धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः। Dharmo Raksati Raksitah.

Dharma protects those who protect it.

– Veda Vyas, Mahabharat

Yogic Neuroscience — A Talk By Sh. Adinarayanan

Recent research in the fields of Neuroscience, Epigenetics and Cognition is aimed at developing a deeper understanding of how the brain works and ways of enhancing human potential. While Neuroscience or Epigenetics looks at things from a third person perspective, Yogic Sciences look at first person experiences. There is a wealth of knowledge available in the Indian tradition and a transdisciplinary approach involving Neuroscience, Epigenetics and Yogic Sciences can help solve modern day problems.

About Speaker: –

Sh. Adinarayanan, founder, Anaadi Foundation is a Tapasvi and visionary teacher. With a decade of teaching and research experience at Amrita University, he and his wife Smrithi started Anaadi Foundation in 2015 for societal Read More…

Transcript: –

Let us start with a simple invocation from the Upanishads.

Om Asato Maa Sad-Gamaya,
Tamaso Maa Jyotir-Gamaya,
Mrtyor-Maa Amrtam Gamaya
Om Shanti Shaanti Shaanti.

Om Shri GurubhyoNamaha.
Hari hi Om.


I bow down to the divine manifested as all of this and people think sitting like this in Padmasana is yoga or rather the sign of a yogi, but that is a outsider’s perspective. Now that is what is prevalent everywhere, an outsider’s perspective of what yoga, is this not wrong, which is practice oriented. But Yoga transcends that. So we say in the maharishiPatanjali Yoga Sutras, we find the definition of yoga as ‘yoga chitta vritti nirodha’. The various conditionings – physical, emotional, cognitive – that we choose to call ourselves as I, I am this, I am like that, I’m sad, I’m happy., all of these are looked at in terms of the Vriti-s and Klesha-s. But that I, that transcends these conditionings, that is not unique to just this, the simple realization of that is considered Samadhi. Sama Adhi… that means the fundamental experience that we have a subject, object, this is me, this is not me. But Yoga, as an experience is where this boundary constraint becomes fluid, that was which is me and that which does not me, that boundary constraint is relaxed and how through a systematic approach, understanding how reality is constructed, that is Yoga Darsana. The Sastras are systematically working towards experiencing death.

A simple illustration is the heart functions. Now we through our life process, do we align with it or do we obstruct its functioning, we can very easily obstruct the functioning of the heart and that leads to a cardiac arrest, later on, it manifests as a problem because of a misalignment that is not in Yoga. So alignments with deeper and subtler principles all the way down to the fundamental principle, yoking all of this together is the yogic process and hence when we say yogic neuroscience, neuroscience and such scientific advancements are not exactly, not within the dream of yoga. So to speak generally people in terms of this versus that but it need not be that we talk. That is why we look at yogic neuroscience, but not limited to just this.

So, in this talk we will look at what all can be included within the pursuit of yoga, not just as a practice based discipline, but also as an academic pursuit, research pursuit, for the larger well-being of humanity and the life at large. Towards that as a first step this alignment when we speak off. Let’s look at a simple practice that gives us a feel for what we are looking at. Here can we try a very simple practice? if you can sit comfortably straight, so that this part is free to move, you could close your eyes for a moment and connect with how you feel now, you feel heavy or light you feel depressed or elevated, you feel at ease, you feel relaxed or agitated. Just connect with how you feel now.

Now let me ask you to count your number of breath as I say start you would keep a count of your number of breath. This is for a minute, start a breath in and breathe out is one count. There’s no need control that’s the natural breath. Okay? Stop, and remember this count and your feel associated with this count. Now we will do a simple exercise of blowing a candle. Okay. Imagine you have a candle about one arms-length from you, you need to take the effort to blow out the candle. So, you need to breathe in and breathe out through your mouth, again breathe in, breathe in one more time. Relax. Again let me ask you to count your number of breath, this time you breathe in deeply and breathe out slowly. You can start now, you take a deep breath in, breathe out slowly. Okay? Please stop and slowly open your, you want, you can rub your palms, generate warm and gently massage your eyes. Did you find the noticeable difference pre and post? This is what I was mentioning in terms of an alignment. When we get aligned with deeper processes, we have specific changes in perceivable experience.

Now perceivable experience means it can also be measured. So you haven’t experience that is first person, when we measure it to EEG  signals or fMRI scans or epigenetic measures or micro biota. You know biotic signatures, all these are considered third person perspective. Your experience is with first person perspective, first person you are having that experience and it’s an undeniable experience you cannot miss it. You feel good, you feel calm, you feel relaxed and just by a simple breath, we didn’t do anything big. So when we aligned with deeper and deeper processes you can see perceivable change in experience. That has been the Yoga Sastras from time immemorial. First-person accounts, that’s what you would find in our Sastras. The modern-day science approaches from a third-person perspective, the first-person accounts are equally reproducible, what we just did, can you reproduce it anywhere, anywhere any place? Yes, given certain boundary constraints.

Now, third-person perspective… The modern day scientific approach focuses on reproducibility and that’s how theories are formed. So that is the neuro scientific epigenetic, know Microbiomics approach which is very critical and at the same time, the quality of life experience that we undergo. Now that has become very critical for us to focus on, with all these scientific advancements. Still if we look at the experience of life, there we encounter phenomena like stress, which degrades the quality of life experience, right? So we, this is a very simple indicator. When we look at it in terms of the Yoga Sastras, we say chitta vritti nirodhana. Then we regulate the conditionings of the consciousness patterns if we can look at it that way. Intelligent regulation of it gives rise to life experience, the way we wish to modulate it.

Most of us, wish to have an awesome time. We interact with a large number of students, we mean interact with students. One of the things that stand out is this. There is a, there are different kinds of poverty, poverty of  food or poverty of love, but a poverty of motivation, inspiration, stands out. Why am I doing, what I am doing, what I need to go to college today. I don’t find meaning behind it, and that continues forward into work as well. Why am I stuck with it and these become very critical questions and these are generally looked at in terms of philosophy. But now, this affects day to day life experience and what tools and methodologies, scientific methodologies can become too work with and we bring in to work with this important aspect of life experience itself, how do we perceive life, what meaning do we assign to our life experience.

So chitta vrittis… looking at it from this perspective. So, there are challenges for example in terms of poverty of inspiration, inspiration is a challenge and that leads to degradation in the life experience itself. We made everything going for us, still if the perceivable life experience, the experience, perceivable experience goes down, then the feel is not right and this is a valid measure, though debatable. Now because there are not clear frameworks to approach it in a rigorous manner, that’s where looking at the Yoga Sastras,

Looking at Yoga… the foundational aspects of Yoga become very critical to take it forward, chitta vrittis now would make much better sense because at a certain level, if there are challenges, one needs to look deeper to find solutions to those challenges. These are called ‘hetu-s’. There could be multiple ‘hetu-s’ or causative factors which could lead to this phenomenon. So, simple experience like feeling good, one of the causative factors, it’s not a linear model that we need, it’s a nonlinear, multi-dimensional model that we need. There to be able to design experiments to understand what goes on behind the scene. We need the direction given by the Sastra, that’s where yogic neuroscience epigenetic, a combination of this is the way forward, is what I feel and I propose.

To understand this further, citta vriti-s are classified as five, Pancha vrittis. Anybody knows the Citta Vriti-s? Pramana, Viparyaya, Vikalpa, Smriti and Nidra. To understand why these are called vritis, it’s very useful to understand it. Even Nidra, for example sleep, object-less sleep is considered a Vriti, of this there are calistta, acalistta that means they know that which causes obstacles and that which is positive. So both kinds of vrittis are there. Vritis is more like conditioned expressions of consciousness. Dhikara happens due to a certain kind of stimulation, a vritti is more fundamental. So a response to a stimuli is considered a Vikara, while vrittis is more fundamental and that’s how life is expressed. So therefore, example Vriti-s is defined as objectless Vriti-s. Focus on an objectless existence is considered a vritti; very interesting.

So we are proceeding from subject-object. This is a very simple experience there is available to everybody. Subject with me, this all not me, I am a subject and you’re all objects in my perception, ok? Everything is an object in my perception. But if once I hold still, if I observe carefully, even this is an object in my perception. I am watching myself watching you, if you hold still, you will observe yourself watching and hence this also becomes an object to a deeper phenomenon. Similarly you can observe your mind going through various, let’s say emotions, you can observe yourselves getting tensed, you can observe yourselves becoming calm, reliable phenomenon you can observe yourselves and hence that becomes an object.

So the subject, object, boundary constraints are getting shifted. So what you considered internal, that itself has become objective through appropriate tools and methodologies. This is very important to understand. So when we unite for deeper and deeper aspects, when we align with deeper and deeper functioning, to that process we call Yoga, towards this powerful tools like, for example, meditation. Meditation can be looked at in terms of observing the contents of this black box that is here. If the focus is not here, right now all this interaction is happening because some neural circuitry pathways are being triggered and all of that is happening, but are we capable of observing that phenomenon. It’s very much capable of observing that phenomenon, when those tools are used. Then you have a subjective experience and when that is correlated with objective parameters in terms of neuroscience, for example EEG, you have all kinds of waves, that are measured.

At the same time you are having experience, then this experience can clearly be brought under methodologies to repeat it because these are repeatable phenomena. Then you have strong correlations between that observed effect and your own experience and that becomes very, very critical along multiple paths. For example patient care, patient care pathways, right now you know people talk of setting up hospitals. But isn’t this aspect very, very important to enhance the overall experience of a patient.

So that’s where research along these lines become very, very critical because there are so many neurological disorders that we encounter. For example, there is a psychopathological condition called diathesis stress which talks of resilience of an individual, there are social situations, there are outer circumstances that impose stress on an individual. But not everybody responds to the same outer circumstances, the same way, the same physical situation. For example, just as an illustration, the same physical situation and some could be interested, some could be bored, some could be indifferent, lost, all of these are valid experiences. But the same outer conditions, same outer phenomenon, what causes this that becomes very, very important to understand. So, there we look at individual raga-dwesha as a process. Raga-dwesha at that which, for example, like and unlike, you know in current social media language, dislike, has been replaced with unlike, like and dislike. But what causes that like in the first place? The process we just say, I am like this, why am I like this. That reasoning is Raga-dwesha.

What causes that in the first place when we look at the process behind it? Then we have a very unique model for an individual. What is that we call as an individual, in the yogic sciences? This is considered the bhahya-karana, the outer instrument. Karana means instrument and another karana, inner instrument. Then who am I, if there is an instrument, then Who am I? That question naturally emerges and this instrument is refined to an extent very perceive the depths of who I am as a limitless being. So on one hand, we are not just talking off a subjective experience, if it is looked at in terms of a karana an instrument. Then it is not just a subjective experience, it is also a objective phenomena, where you have underlying methodologies governing this phenomenon and hence even yoga or the broader Indian sastras, they are also objective sciences. Generally they have been relegated as subjective science, but know they describes very objective processes, which have been recreated and reproduced over millennia through very reliable strategies, very reliable methodologies, a glimpse of which we have seen now, a very simple glimpse of a simple breathing practice and you have a clearly unmistakable, different and difference in experience.

Now, how do we explain this? That’s where this combination of yoga and neuroscience becomes very, very important to explain the experience, the life experience that all of us take for random, without the direction given by yoga and in a larger sense by Indian sciences it becomes more like random phenomena where patterns are not visible. In neuronal studies it’s very, very difficult to find patterns. For example, fMRI if we were to look at, the split splices this brain up into walk cells and in one recording there would be more than 200,000 walk cells, gigabytes worth of data.

Now, how do you find make sense out of this data? That’s the biggest challenge and longitudinally as well, over time how does it change and what are the correlations amongst different aspect neuronal pathways. It’s a big challenge, abstract thought is not at captured, there’s no understanding of how it works because it’s a dynamic phenomenon. For example, how do we make sense of this is a very abstract topic. So, I can see it’s very easy to get lost, I came prepared for that, because what to do we know, what you’re trying to do here is get a big picture, by putting some pieces together. I quote out a course on yogic neuroscience in IIT Delhi. So the approach there was a little more technical, without going into too much technicalities, you can clearly see so much data is generated in current neuro scientific endeavor, but how to make sense of it, that’s the biggest challenge; gigabytes worth of data every second, how the data, how do you draw correlations and it cannot be trial and error because they would take far too much time and that would also not be conclusive. It would take it would be a very, very tedious process to slow to progress. That’s where utilizing our own experience, guided by our Sastras becomes very critical for science. It serves to progress, to face the challenges.

Let ask humanity we face now, to overcome them. So, one small instance, there are so many neurological disorders and the list of growing. In fact, one of the common things that we encountered in our travels is the last speaker ended with Ayushman Bharat. There was a question about Ayushman Bharat. We just happened to come in at that time. See as the objective process, it’s wonderful, but does it directly correlate with subjective well-being? Is it sufficient for overall subjective well-being is a very important question to be asked there? To be more comprehensive, we need this kind of research data. Where is the research data for yogic sciences, to validate it and bring it into regular, say insurance schemes you need research data to show, yes. This works like this and hence it’s a valid methodology to be adopted because otherwise the reinsurance providers might not accommodate, saying it’s, it’s not valid, it’s not been validated.

Where is the data, where is the proof? Most people approach Yoga in terms of practice and that gives the subject of feel-good, you know, it’s a feel-good process. But that is not sufficient research and studies have been along the lines of biomedical parameters. But that again is not sufficient and that’s where such research orientation becomes very critical to be pursued and there India can definitely lead such research efforts. Similarly epigenetic, for example, if we look at epigenetic… Epigenetic is the science, where DNA encodes all the information that is referred for this to be brought up from individual cells, that’s amazing amount of information coded into each cell. Now how does environment or nurture or your own life patterns, your lifestyle, how does it impact at the genetic level, that becomes very, very crucial to understand, otherwise we would not understand the mechanisms of how, for example, we have seen parents take care of children and that affects them in the future and for generations parental care or Community Care that gets passed on, in terms of benefits.

So, epigenetics is the science, which shows us how, for example, nurture plays a role in the development of a child, of an individual. What are the mechanisms behind that? That is what epigenetics is. So you have… there is something called Methylation for example and that Methylation changes with nurture and hence how does the environment impact the individual. Earlier the debate was in terms of whether the environment has an impact on the individual, but now through such research like epigenetics, it’s been shown that nurture or the environment or what we call as culture, might have an impact on the individual and that is very interesting and that’s where the simple practice that we saw and more rigorous practice leads to a definite change in the individual but how do we quantitatively measure it, there is interdisciplinary research along these lines of neuroscience epigenetics, because epigenetics also has been shown to lead to the release of neurotransmitters these are very, very useful to understand, as an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary research angle.

We solve so many problems that are coming up now, we interact with many people post 50 come to a realization that they have invested in medical insurance, in life insurance, but still there is a deep sense of insecurity, there is fear what will happen. So, this is not a good feel, what can we do towards it, to assuage and uplift them out of that feel. So, just objective processes in terms of medical facilities insurance cover or hardly sufficient to shift them out of this feel. These become very useful to invest in, so that even societal value process, societal systems become upgraded.

We talk of, when we talk of societal systems, one of the key things is value processes, as a society what is it that we wish for, what is it that we wish to transmit down the generations. As parents, we work towards, we work hard towards, ensuring certain conditions for our children, but what would be the most valuable gift for posterity? What do you think – moral character. Definitely, why are characters so important? So, this is right now not established in neuroscience because this is very abstract, what neuroscience captures, is okay. Let’s say, there is a physical phenomenon, light as photons enter your eyeballs, hit the retina and from there, there are rods cones, cones there are certain specific genes that code for particular light wavelength and that gets transmitted signal onto specific brain regions, where it’s stored and processed, but through all this, where is live recognition of something as abstract as character? Would everyone in this audience agree that character is very important, for example something like identity. Is it important? a clear sense of identity? No. So behavior comes from deeper patterns characteristic traits.

Now these need to be handed down, if we can capture the essence of this, we look at it in terms of best practices. Now culture can be looked at in terms of this is culturing, culturing means refinement, culture is look, can be looked at in terms of civilizational best practices, that have been handed down, are they not civilizational best practices? Otherwise how to be, it’s completely open-ended, it has to be anchored. So even that is a best practice because world over not everyone follows that.

For example, we started with invocation, Asato Maa Sat Gamaya. One way to look at it is, Asat is, for example, I know we come to Delhi and we forget where the Sun rises. There is another phenomenon, or we live near a hill. We come from Pazhani in Tamil Nadu. So there is a hill and then we talk to kids, he show them the Sun rises beyond that hill. Now is that Asat or Sat? The Sun rise beyond that hill. So is that true or not? Context, No. Is it observable or not? It is very much observable; you you’re seeing it; so, you’re just feeding in data through this and it’s perceivable. It’s visual. It’s available, you can verify it. But is that the end of it, No. There is a progression to it. So, we say the Sun rises in the east, so you increase the geographical boundary, you’ll see across space and time that has more validity. So, we have progressed from a limited truth to a more expansive truth; we have increased the boundary constraints and still it holds good, if we move beyond that hill, where does the Sun Rise, know at the hill. So, we have increased the boundary constraints and still better place, but let’s say Sun rises in the east and I went to Norway in June into the Arctic Circle. I had been to a conference and I landed at 1:40 a.m. at night. But it was bright, but there was an eerie silence; nobody was on the roads. Everywhere everybody was sleeping.

Now there the Sun does not rise in the east, where does it rise? It goes like this; it does not rise or set. There you don’t talk in terms of east and west. So, we have increased the boundary constraints further, where you find the validity, limited applicability of this, that Sun rises in the east. It no longer rise of the east and hence you are faced with the anomaly. That’s how science progresses; you’re faced with the animalistic condition with challenges your theory.

Now, we are coming to such points where neurological conditions, your strut with theories which are challenged all the time, but how do you proceed, there is no clear direction and we have wealth of literature that can give clear direction to this. So going forward, let’s say, we project 100 kilometers 200 kilometers into the space, where does the Sun Rise or set. There’s no such thing; we are rotating. Does that mean all our theories going back are wrong? No. They have to be situated appropriately. So we need larger and subtler frameworks to situate these discoveries appropriately. Otherwise we don’t know that of like what, it’s generalized. So, to this process we call yoga, aligning with deeper and subtler phenomena, where you have more generalized theories, no boundary constraints are increased and still it holds good, need not necessarily negate specific instances, it accommodates, to this process we say Asato Maa Sat-Gamaya.

It’s a progression that we want and which way to proceed, which way to progress. That is a huge challenge. Now we have instances, there are on this character formation or value formation and transmission is being negated, which would be clearly damaging because millennia worth of data is just lost, best practices are lost because you don’t have frameworks to validate that and it not always in conflict. So character, for example, right now, with the current data cannot be validated in scientific circles because when we approach modern science, it’s considered value neutral and our sciences the whole of character and all of that is value centric, our experiences, experiences grounded in values, value centric while the science that we adopt as value neutral, how do you bridge the gap, these are important research problems.

One way to approach it is more in terms of this versus. That, no, this is important, that is I am not touching upon rather looking at how do we inter-operate and take it forward that becomes very, very critical to invest in as an appropriate research effort as you no scientific effort, values entered or value-neutral. Now, so much for example, we have AI. You use UBER, OLA online transactions everything is governed by AI which is value neutral, while we are at the receiving end and that is value centric. So this class of problems we are going to encounter more and more as we proceed ahead and towards all of this; we need deeper understanding of the foundations of who we are, what is that progression path and that is yoga – ‘Yoga citta vritti nirodha‘. The vritti that we encounter, if we are not clear about how to handle them, what they are, then it’s more like trial and error and shooting in the dark and suddenly, okay, it’s more serendipitous.

But here I am proposing something more reliable. It can be very on firm grounding. We have the necessary background and the scientific knowledge, know-how to actually take it forward, but the challenges in terms of bridging this gap, there as more people invest in it as a career, as a research effort, as it peculates into society then definitely so many challenges that we encounter can be negated and the so many more challenges can be overcome. So that is the whole effort between of Yogic Neuroscience to create a value-based society, not a value neutral society because we are the main players-

Asato Ma Sat Gamaya, Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya;

(From the ignorance, darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge, reliable knowledge);

Mrtyor Ma Amrtam Gamaya.

They are utilizing the Shastras that we have and taking it forward become the means to achieving know true progress for Humanity and the sustainable planet.