The Neurology Behind Patanjali’s Yoga

Nov 7th, 2015

Patanjali’s yoga is often classified as a system of yoga that falls under the category of “Raja Yoga” – the yoga of meditation. While I had an opportunity to read several philosophical and spiritual interpretations of the yoga sutras, it was for the first time with a teacher called Manoj Kaimal, that I viewed the yoga sutras from the lens of Neurology! Patanjali defines yoga as “Yogash chitta vritti Nirodhah”: Yoga is the dissolution of fluctuations in the consciousness. So for Patanjali, yoga is Samadhi! Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyan lead to Samadhi.

So from a neurological perspective where would we allocate vritti,pratyahara, dharna and dhyan in the brain?

Manoj explains that within us we house two selves – the story based self and the non story based self.

The Story Based Self

The story based self dwells in the past, present and future and is associated with increased activities in the medial pre frontal cortex, hippocampus, basal ganglia. Vrittis therefore (both helpful and unhelpful) are also associated with these structures of the brain. Vritti is a thought and any thought is an electrical activity in the brain.

Our planning self: The pre frontal cortex is like the CEO of the brain associated with planning, reasoning and doing. Often this area is overactive among most of us who are planning too much and living in the future. Therefore it gets a constant supply of blood and glucose. The over activity in this area of the brain is also an indication that we are moving away from the present moment which is fundamental to the practice of yoga.

The worrying and fearing self: Fear is one of the reasons why we experience dislike or worry and constantly find ourselves running between the past and future scenarios. This happens because something triggers our Hippocampus in the brain. Hippocampus stores long term memory, even evolutionary memory. In the evolutionary process man has had to face several threats. The fears arising from these are stored in trace forms (samskaras) in the Hippocampus. It is for this reason that the human brain is negatively pre disposed.bouncy castle A hundred compliments in one day can get wiped out with one criticism because criticism is perceived as a threat and activates the Hippocampus triggering stress, panic and dislike.

Our limbic system that houses the amygdala presses the panic button and keeps us on a survival mode. This can be a great thing if we are facing real danger, and if it is firing for a short time, but if we are constantly feeling threatened, then the corresponding stress hormones, in particular cortisol,can create damage in the long run.  Dwelling in the past or the future is non conducive to the state of Samadhi and our practice should be such that the activity in the pre frontal cortex is only to the necessary degree.

Our auto pilot absent minded self: Have you noticed how when driving on the same route to home and wanting to reach a different destination, you actually land at home?! This is because of increased blood and glucose to the basal ganglia in the brain. All activities that we repeat constantly (daily routines) get stored as memory in basal ganglia. Excessive, unnecessary activity in basal ganglia put us on auto pilot mode. This is non conducive on the path of yoga since it breaks present minded attention.


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