When people talk about “staying sharp” as they age, we commonly hear their testimonials about exercise and a healthy diet. Having taught Yoga for seniors for over a decade, I’ve come to recognize another powerful agent for mental acuity: change.
Yoga, when viewed through the lens of holistic anatomy and physiology, can teach us about mental patterns. We refer to them as samskaras. In the concept of samskara, our life experiences create a template that informs our likes, dislikes, personality and habits. In other words, our lifestyle, relationships, physical posture and demeanor can reflect our long-held patterns. These, in turn, can dramatically influence our mental health.
Memory loss and cognitive decline are big topics in the senior community. Therefore, many people face the need to make a change in order to support their mental health. Thankfully, Yoga offers us a way to embrace this challenge and improve our brain function. It also allows us to reduce stress, disrupt old patterns and create new ones, and promotes deep rest and relaxation.
Can old dogs learn new tricks?
The old saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” doesn’t apply so much to people who practice Yoga. This is because when we gather our body, mind and breath to practice Yoga, two amazing things happen:
First, our mind is given a “bone” (to keep with the canine metaphor!). When we focus on our right and left sides, align our limbs and remember to breathe, it gives our mind a place to settle. Then, with our mind settled, we might notice that we fret less and that our brain fog clears up.
Second, the novelty of coordinating the efforts of our body and mind with the breath creates new neural pathways. Our brain can then function beyond the patterns of thought and habit that cemented our synapses into familiar, but out-dated territory. Because that which “fires together wires together,” as is often stated in neuroscience, regular practice helps us strengthen our new mental patterns while dismantling those we’re ready to let go.
While we sleep, our brain’s cleansing cycle, known as the glymphatic system, washes away the synapses that are no longer useful to us, thus shedding the physical manifestations of our patterned samskaras. Yoga promotes the deep sleep that initiates this brain cleanse, as well as the circulation of cerebro-spinal fluid that nourishes and protects our brain.
Here’s a new twist to the Chair Yoga Sun Salutations I usually do in my classes. Why don’t you give it a try?