Yoga hones the brain through movement (and stillness)

The British neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert spoke at a TED conference two years ago about The Real Reason for the Brain. He calls himself a “movement chauvinist.”

Wolpert gets a bit geeky for non-scientists in proving his point in the talk, but his main premise is that the purpose of the brain is adaptable and complex movement because movement is the only way of affecting the world around us.  He points out that a computer can beat a world-class chess master, but a child can outdo a computer when it comes to moving the physical chess pieces. When analyzed from a scientific perspective, the brain’s sensorimotor control of the body is not something that can be reduced to computer code.

He said, “I believe that to understand movement is to understand the whole brain. And therefore it’s important to remember when you are studying memory, cognition, sensory processing, they’re there for a reason, and that reason is action.” He did not say anything about yoga.

As yoga practitioners, instructors and masters, we delve and dive into movement, from asana to asana, through vinyasa and kriya. We sequence poses so that they flow together and balance out. But we are not just concerned about moving our bodies through three-dimensional space. We move breath through our lungs. We move energy along the pranic channels of our bodies, through the sheaths of our being. We share energy with each other in our practice. We refine balance to suspend the body in space and stretch our limbs to their limits. We may not levitate, but if you look at some yogis (a few teachers at Thrive Yoga, for instance), they seem to defy gravity.  For the more metaphysically ambitious, we can move compassion and kindness around the world.

Ironically, our movement does not really take us beyond the borders of our mats.  To borrow a phrase from the yoga teacher Erich Schiffmann, yoga is the “spirit and practice of moving into stillness.”  Even the most vigorous vinyasa flow eventually slows down to savasana (corpse pose) and the silence of meditation. In yoga, movement spirals inward and begins an exploration of the human mind, soul, and collective, and the universe. In our most motionless manifestation, we are boundless.

My classmates and I at the Thrive Yoga teacher training July intensive are only just beginning our excursion into movement. We are contemplating 26 days (probably more) of motion and breath, where we are today on our mats, and our calling of movement and stillness.

It’s fitting to recall what the poet T.S. Eliot wrote:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring,
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”