Bodywisdom: Quieting Mind & Body

Bodywisdom / Nancy Ivey

Since it is nearly the end of the semester at CSUB, student journalists approached me between yoga classes recently asking how yoga helps students de-stress during finals week.
Similar to finals week, the holiday season can be overwhelming. Here are some ways yoga helps you de-stress during the festivities ahead.
Buddhist scholar, B. Alan Wallace, embraces “shamatha” – a Tibetan word meaning mental and physical quiescence – as the necessary precedent to meditation. Focusing on the quality of physical relaxation, he asks, “What is more relaxing than ‘savasana’?” (a yoga posture where you are lying flat on your back.)
While reclining in savasana at the beginning of our class we practice “pranayama” which are yogic breathing techniques. These include lengthening our exhale to expel the stale breath before inhaling a full complete yoga breath to enhance respiratory efficiency and volume.
Students start noticing that as they breathe slower and deeper their mind settles down and they feel the serenity of a quiet mind and body. We count our breaths. If we get distracted by thoughts we return our attention back to the breath.
This attentional awareness activates a region in the brain called the “medial prefrontal cortex” (MPFC) which is an area of the frontal lobe that pacifies the emotional brain or limbic system. Psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk says yoga benefits traumatized people because, among other reasons, the MPFC is stimulated through our “minded” body landscape.
During yoga practice, the story-based left brain recedes in dominance activating the experiential right brain. Right hemisphere dominance shifts brain waves from beta or normal activity to alpha waves, characterized by a relaxed awareness.
Eye exercises are another component of yoga that I include in every practice.
In his book The Open-Focus Brain, neurofeedback pioneer Les Fehmi, director of Princeton University’s biofeedback center says the visual system connects to the brain through two pathways: the parvo cellular and magno cellular. Parvo cells are found exclusively in the middle of the visual field while the peripheral visual field contains both magno and parvo cells.
These two systems extend from the retina to the visual cortex. Researchers believe that these systems function differently in our nervous system. Parvo cells activate beta waves and the outer ring magna cells amplify alpha and theta waves.
Parvo cells synapse to the left brain governed by logical thinking and a sustained visual focus. Switching attention to the periphery engages the magno cells which are wired to the right brain governing creativity and gut feelings.
Fehmi sums up: “In other words, attending with the central part of the eye engages mostly high frequency EEG activity while emphasizing attention to the peripheral fields of experience- as in diffuse attention – engages the magno cells and a lower range of frequencies.”
Femi teaches us to “open our focus” by developing our peripheral vision and increasing alpha wave dominance. Since studying for finals and preparing for holidays are demanding, flexible attention doubles our intelligence combining the best of both worlds.
Nancy Ivey teaches yoga at CSUB and locally. Email