Yoga and Alexander technique: The one thing you need for a healthy brain

I’m walking from the South Bank to Waterloo station in London and it’s a really busy place. Lots and lots of people. I’m minding my own business and enjoying a lunch time walk when something looks odd. It’s as though all the people who are in my field of vision were actors in a film I was directing, and they’re all a bit hostile towards me.

I’ve just had a rare insight into how my brain and my visual system come together to create my current reality. My internal director is having to work really hard to project this vision of a hostile crowd on to the people who are around me.

I let go, I’m just in the middle of a crowd of people. My whole reality changes and all I can see is the people as they are, not as I imagine them to be. I feel a whole lot better and my eyesight improves as well.

Caroline Williams, a New Scientist journalist, in her book “Override: my quest to go beyond brain training and take control of my mind” lists three things to help your brain health. They’re surprisingly mundane. Diet, exercise and meditation.

It’s a bit surprising because diet and exercise don’t seem to be much about brains, but it turns out our brains are hugely influenced by our gut bacteria and much of our brain is about movement.

We all know that diet and exercise is good for us so I’m skipping those in this article. I will come back to these topics because many people are exercise averse and struggle to control their diet.

What about all those clever mind exercises that are supposed to stop Alzheimer’s in it’s tracks? Well, 50% of neuro scientists think they’re a load of rubbish.

In one study around of 11,000 people, found that brain puzzles and games do nothing to make you smarter in general. They do make you a bit better at the game you have been practising, but even then the effects don’t last very long. (Owen AM et al., (2010) ‘Putting Brain Training to the Test’, Nature, vol. 465, pp. 775– 78.)

There again, 50% think they are either harmless or quite effective. So, right now, take your pick.

Back to my internal movie director experience. My biggest insight that day is that it was my brain’s orientation to the world that was off. That orientation was a mixture of physical alignment of my body, mental focus, my intentions for living and what was in my field of vision.

And that for me is the one thing that I really need to have a healthy brain.

It’s that aspect of brain work that I’m focussing on in my workshop on the brain next week.

Our brains really like to be connected to the world, interacting with the world through our senses and our ideas about reality.

It’s our intention for presence, to be fully here and not somewhere in the past or future that makes a difference to our brain. This mental intention for presence wakes us up.

Once we have this, then we go to specific techniques that will allow us to realise this intention.

Alexander work, with it’s very nuanced ideas of the head and spine relationship means that our brain is in a good physical relationship with the world. I’ve been experimenting with this further by wondering which how this affects my brain inside my head. In particular, the thalamus and optic nerve area. I’ve found that my head can be in good relationship to my spine (forward and up in Alexander jargon) and my brain can still be slumped. I’ve been exploring the ideas of Eyebody to bring some awareness to this area. A lot of visual information goes through that middle of our brain and some of it ends up getting stuck in our memories.

What takes us out of this easy orientation to our environment? It’s our brain in survival mode. When we go into survival mode and the situation doesn’t warrant it (that is we are not about to be killed) we start believing things that aren’t real. We pay too much attention to things that don’t really matter.

It seems horribly simple to say, yet this is the thing that really has made all the difference to me: the intention for presence, to be here and now both inside my body and fully in the environment. That leads to a small change in the physical orientation of my brain, my eyes, my head and then the rest of my body follows.

My workshop on yoga and the brain next week is full but I’ll be running it again soon. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll drop you a note when I next put it on.

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© Kevin Saunders, Yogaground 2017

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