Yoga: 98 Percent Self-Development, 2 Percent Movement

“Your body exists in the past and your mind exists in the future. In yoga, they come together in the present.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

Mind and body are inextricably linked like meaning and purpose. The body is made up of cells, cells are made up of molecules, molecules are made up of atoms, and atoms are fundamentally empty. Quantum physics tells us that electrons blink in and out of existence. What we call the body, then, is fundamental emptiness blinking in and out of existence.

“All matter has been proved to be reducible to energy,” wrote Paramahansa Yogananda in chapter 49 of his book Autobiography of a Yogi. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; only transferred. Interesting. It would make sense then that invisible spirit is invisible energy, transferring in and out of visible form.

Because our problems cannot be solved and must be outgrown (Carl Jung), we must outgrow our problems by changing the thinking that created our problems in the first place (Albert Einstein). We could call this maturity. This includes changing our thinking about our relationship with spirit, or pure consciousness. Yoga’s greatest legacy is to impress upon the world that we are pure, eternal consciousness, and it is this eternal consciousness of which we evolve. You cannot take your investments with you to your graves, try as baby boomers might; all you take with you is the evolution of your soul. If you are aware of imagination and dreaming, why is it so challenging to comprehend an invisible consciousness from which we emanate? We couldn’t experience awareness without consciousness. What self do you think you’re developing?

“But such is the irresistible nature of truth that all it asks, and all it wants,” said Thomas Paine, “is the liberty of appearing.”

That two percent movement, nonetheless, is important.

Discovering the opiate receptor on the surface of cells in the early 1970s launched the late Dr. Candace Pert’s career as a bona fide bench scientist. The opiate receptor is the cellular binding site for endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are among the brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters (peptide hormones) that transmit electrical signals within the nervous system to reduce our perception of pain. Pert was an internationally recognized neuroscientist and pharmacologist who published over 250 research articles. She made significant contributions to the emergence of mind-body medicine as a legitimate field of scientific research in the 1980s. During this time, Pert discovered what she coined the “molecules of emotion.” It turns out that every emotion we have has a neurochemical equivalent called a neuropeptide. Every emotion creates a neuropeptide.

Internalizing unresolved trauma causes the body to store neuropeptides in organ tissues, for often decades, until dis-ease manifests. Healing, or the resolution of trauma, frees stored neuropeptides to move through the bloodstream and be metabolized through the body. Science has also discovered that mechanical receptors on the surface of cells are stimulated by movement. In yoga, we call stored neuropeptides from unresolved trauma, or “scarring” in the tissues, samskara. We know that movement frees samskara, meaning that movement helps to resolve neurochemical (that is, emotional) trauma. Movement encourages healing.

Along with healing, exercise boasts numerous other physiological health benefits, including: 1) stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF); 2) sharpens cognition; 3) increases neuroplasticity (connection between brain cells, or the formation of new neural pathways); 4) stimulates neurogenesis (birth of new neurons and brain cells); and, 5) increases the number of mitochondria in cells. V02 Max and strength training, in particular, elicit a higher than average mitochondrial count in cells, which increases the capacity of mitochondria to generate energy. Think high-performance athletes. Mitochondria perform like a team. They are known as the powerhouses of the cell. The brain has the most mitochondria in its cells. Cellular respiration converts oxygen and glucose in the mitochondria to adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—the molecule that transports chemical energy within the cells. When practiced responsibly, asana (steady, comfortable positions) generates energy while reducing inflammatory markers in the body. As we age, the capacity of the mitochondria to produce energy slowly decreases. Exercise in general is important because it gets us breathing and oxygenating the cells, while yoga in particular moves energy without increasing inflammation. Yoga, thus, helps the cells to continue generating energy and slows the inflammatory aging process.

In terms of breathing, we take in air predominantly through the nose on the face. The zygomaticus major muscle found in the face on either side of the nose running along each cheekbone—the blush line—is responsible for smiling the mouth. The next time you catch yourself genuinely smiling, notice and track the movement of energy in your body while bi-focusing your awareness on the breath. As mentioned, mechanical movement stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman said that BDNF is like “miracle-grow for the brain.” Anything that makes you genuinely smile sends BDNF to fertilize the frontal brain, which in turn increases concentration and cognition. Cognition is a fancy word for perceptual, sensory and intuitive (or extrasensory) awareness. The conscious mind. Exercise in general also conditions the body, while yoga stands out in the crowd as a life-affirming activity because it drops our awareness to the mind in the heart.

Speaking of life… Cells move towards signals that affirm life, and away from signals that threaten life. The Biological Imperative implies our ‘drive to survive’ as individuals and as a species. Cells teach us that we are inclined towards love. The mind is like an organ that secretes thoughts (Sally Kempton), while the brain is an organ that secrets chemicals. The brain secretes chemicals in response to thoughts secreted by the mind. Cells move towards love signals and chemicals, and away from fear signals and chemicals. Your cells want your love chemistry as intensely as you do.

“Love is the ultimate nutrient for a living organism,” said developmental biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton. “Love exceeds food.” Love produces all of the growth chemicals humans need to thrive. That is why Paramahansa Yogananda covered Giri Bala, the non-eating saint, in chapter 46 of his book Autobiography of a Yogi. She employed a yogic technique to recharge her body with cosmic energy from ether, sun and air. She didn’t eat but she loved to cook. Read the book. Lipton’s career spans over five decades of applied research, including peer-reviewed bench science, and counting. The field of epigenetics was founded upon his discoveries.

Relevance? With epigenetics, what runs in families is behaviour.

Mirror neurons have been directly observed in primate species, and are essential for imitation—a key element of the learning process. Mirror neurons fire both when an animal acts and observes the same action performed by another. Translation: We mirror the behaviour of others. We call this the “monkey see, monkey do” phenomenon. It turns out Tony Robbins knew what he was talking about when he said, “You become who you hang out with.”

Growing beyond body-as-a-machine model… The path of self-development isn’t necessarily mercenary, but it does require that you understand you are a soul, an eternal being—pure consciousness—inhabiting a temporary physical body. No one is saying anything about a god; “God” is neither singular nor fathomable. All spirituality asks you to do is lighten up and get over yourself. You can lose a job, sure, but you can’t lose a calling. Purpose cannot exist without meaning.

Cosmology suggests a winding down in the cosmic clock that physics can track. Astrophysics, for example, has calculated that the Milky Way galaxy is set to collide with Andromeda galaxy in approximately 7 billion years. The facts, although currently irrelevant, are interesting. Tachyons likewise, from the Greek root meaning “speed,” are hypothetical particles thought to move faster than light. To this day, tachyons remain an intellectual curiosity. Legend, however, speaks of tachyon chambers used in Atlantis to heal people of undesirable imbalances instantly—hundreds of thousands of years ago. The aphorism “out of the blue” comes from physicists’ understanding of the quantum field. We can’t see the quantum field in the same way that we can’t see spirit (or tachyons…), yet quantum mechanics is the most verifiable science on the planet. Quantum physics, in fact, tells us the new origination story: we literally blink in and out of the blue. Matter, visible particles; energy, invisible waves.

Because we can’t calibrate without awareness of political history, Ghandi (leader of the Indian independence movement against British colonial rule) said that the real leader of the movement was the “small, still voice within”—operative word, still. Who’s been telling us not to listen to the small, still voice within?

“That’s what happens when you meditate, that’s what happens when you do yoga, that’s what happens when you become mindful and reflective,” said Marianne Williamson, 2020 US presidential candidate. “You hear the call of the Ages, as it rushes through your veins. The whispers of your ancestors, the whispers of your descendants. The whisper of the heart is the only proper guidance system.”

Personal development is generally not comfortable, but why wait until you are confronted with a life-threatening illness, disease or accident to start being better than who you were yesterday?

On the one hand, intuition is thought by science to operate with pattern-based logic, while on the other hand intuition makes no logical sense. Self-development, to that end, teaches us how to reliably interpret our intuitive hits and impulses. The biggest problem with PTSD, on that note, is that hypervigilance is often mistaken for intuition. If fear (drama, crises, trauma) pushes BDNF to survival centers in the brain, while love pushes BDNF back into the growth (or intuitive/conscious) centers of the brain, it’s imperative that trauma survivors be supported within loving environments—because consciousness heals. Remember, cells move towards signals that affirm life. The health of the cell is also regulated by the cell’s environment, not genes, meaning that health is not typically an expression of genetics; rather, health is predominantly an expression of environment. Only one percent of disease on the planet is related to genetics.

Accordingly, three types of environmental stressors cause dis-ease in the body:

  • Traumatic (physical)
  • Toxic (chemical)
  • Thought (emotional)

First, injury or bodily assault would constitute ‘traumatic stress.’ Second, stress hormones, inflammatory markers, and improperly cultivated food (GMOs) that inflate inflammatory markers would fall under the category of ‘toxic stress.’ And third, ‘thought stress’ would imply the quality of one’s attitude and thinking, meaning one’s outer circumstances indicates the quality of one’s thought patterns. Thought obviously compounds chemical stress, and (like vata dosha in Ayurveda), is the king stressor.

It’s important, however, to understand that not all stress is harmful. Eustress, for example, would be considered appropriate (exercise/yoga), and enhances biology; distress, to the contrary, would encompass the three inappropriate stressors listed above, and diminishes biology. You cannot thrive and survive simultaneously. Survival chemicals inhibit organ function and suppress the immune system.

Fortunately, the qualities of the heart—appreciation, love and compassion—have been found in scientific studies to “relax” DNA strands and enhance immune function. DNA isn’t responsible for genetic expression; it’s responsible for genetic blueprint replication. Mitochondria create the energy necessary to replicate genes, and then the environment within the cell influences how those genes express.

Imagine what would happen if we were collectively encouraged to monitor our thinking and think only life-affirming thoughts. Yogananda said we could wipe out nearly all dis-ease on the planet. Science confirms this thinking.

In Yogi Bhajan’s Five Sutras of the Aquarian Age, he stated that there is a way through every block. Vibrate the cosmos, he said, and the cosmos shall clear the path. I suspect in the latter statement that Yogi Bhajan meant love. Vibrate love. Emanate love. Be who you are. In that space you will rendezvous with opportunities to help and be helped—the fruits of self-development. Truly, self-development is a selfless path.

Nevertheless, if you insist on being selfish, be selfish about feeling good. Esther Hicks said, “Love is the conscious allowing of alignment between me and my inner being,” the small, still voice within. It’s the difference between feeling good and feeling bad. Hicks said our inner being isn’t looking where we’re looking when we’re feeling bad, and that’s why we feel bad. In other words, when our inner beings agree with us, we don’t feel bad. Keeping in mind that you haven’t a clue what you’ll find when the appetites of the soul merge with the force of ego (Caroline Myss). Shame is a call to humble yourself.

Although science hasn’t caught up with the inner being, or the commander in the command center for that matter, it has caught up with (as previously introduced) the molecules of emotion. Neuropeptides created from love chemistry are protective, whereas neuropeptides created from fear chemistry are ultimately destructive. (Think genetic expression.) Oxytocin, for instance, is a cardioprotective peptide hormone and neuropeptide, produced in the hypothalamus of the brain and released by the posterior pituitary gland. Oxytocin plays a role in social bonding, sexual reproduction and nursing; however, kindness, love, affection, warmth, and appreciation in general have been shown in peer-reviewed science to produce oxytocin. Oxytocin softens and expands artery walls, lowers blood pressure, thins blood, and gently flushes away toxins. Bottom line? We can only produce oxytocin from feeling good!

And you know what feels good? Living life on purpose. How can we live life on purpose, though, if we don’t know who we are?

Even the 54th verse of the Tao Te Ching underscores the importance of self-development. Focus on your craft, which also happens to be your contribution and ties into your purpose. Lao-tzu sums up virtue and selflessness in the following passage:

Generations honour generations endlessly.
Cultivated in the self, virtue is realized;
cultivated in the family, virtue overflows;
cultivated in the community, virtue increases;
cultivated in the state, virtue abounds.

Live as if your parenthetical life makes a difference. That’s meaning. It’s your perception of life that has no meaning. Cleanse that connecting link, as Carlos Castaneda put it. Improve the world by improving yourself. Circumstance dictates dharma; passion powers purpose. What are you passionate about that you can give away? Lao-tzu lived during the warring states period of ancient China approximately 2,500 years ago. His legacy lives on in the Tao Te Ching. The meaning of your life is to give it away.

With virtue in mind, Ramana Maharishi said, “Our own self-realization is the greatest service we can render the world.” So, the next time someone asks, ‘what is the nature of the spiritual path?’

“Three words,” Caroline Myss responded in an interview with the Catholic Reporter. “Tell the truth.”