particular variant that was employed in this study, but I don't know of a good book on it offhand.

Crowley's Eight Lectures on Yoga is a good place to start if you're interested in approaching yoga from a Thelemic perspective, along with the practices in Liber E vel Exercitiorum. Even then, though, it's really best to study with a teacher because it makes clearing up any misunderstanding of the text that much easier.