1. Scientific and Historical studies on learning:
The best evidence for anything is that which can be observed. But, what can we really observe? We cannot know what someone is really thinking. So, how then do we know how others will react in given situations, what they will do, and how they will do it? The answer is that we do not know! BUT - how can this be? We always know that certain actions will produce certain reactions in people! We always know or at least have a strong idea of how someone will react in a given event or situation. If we do not know what anyone besides ourselves are thinking then how do we learn so much about ourselves, the world, and others? How do we predict what will happen and use that knowledge for our own benefit? How do we know not to do certain things because they will bring about certain results? The answer is that the only thing that we can truly observe is behavior. We cannot know what other people are thinking, but we can study their behavior. Observing the behavior of people is the closest way to understanding human psychology.
Behavior theorists such as John B. Watson studied research that provided hard evidence for learning and behaviorism. In his view, human and animal behavior is the only thing that we can physically observe and therefore provide evidence for. Watson got his ideas from John Locke (the british empiricist) who said that we are born with nothing, we are just a blank slate and only through experience our blank slate is then written. Everything we know comes from experience.
So, how does all of this have anything to do with Yoga? Yoga (asana) and Meditation, provide those who practice and continue to practice with that "blank slate." By studying the concepts and basic principles of Yoga, the connection between Yoga, Psychology, learning, and behaviorism can easily be identified.
2. Yoga and the Body:
Practicing Yoga, as you may have heard, is very beneficially to your mind and body. The physical postures and breath allow you to open up areas in the body that require attention. The tighter or more uncomfortable an area feels, the more attention it requires. Opening up these areas such as our tight shoulders, quads, hamstrings, etc., allows space to open in our body and provide physical relief which then in turn lets our mind feel relaxed. In the long run, the more relaxed the mind is, the better able you are to make decisions. By practicing the physical postures and poses in Yoga, your body learns to regulate itself in response to stress and particular stressors. Normally and naturally, our body's response to stress elevates our bodily functions - higher blood pressure, pacing heart, heightened senses (fight or flight responses). The same happens when we are practicing intensely or rigorously, or if we are in an extremely uncomfortable pose. However, the purpose of the physical practice of Yoga is not to get into poses. The purpose of the practice is to be able to breathe with a slow, steady, and long breath. This means that one must be relatively comfortable in the pose or slightly relaxed to be able to breathe consciously which is where Yoga becomes a challenge. With practice, poses get easier and more comfortable and through time, the body's response to stress becomes less intense. Sometimes this even happens without us knowing or realizing. Over time, as we practice Yoga, we notice that our response to stressful events or situations is with less panic and with more ease and calm. Yoga practice regulates our bodies and allows our bodily functions to stay below the charts in response to stressful circumstances. By keeping our stress levels low, we greatly reduce suffering.
Yoga and Psychology:
In order for our brain to perform any cognitive function, the firing of neurons must take place. Our brain changes physically every time we learn. If there is a response (firing of a neuron) then the synaptic connection has been made and other neurons will fire again simultaneously. To repeat the connection, one must learn the same task over and over again. Synaptic connections become stronger over time and allow us to learn and remember things. This is called Long Term Potentiation (LTP). There are 2 conditions that must be present for LTP to take place. The second neuron needs to already be ready to receive signal from the first neuron. To be ready, it must be in an excited form or state. For a neuron to be in an excited form, positive charged ions must flow into the neuron. The neurotransmitter glutamate is responsible for this as it binds the two receptors. This facilitates the learning process and it allows you to learn things "long term" meaning what you learn can last a lifetime. To sum this up, the mind must be clear and open to receive. This is where Yoga comes in. Practicing Yoga allows your brain to release chemicals that stimulate neurons and in turn making them excited and ready to proceed in making synaptic connections. It is of course not the only way to fire up neurons in your brain, however, the repetition and consistent practice of Yoga strengthens the connections allowing your brain to always be ready to receive new information and manage which information need be stored and filter out that which does not. This is how Yoga plays the role of the "blank slate." It clears your mind of all "undigested experiences," and fires up neurons needed for the LTP process. The new things learned and new experiences then allow you to begin fresh and write over the undigested experiences making new and more effective experiences and memories.
By changing the way that we think, we are changing our behavior. Since Yoga changes the way that we think, and the way that we understand life, it changes the way that we behave sometimes subtly or drastically. By learning and experiencing new things that are beneficially to us, we begin to make choices that preserve our health. And that is what we all want - healthy minds, healthy bodies, and a healthy way of living!
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