We all know it is good for you, but is the true purpose of Yoga being revealed by science? For some time, whenever I went to a yoga class, I’d get that feeling you get when you come in part way through a television series. I got the gist of the story and was able to go along with with what was happening but it wasn’t until yoga teacher and human movement specialist Simon Thakur explained some details around what I’m choosing to see as ‘the beginning’ of the story that things really started to make sense.
The Foundations Of Yoga
The foundation stone I discovered I had been missing was the purpose behind all of the postures. Simon Thakur shared that one of the core functions of yoga is about increasing awareness throughout the body with a particularly important focus around the central axis of the body, between the spine and the organs. From here, a fundamental aspect of yoga practice can start with the awakening of our ability for the spine to undulate backwards and forwards, undulate side-to-side and to twist – and awakening this ability in each individual vertabrae. This was the foundation stone I was looking for.
Like going back to the beginning of the television series I’d started watching in the middle, I suddenly saw new depth and had a more complete understanding of everything I’d already seen so far. For example, it suddenly occurred to me that this opening of spinal flexibility and increase in strength helps one to sit for extended periods of time with the spine in a state of alignment, for connection to higher awareness in meditation.
A fundamental aspect of yoga is the awakening of the spine’s ability to undulate and twist” It didn’t take long to realise that this was the tip of an iceberg of knowledge that Simon Thakur tends to keep below the surface. Thakur draws from his experience spending extended periods of time studying ancient practices in their home cultures, including traditional Svastha Yoga in India and Xingyi in Taiwan. His philosophy of 90% practice, 10% talking about practice has thawed a little in recent years and I was fortunate enough to see him present a public talk earlier this year which shared some of the pillars of the practice he has developed known as Ancestral Movement. It’s a combination of ancient traditional practices, cutting edge developments in neurobiology and evolutionary theory as well as a deep respect for… well… playing like a monkey. Here’s a quick summary of what I learned at Simon’s talk, in February 2015.
By Feeling Our Own Body We Feel The World
Inside my own body, I can feel my own breath, if I really still myself I can feel my heartbeat, and maybe even the pulse at my carotid artery. Beyond that, I can’t feel much – and this is common for most people living in the modern world. The foundation of yoga may be about waking up sensitivity to feel each individual vertebrae independently, but it also extends to building increased sensitivity to all parts of the body, both internally and externally. What science is discovering is that through our increased ability to feel our own bodies, we increase our ability to empathically feel the world around us. To understand how this works, we need to first get our head around bodymaps and mirror neurons.
“The current human disconnection from the natural world starts with our disconnection from our own bodies, which we as a culture inherited – to a degree that most of us generally don’t quite acknowledge the extent of our inability to feel our own bodies.” – Simon Thakur
Bodymaps and Mirror Neurons
Known to neuroscience, psychology and cognitive science, bodymaps (such as those found in the somatosensory cortex) are the parts of our brain that electrically light up when we physically feel something, or when we think about feeling something. They’re called maps because the part that lights up for our hand is right next to the part that lights up for our arm and so on. If a scientist was to stimulate one of these parts of our brain with electricity, we’d feel sensation in our body part, even though nothing was touching it.
“If we can accept that