Friday, 18 December 2015

Samskaras and neuroplasticity, breaking the habits...

Sutra 3:9 of Patanjali's yoga sutra states:

The transformation toward total stillness occurs as new latent expressions fostering cessation arise to prevent the activation of distractive stored ones, and moments of stillness begin to permeate consciousness. (Chip Hartranft, 2003).

Exploring the word samskara; Sam = To come together; kara comes from the root 'kud' which means 'to create'. So samskaras are creations, things that we create ourselves. If we think of samskaras as grooves, we can think of our repeated actions chiselling out these grooves, making them deeper, imprinting them deeper into our consciousness, which makes these grooves harder to get out of, harder to fill in. 

Samskaras are things that come into being, through a process, through the coming together of actions. If this is the case, then what comes into being can also come apart. What arises can also pass away. All formations created out of conditions are transient, they come and they go.  Beliefs too, are samskaras. Beliefs are born out of our conditioned (material) world. Therefore if beliefs are born out of conditions, which are arbitrary and transitory, then it follows that they have no solid foundation and as such can pass as quickly as they were born. Luckily for us, samskaras are transitory, the grooves can be deep, but we can create new grooves and the old grooves over time will infill themselves until they are just a faint scar in our conscious mind, having no hold over us. We all have the innate power to change through practice.
You are not just a brain in a vat!

Thus as Patanjali states, we can create new latent expressions (samskaras) which will stop the old distractive stored ones and total stillness and peace can arise. 'Neurons that fire together, wire together'.

Neuro-plasticity is the core of understanding samskaras; no-one is 'hard-wired', they may have deep samskaras yes, but the brain is plastic and as such can change its structure and function by how we act, re-act, don't act, how we think and how we imagine things. It may just be harder and require more practice to carve out new and healthier neurological pathways. Plasticity exists at every level, the behaviour of the body, of bones, of cells, of thoughts and images. So in yoga we first of all work on the gross body, we change the way it moves, it functions and the more we do this the deeper those changes permeate into the bones, the muscles, the cells, our thoughts and our beliefs. It is even thought it can change on a genetic level, with the possibility of affecting the evolution of the human species. 

So we can use our regular practice to re-sculpt our brain, first finding more plasticity in order for it to change, then to create more structure so that new, healthier patterns remain. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Maintaining a Healthy Psoas

Responses to stress are hardwired into our nervous system and result in the contraction of the major flexors of the torso—somewhat like the response of a caterpillar if you poke it with a twig. For example, a tightening in the gut, the hunching of the shoulders, the sinking of the heart. As with all responses to stress, the problem is that the response becomes habitual, resulting in chronic tension and contraction, which we then experience as our “normal” state. Our yoga practice is an opportunity to undo this chronic tension and establish a deep and abiding sense of harmony in the body and mind. 

Tension in the Psoas

The psoas (so-as), an important flexor muscle, is particularly sensitive to emotional states. It runs from the thigh bone through the length of the belly and is the major flexor of the hip—it’s the psoas that lifts the thigh as you walk. It also acts in conjunction with the spinal muscles to support the lumbar spine. The psoas is a paired muscle, originating on the lowest thoracic vertebra and each of the five lumbar vertebrae of the lower back, and extending down through the pelvis to attach on the inside of the upper femur. It crosses three major joints—the hip socket, the joint between the lumbar spine and the sacrum (L5-S1), and the sacroiliac joint (SI joint between the sacrum and the pelvis). So it’s easy to see that if the psoas is not healthy and strong, there are major repercussions throughout the body.
Chronic contraction of the psoas, whether from stress or repetitive activity, limits range of movement in the hip sockets, with the frequent result of strain in the lumbar spine and the knees. 
Through its attachments to the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, the psoas affects a number of other important muscles, including the diaphragm, the trapezius and the quadratus lumborum, which also attach on these vertebrae. Through these muscles, tension in the psoas has the potential to seriously compromise structural integrity and physiological functioning throughout the upper torso as well as the pelvis and abdomen. If the upper segment of the psoas is tight and constricted, the lumbar spine hyperextends, the chest collapses, the lower ribs thrust forward, and breathing patterns are affected. Many problems in stability and alignment in yoga postures, lower back discomfort or injury, integration between the pelvis and the chest, meditation sitting postures and dysfunctional breathing patterns are directly related to tension in the psoas.
Strengthening and/or stretching alone may not result in a healthy psoas. Repetitions of leglifts, sit-ups, weightlifting, even standing postures, when done mechanically, may only reinforce existing patterns and do little to restore a healthy resting length for the psoas. In fact, improper training may increase the tension, restricting blood flow and increasing rather than reducing the overall stress level. For that reason a systematic relaxation practice can help with alignment, physiological functioning and the host of evils we have touched on above. A few simple stretches done with the intention to gently release the grip of these flexors and open up the breath will go a long way to restoring balance and comfort to all your body. 
For the full article including yoga postures to help release tension in the psoas, please see

Happy stretching!