Don't Worry, Be Happy - Yoga and the New Science of Neuroplasticity

“What you put your attention on, grows stronger in your life.”  ~ Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

In this interview, Kristine Kaoverii Weber, founder of Subtle Yoga and the co-director of the Subtle Yoga Teacher Training for Behavioral Health Professionals, discusses the emerging science of neuroplasticity and what it means for our approach to dealing with common human issues like stress, anxiety, depression, and more. She also talks about her YogaUOnline course: Recreating Your Story - Neuroplasticity and the Art of Conscious Transformation.

YogaUOnline: Neuroplasticity bas become a big buzz word. As I understand it, it’s essentially this simple concept that the brain changes continually, to reinforce what we put our attention on. So, for example, if we put our attention on positive things, that will get reinforced in our life, and vice versa. Of course, there’s a lot more to it. Tell us about neuroplasticity and how it works.

Kristine Kaoverii Weber: Yes, this is a phenomenon known as competitive plasticity.  Essentially you only have a certain amount of real estate in your brain, and the wiring of the brain is enforced around whatever you’re putting your attention on.

This apparently is part of the reason why bad habits are difficult to break or unlearn. So the other thing I think might be useful to understand here is the difference between attention networks and default ruminative networks because they often are seen as competitive. You can either be focused and doing what you’re doing and kind of moving forward and with a clear sense of focus or you can be more in a state of rumination where you’re letting the mind go free.

Ruminative networks used to be thought of as default networks that were purely negative, that when somebody’s not occupied with something, they’re going into negative thinking patterns. But at Harvard, they recently said, “No, that’s not true. Ruminative networks are only negative if that’s the way your brain bias is.” That’s the way that you’ve programmed your brain.

So if we are looking at competitive plasticity from the therapeutic perspective, then it means helping people who tend to bias towards negativity. I think what’s happening is by using practices like mantra or positive affirmation, positive intention, especially when you’re doing them with some kind of a yoga posture, then you’re giving the nervous system a chance to reorganize and to tell itself a different story from the story it’s been ruminating on over and over again, whatever that is.

YogaUOnline: We all have our ‘stories,’ or interpretation of the events in our life. As many wise people have pointed out, our stories shape how we perceive an experience. But from what you’re saying, the stories we tell ourselves can actually shape our brain as well?

Kristine Kaoverii Weber: Yes. That is one of the most inspiring and exciting things about neuroplasticity – this idea that our story creates who we are.

In essence, the stories that we tell ourselves are creating our reality all the time. This is not only the stories that we tell ourselves but also the stories that we have heard and we’ve internalized. We’ve heard stories from our family. We’ve heard them from our culture. Some of those stories, we take them in and they become us – that idea that your biology is your biography. So, you could say that your body tells the story of your life, and the great news is that we have an opportunity to shift that story.

The other piece about storytelling is how it affects the limbic system, and how it affects the production of oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes called the love molecule. It’s also the neuropeptide that makes us connect with each other. Stories help us to connect to ourselves. Oxytocin makes us feel a sense of belonging, a sense of connection, a sense of social engagement, a sense of happiness, a sense of calmness in the system. It’s an important molecule.

What it ties me back into with oxytocin is this idea that yoga is a practice of relationship and connection. It’s our relationship to each other. It’s our relationship to ourselves. It’s our relationship to our higher power. And that relationship plays out through stories. The way we talk to ourselves about ourselves, the way we talk to God or our higher power, the way we talk to each other- all of that is a reflection of these stories that we have told ourselves and internalized.

YogaUOnline: How does this apply to the practice of yoga? The body changes when we practice yoga. So does this mean that the brain changes as well?

Kristine Kaoverii Weber: Yes, it’s very exciting.  Early research shows that the longer you’ve been practicing yoga, the more you tend to bias towards the use of the left forebrain and have more gray matter in the left forebrain.

So, what does that mean? Well, the left forebrain is connected to three main things – prosocial behavior, positive affect, i.e. positive emotions, and self-regulation. This may sound very academic, but practically speaking, these are three things that really affect your happiness and wellbeing.

Prosocial behavior means that we are being able to engage with others. Positive affect means that you generally are in a place of feeling positive and hopeful. Self-regulation is the capacity to regulate your nervous system internally, so you stay balanced and centered.

YogaUOnline: Do these changes only apply to long term practitioners of yoga?

Kristine Kaoverii Weber: No. That particular study, which was from the National Institute of Health, also showed that people who had not been practicing yoga that long but practiced regularly exhibited changes in the midline structures of the brain, which relate to our capacity to reflect on our body and ourselves.

So, this includes, for example, proprioception - knowing where your body is in space. It includes interoception: Knowing how your body feels, and neuroception: Knowing if your body is safe is.

Why are these things important? Because if you know where you are and you know who you are, you know what to do, you can make good decisions; you can make choices that are healthy.

On the other hand, if you’re cut off from how your body feels, you tend to make bad choices. You don’t feel safe in your body, and you tend to have less mindfulness. So you engage in the same dysfunctional behaviours and patterns over and over again.

So this idea that regular yoga practice even after a short time of regular practice increases our sense of self-awareness is very inspiring. These changes can even happen after two weeks.

YogaUOnline: Rick Hanson, who wrote the book Buddha’s Brain says that we have a tendency to latch on to negative experiences – in his words, the brain reacts like Velcro to negative experiences and Teflon to positive ones. What are your thoughts on that?

Kristine Kaoverii Weber: Basically, what he’s says is that we are hardwired as humans for survival, so we have to pay attention to things in our life that might be threatening to us, and we don’t have to pay attention to the good stuff. So we may have five people say something nice to us in a week, but what we’ll remember is the person who was critical and negative.

And that can be a motivating thing to help you work on whatever about your teaching skills. But Our brain is hardwired to remember the negative experiences because that primitively was the way that we survived. That hardwiring is very healthy because it is what makes us survive.

But when it starts to spill over into dysfunctional thoughts (i.e.anxiety or any of the kind of habits that we have of the mind that tend to interfere with our daily functioning), that’s when it becomes problematic. And that’s when we really have to work hard to start biasing more towards that positively and optimism and hope.

YogaUOnline: Psychology professor, Martin Seligman has pointed out that there’s an important difference between relieving misery and actually building happiness.  What is your take on how that fits into this changing the brain to hold a happier state?

Kristine Kaoverii Weber: Yes, Martin Seligman was the president of the American Psychological Association. After working in the field for decades, he realized that he wasn’t helping his clients to enhance their wellbeing, he was just helping them get to zero with therapy.

Just because you get somebody to zero, doesn’t mean that they are leveraging their assets and transforming in a positive way and self-actualizing. And interestingly, if you look at the history of mental health, the development of positive psychology in this country, it’s largely related to the awareness of Westerners of Easter practices.

Some aspects of Western psychology via e.g. Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow, is strongly influenced by Eastern thought. And what the yogis were so good at was describing human potential. They understood what real mental health is and how you can start looking at aspects of your life that need to be shifted and changed. It’s not easy, but they developed so many ways to make possible.

And now, this wonderful information from neuroscience is really just a way for us to explain what the yogis were talking about. It’s just the merging or the coming together of Western scientific thought with the Eastern understanding of human psychology and potential.

YogaUOnline: You have a course here on Yoga U Online called “Change Your Story, Change Your Life: Yoga, Neuroplasticity, and the Art of Conscious Transformation”. What will you cover in the course?

Kristine Kaoverii Weber: In this series, we’re going to break it down with into practical lessons, so you can see how these principles apply in a very practical way to our yoga practice. It’s a very exciting new area of research.

So I think it’s really inspiring because it helps people to see in sort of a really concrete… You can always say, like, “Oh, you’re a nicer person because you practice yoga and I’ve seen the changes in you,” but for people to see in this really concrete way, the research that has come out that has shown the changes in the gray matter and certain structures of the brain, that’s really hopeful, I think.

And it helps people have that sense of, like, “Okay, I can do something.” It’s very empowering. “I can do something about the way that I feel. I can do something to make something function better,” whereas that was not an option before.

Interested in learning more about yoga and neuroplasticity? Check out the free download that contains Kristine Kaoverii Weber's full talk!