Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The brain is wider than the sky: integrating insights of neuroscience with Hatha Yoga

Michael McColly
Chicago, Illinois, United States

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —
Emily Dickenson

The age of neuroscience has arrived. Go to a bookstore, turn on a TV, open a magazine, and you’ll find evidence of America’s new fascination: the human brain. How we think, remember, perceive, feel, and imagine are no longer the subjects of philosophers and poets alone, but are under the eyes of an ever-growing number of scientists in a wide array of fields related to the study of the biology and evolution of the central nervous system. Advances in imaging technology, neurobiology, cognitive psychology and a host of converging fields have brought us even to the brink of unlocking the very biological basis of consciousness itself.

Though we are only just beginning to understand the complexities of the brain, long-held theories in both the physical and social sciences have been challenged by new research. Following the revolutions of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, and the discovery of DNA and the genetic code; neuroscience has initiated the fifth revolution in the sciences, according to neurologist V. S. Ramanachandran, whose groundbreaking work led to the treatment for the mysterious neurological disorder of phantom limbs. These remarkable discoveries related to brain plasticity and mirror neurons have brought us back to the wisdom of sages like Patanjali, Buddha, and Aristotle who long ago understood that exploring the frontiers of the mind would in the end determine the fate of humankind.

Brain plasticity, for example, has debunked the accepted belief that beyond early childhood the brain was largely frozen and unable to reconfigure neural connections. Now with the ability to observe brain activity with fMRIs, neuroscientists are suggesting that intensified retraining of the brain not only rewires the brain, but also enlarges or restructures parts that are actively used. Scientists have learned that patients with brain injury or sensory impairment can recover brain function with sustained retraining regimens, facilitating the brain’s natural capacity to adapt and compensate—not only creating neural pathways that circumvent damaged areas of the brain, but also triggering the growth of new neurons as well. In other words, the brain employs what humans confronted with challenge have used for generations to evolve: creativity.

Neuroscience is discovering that the brain is an evolving organ that matures as we respond to our environment, our genes, and our physical, emotional, and mental experiences. Intelligent, conscious and healthy actions and behaviors need reinforcement, or the brain will follow whatever patterns we provide for it, healthy or unhealthy. This sounds familiar to practitioners of mind/body practices and recreational exercise, who have been convinced that these disciplines and activities exercise the mind as well as the body. Sustained mind/body disciplines such as Hatha yoga, Buddhist mindfulness practices, and contemplative prayer focus can entrain the mind in ways that are very helpful in cultivating this natural plasticity in the brain. Although, in Western culture, the relationship of these spiritual disciplines is not immediately clear, the Buddha and his followers in fact adapted their meditative practices from those developed and refined by Hindu priests into the art of Raja yoga, a subset of which is the practice of Hatha yoga. Many Buddhists and yoga experts offer different approaches, but the physiological effects of meditation of the two traditions are nearly the same. It is from this understanding that the concept of mind/body practices are discussed throughout the article.

As a result of this increasingly clear link between the benefits of mind/body practices and recent discoveries in neuroscience, many psychiatrists, psychologists and educators are studying the applications of meditative practices in classrooms, therapy, and correctional institutions. Some of the key parallels that mind/body disciplines share with these recent discoveries in neuroscience include the concepts of agency, awareness, focus, imagination, and empathy. This article will explore each of these concepts with regards to their relationship to corresponding discoveries in neuroscience and their application through mind/body practices.


Agency, attitude, and information

Attitude is everything. Framing the mind with a positive intention and staying focused is not just a cliché you hear in sports advertisements, it is how the brain works most effectively. For instance, Richard Nesbitt, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan gave an experimental group of middle school students a special tutorial on how their brains worked, reinforcing the basic idea that it was their own work habits and ability to learn—not their parent’s income or educational background—that determined their academic success. Testing showed that the students given the tutorial not only outperformed other students in their school, but they also exceeded national averages for their age.

Daniel Siegel, interpersonal neurobiologist and professor of psychiatry at UCLA, is exploring the same basic techniques used on the students, but instead with psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and their patients. Siegel advises therapists to use actual models of the brain in therapy sessions to help patients visualize and understand what is happening in their brains when they are depressed or emotionally troubled. Patients are relieved to know that their frustrations are a brain processing problem rather than a lack of will or emotional strength. Afterwards, the therapist teaches the patient an easy mindfulness exercise to calm them down when these frustrations and emotions emerge. Educating people on how their brain works and offering them tools to change attitudes makes a difference. Why? Because they are actively and consciously involved in changing the wiring of neural pathways in their brains.

The phenomenon is similar in mind/body practices such as Hatha Yoga. The framing and focusing of the mind begins with calming the mind. Patanjali begins The Yoga Sutras with the famous basic premise to guide the yogi: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuating patterns of the mind.” In Hatha yoga and in Buddhist meditation practices, the practitioner first learns to observe the mind as it cycles through patterns of thought and emotions. When the waves of thought begin to subside, a positive intention is then introduced. I always begin my yoga classes with breathing exercises and a short meditation; but before I do, I ask students to think of an intention for their practice. This ritual of quieting the mind and then framing it helps students focus and engage emotionally. Throughout their practice I ask the students to consider this intention—reminding them that the poses they are practicing are not just strengthening and challenging their bodies, but their nervous systems and brains as well.


Awareness and perception

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, is also interested in how meditation affects brain function. He wired up several Tibetan monks and novice practitioners to compare the activity within their brains as they meditated. What he discovered was that these monks could reach not only unprecedented low levels of brain activity, but also alpha and theta frequencies within minutes of their sitting.

What the monks revealed so beautifully was the limitless potential we have of training the mind to affect states of consciousness and well-being. But their skill came from a long series of learning experiences in which interconnecting groups of neurons were forged as newly formed neural pathways were used over and over again. The first step in this process, which occurs through the development of a meditative practice, is to actually calm the mind in order to focus. Once the mind is calm, the real work of meditation begins as practitioners begin to first observe and then feel what it means to influence their own thoughts.

When we are focused, we enable the brain to do its primary function: to process or integrate information into the various centers in the brain necessary to learn. The stronger the signals, the stronger the memory for the next time we practice. Awareness is registered in both the conscious and unconscious mind. As we practice yoga, we begin to cultivate deeper and deeper levels of sense perception.

World renowned yoga master, B.K.S. Iyengar speaks of involution as he describes the learning process of yoga; in other words, we develop our practice by working from the outside of the body, learning from our five senses (particularly touch and balance), and progressively moving deeper into muscles, organs, energy centers in the core of our bodies. When we practice we use several layers of perception: the exteroceptors (the five senses and balance), the interoceptors (the feeling of the organs as they function), and proprioceptors (or some may say the kinesthetic sense), which regulate effort and the feeling of muscles and joints as we move or hold a pose. Perception is a feedback mechanism—the brain processes each experience to create more elaborate sets of maps in the brain. It is important then in a yoga class to remind people that what they are learning is not just how to perform a pose, but how to feel it.

This same process occurs in meditation. As we sit, we are not only psychologically challenged as we observe countless patterns of repetitive thoughts and emotions, but we are also learning to pay very close attention to sensations coming from the body. In particular, when we are first learning, we are focusing on the feeling of our lungs and the muscles associated with breath. But as we develop the skill and stamina to sit for longer periods, we can begin to notice our awareness dropping from the buzzing in the mind downward to the core and energy centers of the body. The frequent practice of meditation allows the practitioner to repeat this process with greater speed and efficacy as she progresses, as Davidson’s monks demonstrated.


Imagination, visualization, and metaphor

As a writer and teacher of writing, one of the most compelling findings of neuroscience has been in the area of imagination and language. I have long suspected that the creative work of an artist—writer, painter, or musician—provides pleasure in a profound way, not only because it simply inspires us emotionally and intellectually, but also because the work engages our imaginations deep within the unconscious. And this is exactly the case, as many brain researchers are discovering. The modernist painters such as Cezanne and Van Gogh arrested our minds because they mimicked the process the brain goes through as it imagines and perceives. The same is true of poets and writers. Imagery and metaphors trigger a very complex process in the brain as memory, emotion, cognition, and the imagination collectively recreate what we read from our own experience. When a reader remarks that they were so involved with a book that it felt as if it were happening to them, they may be surprised to know that, according to their minds, it actually did happen to them. The reader must work to translate what he reads into some semblance of it with his own mind. Artful expressions and imagery not only primes and expands the imagination, it demands that we become artists ourselves as we appreciate and process what artists present to us.

Imagination has become one of the areas I have begun to explore in my practice and teaching. I have often employed metaphors referring to nature such as flowering and rooting to help guide me in a pose. Richard Freeman, one of America’s most respected yoga scholars and teachers, often uses metaphors such as “flowering,” “rooting,” and other metaphors of classic poetry that refer to nature. But as I have come to understand, metaphors aren’t just pleasing figurative language; they serve like mandalas, or symbols, that engage the imagination in order to entrain the mind and cultivate deeper states of awareness. By telling a student to imagine the bottoms of his feet spreading and setting down roots into the earth in the mountain pose, we assist the student to direct his focus to his feet; the student, through the focus, will feel more intensely the sensations within their feet and thus develop a deeper sense of balance.


Empathy and mirror neurons

Finally, one of the more fascinating discoveries over the past few years is the neurobiological explanation for how we are affected by the movement and sensations of other bodies around us. Have you ever wondered how a flock of birds instantaneously sets off in flight because of one bird’s response to a predator? Or why we unconsciously yawn or smile when we witness someone else doing the same? Italian neuroscientists Iaccomo, Rizzolati, and Vittorio Gallasse have found that animals and humans are equipped with an adaptive mechanism in our nervous system called mirror neurons. They wired macaque monkeys and watched where neurons fired in their brains when they engaged in complex motor movements such as reaching for food, pulling a lever, or pushing a door.  But what was incredible to the scientists was that these same neurons fired precisely in the same areas of the brain when these monkeys watched other monkeys perform the same actions. Mirror neurons are triggered in the body unconsciously as we perceive not only the actions of others, but also their facial gestures, and emotions.

It has always been amazing to me to experience how students in a yoga class attune to one another’s focus and physical awareness, thereby heightening the therapeutic effect for everyone in the class. This phenomenon occurs in a variety of group interactions where there is a collective focus on a goal or shared purpose. As social animals we have evolved to be highly sensitive to the needs and emotions of others in our group. Researchers are beginning to understand the profound capabilities we have to feel empathy and how important interpersonal skills are to our health and survival.

Daniel Siegel in his study of interpersonal neurobiology recognizes that humans often cannot access deep emotional patterns alone, but require the presence of another witnessing and actively feeling the emotion along with them. He trains therapists to develop a keen awareness of both the body of their patients as well as their own as they listen and offer feedback. Siegel believes that therapeutic skill is both a verbal and nonverbal art. By teaching therapists to use mindfulness and breathing techniques, Siegel hopes therapists can in turn help patients to trust their own bodily sensations as they relate narratives or speak about difficult emotional issues in their lives.

It is not surprising that we are seeing a renewed interest in the benefits of mindfulness, yoga, and other practices that involve integrating the mind and body. Our times are fraught with anxieties that we feel we have little control over, be they the world economy, war and terrorism, global warming, or the fecklessness of government. The scientific exploration into the mysteries of how the brain functions comes at a crucial time. We cannot continue to act as if our brains and bodies can increasingly absorb or process empty bits of information without thinking they have an effect on our health or that of the Earth’s. Mind/body practices are real pragmatic applications for cultivating the potential of all of the body’s many forms of intelligence. The excitement of these new scientific discoveries, however, will mean little if the billions of dollars given to research institutes do not translate into ability for people to learn how to cultivate the wisdom they already possess. It is my hope that, together, these ancient and modern systems of knowledge can learn from each other to help us all unlock the potentials of the human mind.



  1. Davidson, Richard J., Kabat-Zinn, Jon, Schumacher, and others. “Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation.” Psychosomatic Medicine 65 (2003): 564-570.
  2. Dickenson, Emily. The Collected Works of Emily Dickenson.
  3. Freeman, Richard. Yoga Matrix, CD set, Sounds True, 2001.
  4. Iyengar, B.K.S. Light On Life. Rodale, 2005.
  5. Jung, Carl. G. Collected Works. Princeton University Press.
  6. Kristoff, Nicholas. “How To Raise Our I.Q.” New York Times 16 April 16 2009.
  7. Modell, Arnold. Imagination and the Meaningful Brain. MIT Press, 2003.
  8. Nesbitt, Richard. Intelligence and How To Get It. Norton, 2009.
  9. Ramachandran, V.S. “Mirror Neurons and the Brain in the Vat,” Edge: The Third Culture 1 (2006).
  10. Ramachandran, V.S. The Man with The Phantom Twin: Adventures in the Neuroscience of The Brain. Dutton, 2008.
  11. Rizzolati, Iaccomo. Mirrors In The Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions and Emotions. Oxford Univ. Press, 2008.
  12. Scarry, Elaine. Dreaming By The Book. Princeton University Press, 1999
  13. Siegel, Daniel. The Developing Mind. Gulliford Press, 1999.



MICHAEL MCCOLLY has been blending yoga philosophy into his teachings of creative writing for the past decade, offering workshops for activists, medical students, writers, art therapists, and yoga practitioners. He holds degrees in Religious Studies and Creative Writing and has been teaching Yoga for over 14 years. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Ascent, and The Sun and his last book, The After-Death Room, was a Lambda Award winner for Spiritual Writing in 2007. His work blending yoga, activism and creativity has been featured in Yoga Journal, The Chicago Tribune, Ascent, and Indianapolis Public Television. He teaches creative writing in the graduate Program at Northwestern and offers an innovative course on yoga and creative writing each spring at Columbia College. He is also a senior teacher at Yoga Now Studio in Chicago. See more of his work at www.michaelmccolly.com and on his blog on creativity and yoga: www.michaelmccolly.vox.com


Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2009- Volume 1, Issue 5

Fall 2009  |  Sections  |  Neurology

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