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Train Your Brain

Plasticity: the flexibility or ability to bend

Yoga creates more than one kind of flexibility

As you are reading a weekly blog called “Yoga Thoughts,” you might suspect that this is an essay on physical flexibility – the plasticity of your body. And while a yoga practice will absolutely increase the plasticity of your muscles, and while that flexibility is absolutely good for your overall physical wellbeing, this essay is about the plasticity of your brain.

What is neuroplasticity?

As a long-time yogi who is also the mother of a college student studying neuroscience, the concept of neuroplasticity fascinates me. This is the ability of our nervous systems to change the way they respond to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing their structure, functions, or connections. I feel that my daughter and I are studying this concept from different angles.

Up until quite recently, it was assumed that neuroplasticity peaked as we reached adulthood – roughly the early to mid-20s. Studies have revealed, however, that with daily practice people can maintain brain plasticity throughout their lives. Whether or not you’ve experienced your first “senior moment,” this is very good news!

The key to maintaining and even developing plasticity is being diligent about seeking challenges to our habitual ways of doing anything. The same is true of neuroplasticity. We must seek challenges to our ways of thinking and solving problems. When we do so, our brain is inspired to create new neural pathways. Not unlike the physical sensations of stretching muscles, neuroplasticity is something we can actually feel.

A popular new game provides an experience with plasticity

Not too long ago, my kids introduced me to Wordle, an internet-based word game that everyone seems to be playing these days. If you haven’t yet tried it, it is a daily puzzle where you try to figure out a five-letter word in six tries. You get feedback on each of your guesses – which letters are not in the word, which letters are in the word but in another place, and which letters are correct.

I love word games and eagerly agreed to try it. Folks, it actually hurt my brain. I swear I could feel my mental gears grinding as my mind, which is quite accustomed to making words out of a handful of available letters (Words With Friends, Scrabble, Boggle), tried to figure out a word that could contain any letter at all.

I finished my first round of the game feeling the way I vaguely remember feeling in my earliest yoga classes. Surprisingly challenged that something that appeared to be so simple could be so incredibly hard. A little sore and a little stiff. And, mostly, ready for another go!

Persistence and practice lead to plasticity

Just as was my physical experience on my yoga mat, by showing up each day to play (a.k.a. practice), my experience with Wordle has changed dramatically. While playing the game is not easier, I’m pleased to say it no longer hurts. In only 14 days, I can tell that my mind is rising to the challenge of the puzzle by creating new neural pathways because of the mental flexibility or freedom I feel as I fiddle around trying to solve the puzzle.

Yoga postures obviously improve the plasticity of the body. In asking us to figure out how to follow complicated instructions to form intricate shapes with our bodies, yoga is also challenging our neuroplasticity. Most obviously, practicing yoga asks us to develop neural pathways that help us do new things with ever increasingly ease and grace.

The pathways that develop along the way to that ease and grace that are even more valuable. As we face challenge after challenge in the relative safety of our yoga mat (after all, nothing that happens on a yoga mat matters much in real life), the practice reveals habits, beliefs, and assumptions that are so engrained in our problem-solving strategies that we refer to them as “autopilot.” It’s living on autopilot that makes us vulnerable to becoming mentally stiff, old, and cranky.

Could yoga be an elixir of youth?

Though most people do not think of it as such, yoga is, essentially, a time-tested method for shifting our minds out of autopilot. With practice, we create inner clarity, which allow us to notice and release established patterns of reactivity so that we can more appropriately and compassionately respond to the ups and downs of our lives.

Just as I could see and feel a change in the way my brain worked after only two weeks of playing Wordle, if you’re paying attention, it won’t be long after you begin to practice yoga that you will feel a shift in the way you are responding to life.

Unlike Wordle, however, the transformation that comes from a sustained yoga practice can and will continue to unfold decade after decade. As long as we’re willing to meet and stretch toward yoga’s inner and outer challenges, the resulting plasticity will keep you physically and mentally younger than our years for the rest of our lives!

If you’d like to know more about the way yoga changes you from the inside out, take a look at my self-paced recorded class on yoga’s guiding tenets – the yamas and the niyamas. Students say that their journey through the course was transformative!