The Brain that Changes Itself

Practice space at Desa Seni in Bali where I attended a yoga retreat in 2013

Hello lovely friends. What have you been up to? Have you started something new lately to support yourself? I have been back teaching more yoga and have felt a renewed interest in my own mindfulness and yoga practice. I am reminded by how much smoother I feel (physically and emotionally) when I am sitting regularly and doing my home practice.

A couple of clients after looking through our site have been surprised by how much yoga and meditation is a part of our writing.

In traditional western medicine, cognitive practices enhancing present moment awareness (such as yoga and mindfulness meditation) are still considered Complimentary Alternative Medicine (CAM). But these so called complimentary techniques have been used in non-western medicine for thousands of years. And these ancient traditions have a bearing on our ability to maintain brain health as we age.

Getting involved in our own health outcomes is just coming into practice in western medicine.

Originally, western medicine was a model in which patients passively took medicine or received surgery. Both of these interventions are very involved for the physician- but require little to no lifestyle change from the patient. In order to make change in our bodies (in all of the tissue of muscle, heart and also the brain) challenge is required. Exercise outside of our comfort zones (this is why the same exercise program for 20 years is basically ineffective).

We need new challenges to make ongoing change. With respect to our brain, challenge can come in the form of attention training, mahjong games, brain games such as lumosity or post HQ, mindfulness practice or yoga (there are many more types of practices).

There are some neuroscientists studying the effects of your brain on yoga and meditation and their findings demonstrate actual anatomical changes to regions of the brain that occur following the above practices.

Sara Lazar, PhD is a researcher at Harvard University who has dedicated her career to determining if and how meditation and yoga change the brain.

Her published article from 2017 looked at how cortical thickness (especially in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and learning) was greatly improved in subjects who had been long term yoga practitioners from their age-related counterparts.

Oftentimes, clients who have a neurologic diagnosis such as Parkinson’s may feel like they need to challenge themselves less. While this can be true, it is often not the case (especially when it comes to cognition). Last week in our MBSR course we had a discussion about how therapists work with people after they have had a stroke. There is a critical time period in neural recovery following a stroke where forced exercise of the most affected limb is healing and beneficial. Clinics where patients are forced to use their affected limbs(s) for 40+ hours a week have demonstrated improved healing and return of function.

This demonstrates the need to lean in to difficult challenges (as long as they are physically safe). These challenges could include maintaining correspondence with family abroad even though writing has gotten difficult. It could be daily brain games on the computer. It could involve maintaining focus for the duration of a yoga class. Whatever your activity is- make sure that it is challenging. Just like lifting heavier weights in order to progress at strength- you should be increasing the challenge of your brain activities in order to get protective and positive changes.

The computer brain games are designed so that it is so challenging that you are always succeeding and failing a little.

All of this is to say that neural health is not yet a widely discussed topic. We all know that we should perform cardiovascular exercise for a certain amount of time each day, but we often go without specifically challenging our brain.

Here are some ideas for challenging your brain (please try one you do not normally do!):

1) Sign up for an account with lumosity or brain HQ (they have free options):


Brain Hq

2) Attend a meditation group or sitting (local resources in Marin below)

Spirit Rock

Green Gulch Zen Center

Tamalpais Shambala

3) Sign up for an MBSR course (there are many offered in San Francisco and we have a specific offering for people with PD)

4) Attend a yoga class or practice yoga at home (try to find a teacher focused on present moment awareness- I highly recommend Tias Little)


5) Practice mindfulness at home:

John Kabat Zinn leading Body Scan- 30 minutes

Selma Lewis's daily practices for busy people (Try Selma’s deep breathing exercise)

Happy Breathing and Sitting,