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August 20, 2016 - Comments Off on On Rabid Monkeys, Yoga and Mindfulness
This week it was revealed that research scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have taken the Buddhist school's training your monkey mind concept to a new level by essentially trying to recreate the plot of 28 Days Later.
But in the end, it turned out we were really the monsters. But also the actual monsters were monsters.
By injecting the rabies virus into Cebus monkeys the researchers were able to trace an interaction between our adrenal medulla (located just above our kidneys) and the cerebral cortex. This is important because it's the first evidence that there is a direct connection between our body's reaction to stressful situations (the adrenal medulla secretes hormones like dopamine and epinephrine) and the mind.
As in most things related to science, I just accept they're telling me the truth here. We could be made of Play Doh inside for all I know.
Basically it helps us cope with physical and emotional stress - when someone calls you a "Gross ginger with no soul" for example, it squirts out a little bit of smack into your belly to help you maintain your calm and not fuck up that person's day (which I absolutely will, so don't test me).
There are specific regions of the cerebral cortex that control the adrenal medulla, and this is the first time we're actually able to see what those regions are and how they relate. This matters because if we responded to stressful situations with a purely physical reaction we when a minor stressful situation arose we'd have an animalistic automatic action, kind of like the mini horses here at Ratna Ling do, which is to say, completely lose your shit and try to kick people for no good reason.
As one of the researchers, Dr. Strick put it:
"Because we have a cortex, we have options," said Dr. Strick. "If someone insults you, you don't have to punch them or flee. You might have a more nuanced response and ignore the insult or make a witty comeback. These options are part of what the cerebral cortex provides."
Baby if witty comebacks are a sign of a powerful cortex than I should be something something I don't know this isn't a comeback I've had too much time to think now stop pressuring me here look at these cute fucking bunnies:
What's interesting is these areas that activate are in the primary motor cortex, specifically the parts of the brain responsible for body posture and axial movement.
This is pretty big news for a couple of reasons:
- This may change the professional medical perspective on psychosomatic illnesses - there's now proof our mind can cause very real physical symptoms in the body.
- Training the body can have a verifiable impact on the mind, and vice versa.
This input to the adrenal medulla may explain why core body exercises are so helpful in modulating responses to stress. Calming practices such as Pilates, yoga, tai chi and even dancing in a small space all require proper skeletal alignment, coordination and flexibility.
Of additional note is these are the same regions of the brain that light up during mindfulness and meditation techniques. These are concepts that may make intuitive sense but this is a breakthrough study in that physical, biological evidence has been provided for the first time.
One can also extrapolate this further. This article in Brainpickings breaks down the work of Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist recognized for his work in the field of trauma. His work is revolutionary in that he takes a holistic approach to treatment, integrating body work and body therapies alongside more traditional or accepted treatments, like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communtherapeutic assumptions.
If stress is interpreted by the mind and passed down to the body, then it stands to reason that developing a clear line of communication between our body and mind would help us cope.
While van der Kolk deals primarily with more extreme levels of trauma and PTSD, this concept applies to all of us. The greatest tragedies in our lives are the ones we experience, even if we've been lucky enough to have a relatively privileged life. Not to mention the impact that another person in our space dealing with a trauma can have on the us, people around them.
There's an interesting concept in Kum Nye yoga that, when we are young, and acts of openness, creativity or vulnerability aren't reciprocated we respond by instinctively "protecting" ourselves. Usually by shrinking away, erecting a wall or withdrawing in order to not experience that feeling of rejection again. Untreated or unaddressed this creates a "blockage" or psycho-physical knot in our mind-body system that can manifest in all sorts of unpleasant and subconscious fashions.
Maybe you go to show your parents a drawing you made, they're busy stressing over a tax issue that has nothing to do with you and brush you off. That one instance, which is really no one's "fault" can lead to a walling off of that creative ability, and can manifest not only in a reluctance to draw or display creative acts but can also create a general negative attitude toward sharing, being open in relationships, social situations etc.
This is a small example of what is potentially a much larger psychic event in your life. Kum Nye yoga in particular attempts to address it by working to relax the body, which then allows these "knotted" or dense areas to release and start flowing again. It becomes harder to explain at this point because it's actually best experienced, but this relaxation can sometimes display itself physically as euphoria, nausea, crying, nodding off. Usually though you just feel pretty good. Kum Nye is not the only way to release these knots but it's an interesting way of thinking that I haven't seen specifically addressed or brought up with in any of the 30+ different yoga teachers/styles I've tried over the past ten years.
And it doesn't really need to be talked about, because just by doing the practice you're establishing that mind-body link. On a purely physical level, with this study we now know that just by working on your core (or probably putting the body through any number of axial movements or postures), whether that's doing planks in Pilates, squatting during Crossfit, or holding side angle pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana, or, Why I Can't Teach Yoga the Names Are Too Goddamn Long) you're developing your mind and altering how it responds to stresses in general.
It's more about having some kind of body discipline, and how you integrate that with your mind that I think is important. I loved training in martial arts for that reason, and it's why I run to the river and back here at Ratna Ling, playing with my impulses and inner nature uphill the entire way back. It's not just a release of endorphins (though that is part of why it feels good afterward for sure) but there's a mental dialogue happening, a negotiation with the self and the mind to push on and keep going that I can then take into my daily life, work and relationships. The mind tells a story about the body, and during physical movement and strenuous positions you have an opportunity to notice the story and reshape it into a form that better suits your life.
So the bottom line is - just move your body through space and sometimes pick up heavy shit. That will make you a better, happier person. For sure. Science says so now.
Personally I find exploring this mind body connection endlessly fascinating, and through Kum Nye practice and study I'm learning more about how the Tibetan Buddhist systems approach and deal with it.
By the by I'm not pro-injecting-rabies-into-monkeys, but in the grand scheme of things learning how our mind functions is probably a more worthwhile endeavor than testing eye shadow. But the rabies virus is apparently very good at displaying neurons and how they connect, so it was the only choice. And it's a strange coincidence that we're learning about our monkey mind (as a metaphor for our out-of-control thought patterns and automatic responses) by viewing an actual monkey mind. With rabies.
Just food for thought!
Till next time, fellow primates.