Sunday, February 15, 2009


If you ask practitioners why they do yoga, the predominant answer tends to be "because it makes me feel  good". does a vodka and lime, lying in the sun and sipping on a hot chocolate on a cold  winter's day. But what is so DIFFERENT about yoga? What is it that yoga gives you that having a quick jog around the park or an "aperitivo"simply doesn't? 

It's a question that I've been pondering for quite some time now and a certain Jill Bolte Taylor has helped me confirm or consolidate (if not prove) what I suspected. 

Who is Jill Bolte Taylor? An amazing woman, brain scientist and researcher who one day woke up as her own patient. She got out of bed one morning feeling a little strange, and it wasn't until a few hours and a paralyzed arm later that she realized she was having a stroke; a blood vessel had exploded in the left side of her brain. 

This lead her standing at death's door, to brain surgery, eight years of recovery, and to incredible insight into humanity. 

The right and left side of the brain

The right hemisphere of the brain concentrates on the present moment in time, as Jill says it thinks in pictures and learns kinesthetically through the movement of our body. Information in the form of energy streams in through all the senses of our body:  smell, touch, visual clues, sounds are brought in together creating a completed  jigsaw of what this present moment  IS to us. 

The left hemisphere on the other hand,  thinks linearly, methodically of the  past and of the  future. It takes all details of the present  moment , categorizes this information, links it to what has happened in the past in order to calculate how this information may be useful in future scenarios. It thinks linguistically -  it's the part of me that says "it's time to; get the kids ready for school, do the shopping, phone my mum, prepare my class etc. etc." It's calculating intelligence (whereas I wonder if the right side of the brain could be translated into "emotive sensorial intelligence"). The left side as Jill points out, states   "I AM ! ". And in declaring "I AM" you are underlining the fact that "I am a separate being from YOU and from everyone else". It's the cerebral "I'm Alright Jack". It's egocentric, it's independent, it's fighting for individuality.   

Well, this little section of the brain that separates one from the rest of humanity is what Jill Bolte Taylor lost on the day of her hemorrhage.

Jill's experience

The verbal dictator (ie. left hemisphere) in her head that morning all of a sudden kept cutting out. One minute she'd be thinking; "oh my god - I'm having a stroke!!!" (being  a neuroscientist she had a pretty good idea about what was happening) to the next minute when she would be catapulted into complete SILENCE. She said it was BEAUTIFUL. Dreamlike. She felt huge, expansive, light, "a whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria". 

At one stage when her left hemisphere despot gave up command and the right side stepped in, Jill looked down to see her hands and realized there was no longer a boundary between her body and the ambient around her. The atoms and molecules of her skin were blending in with the atoms and molecules of her surroundings. She felt she were no longer a separate being - she was a part of everything. She felt peaceful, calm and intensely happy. She had found nirvana. 

And this is what is so incredible;  she was able to  a) experience "nirvana" and b) still be alive whilst doing so. This lead her to  realize that if SHE could do it, ANYONE could do it. She wasn't just thinking positively she was proving this to be the case. I would say this is good news for all of us. 

"Left or right? Which do you choose?"

At the end of her very moving talk she invites everyone to make a choice - to choose to "step to the right side of our brain" in order to project peace into this world. 

It's an incredibly inspiring talk (to listen and watch the 18 minute talk/video click the link at the bottom of the post) and experience. I think she has a good point - you can choose to step into the realms of the right hemisphere.... What she doesn't say however, is HOW one can do this. How do you volontarily access the "peace" hemisphere of your brain?  (preferably without having to go through a stroke to do so?). Two things immediately came to my mind, one was through meditation and the other was yoga. Now considering this is a blog about yoga lets just look into that. 

Think about how you feel post-yoga, when you are lying down on your mat in shavasana. Personally I feel like any previous worries and preoccupations have lessened if not disappeared altogether (all be it temporarily), any future plans no longer seem so important nor urgent, the bees in my bonnet have finally come to rest.  My body suddenly feels like it is part of me - not just an appendix to my head. I feel calm, present, peaceful, fully alive. I feel "open". It has always struck me that post-yoga I no longer feel the constant necessity to TALK. Is this because my linguistic left side has been dominated temporarily by the right? This is what I suspect and hope (In fact if you observe the changing room PRE yoga class it's full of happy chatter, yet afterwards there is a thoughtful contented silence broken by the odd murmur. Either because my clients are so exhausted after my class they can't speak, OR because...perhaps for an hour or so the right side of their brain has been given a little time and a  little space in which to make itself heard). However rather than the lack of the need of linguist "company", I think it's what  you feel during and post yoga that indicates the right hemisphere is coming into play; peacfulness, spaciousness, calm and contentment.

So - to go back to my original question;  why do we have a "feel good" sensation with yoga? I think Jill Bolte Taylor has given us a possible answer. 

I think it's interesting to note however that I do know of clients who have been coming to me for years and who never seem to plug into the right side of their brain at all (this is simply an observation NOT a criticism!).  I see they get a lot from yoga in a purely physical way, they feel taller, more flexible,  stronger and the physical exertion  leaves them feeling more relaxed. A little like what a work out at the gym might leave you with. And that's fine - everyone gets from it what they can. 

I invite everyone to watch this amazing woman talk about her experience here;  

and strongly suggest you have a box of tissues at hand. 

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