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Yoga for the brain

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Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to Wellness Curated. This is your host, Anshu Bahanda, and as you know, we try and help you lead a healthier, happier, more hopeful life by bringing you ideas, tools, trends and techniques from all over the world. This season, we’re talking about how to change your mind. And we’re going to talk about how to boost brain power. We’re going to talk about how to keep your brain as fit as possible for as long as possible. And today, we have yoga and meditation teacher, life coach and psychic, Lamya Arsiwala. And Lamya is going to talk to us about yoga, Asanas and breath work or Pranayama, which will help you with your cognitive health. Welcome to the Chat, Lamya, and thank you for taking the time to be here with us today. 

Lamya Arsiwala: Hi, Anshu. Thank you for having me. It’s just such an amazing initiative you have here with Wellness Curated. And before I begin, I just want to take a moment to thank you for doing this. It’s so important that information about yoga and other alternative methods be brought to people in such a simple and accessible manner. So thank you for that. 

AB: Thank you. Now Lamya, tell me a bit about yourself. How was your journey into yoga? How did you come to do what you do?

LA: So, funnily enough, people might not believe this, but my yoga journey actually began in Melbourne, in Australia, where I was doing my undergraduate degree and I would see a lot of yoga studios there. And at first, I only went for yoga to deal with my homesickness. I wasn’t even serious. I would just go to class because I wanted something for fitness. Melbourne was too cold compared to how Bombay is, Mumbai is. And I would notice that when I didn’t go for yoga, I would feel more overwhelmed and I’d feel less connected to myself. So what I initially started to chase was that feeling of Shavasana, those 15 minutes where my mind was completely blank and empty. And you know Anshu, when we are young, we don’t even know the benefit of that feeling. Because at 18, you don’t have the stresses of adult life, you have different kinds of stresses. You’re figuring out who you are in the world, you’re learning about yourself, your likes, your dislikes. And I think my mat was really like a landing point, like, holding me through all of my various experiences. And so that’s where yoga started for me. Why I started to teach, that sort of was not a very positive story. I lost my childhood friend, who was also with me in another city in Australia. He drowned tragically and suddenly. And at that time, at 18, I was grieving, I was alone. I remember, I was like, going to two classes a day. So here I really am, though, years later, teaching, and I’m so grateful to him. 

AB: It’s interesting what you said about my mat really helped me. So you actually started by going to these yoga classes, which you treated as maybe exercise. Some people take it as exercise to boost flexibility, to go there, to exercise. While to someone like me, I mean, yoga is a way of life. So what do you think is the core purpose of yoga?

LA: To me, what yoga really is…The purpose of yoga is to come home to yourself, right? To know yourself better. 

AB: Okay. And let’s get into the cognitive functions and how yoga helps with that. Now, at this point, there seems to be an explosion all over the world, in the meditative aspects of yoga. But meditation is actually the 7th Sutra, in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, right? It comes much later after you’ve developed the first six. Each one supposedly leads to the other. So tell me, what are the other aspects of yoga that you have found are very helpful as well, in terms of cognitive function? 

LA: I want to first comment on what you said. I feel like people will come to a physical Asana class, and it may not be instantaneous that they can just fall into a meditative state because the body has to be ready first, right? And then there are people in India who don’t do any physical yoga, and they follow Kriya yoga, and they’re just doing a lot of meditation. I think what I want to emphasize, which is not spelt out, so to say, in the Sutras, is the breath, because I’ve realized the breath carries the magic. So whether it’s your movement practice, your Asana practice, whether you’re walking, whether you’re just sitting and doing meditation, it’s really the breathwork that has that tremendous positive impact on our nervous system, and hence our mind, and hence your brain. 

AB: And so you feel it’s the breathwork which really helps you, with cognitive health as well.

LA: The breath affects our nervous system, right? It gets our parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, which is what helps us feel calm. And when we’re calm, we can go about our cognitive functions with much more ease. What are the cognitive functions? It’s like memory, it’s attention, it’s problem solving, it’s language. [It helps with] all of these things, especially problem solving and decision making, I think. And I’ve seen this with so many of my clients. They’ll tell me, today I have a really important meeting, so I had to make it to class today, I have this negotiation. I had to make it to class today because I just know that the way I process things is different. That way, if there’s someone who’s difficult for me to manage or the negotiations are with someone who is a difficult person, I just have the right words. I just feel more clear. I just feel more at ease in myself versus when you’ve not done the practice. 

AB: And for someone who’s new to the practice, how long would you say, would it be before they start reaping any benefits or even seeing a difference in themselves?

LA: Anshu I think when you’re new and depending on what age you’re starting out, of course, because when I was new to yoga, even in my late teens and early twenties, I was also stiff because I’ve had my own share of traumas in my childhood. And initially it was just feeling stronger, it was just feeling less aches and pains, just feeling more confident, things like that. But then for someone else, even if they start in their 30s or 40s, they will start to feel like, hey, I feel stronger, I’m sleeping better. I feel like the effects can be immediate. Of course, again, I come back to this— it depends on the kind of practice you do. And I think for our modern world, we need to have a practice that kind of has a little bit of it all. 

AB: So, Lamya, you know there’s many, many different forms of yoga today, right? What would you recommend for cognitive health?

LA: If I were to go from the form, I would say, yeah, the hatha yoga. But see, when you look at yoga and the four ways of yoga, there’s Raja yoga, which is the movement, there’s Bhakti yoga, which is your devotion. There’s the Gyan, which is when you’re studying scriptures, and there’s Karma yoga. I’m a Bhakti yogi, at the core of it. I feel like it depends on the person. It depends on what brings them to equilibrium. For some people who are more fiery in Pitta, they might enjoy a more active class, but for them, yoga Nidra might be really good and that will take them to a place where the brain… So when we’re talking about cognitive function, we’re really talking about the nervous system, we’re talking about circulation in the body. I would say that [for cognitive health], yes, hatha yoga, but yoga Nidras… I would say [do] more restorative yoga practices too. But again, it depends on the person. If you are someone who’s super busy in the mind, that could be a very challenging place for you. So I would say a Hatha Vinyasa class, which is very popular now, worldwide, where they do a little bit of flow, a little bit of holding, some inversions… so that would be great. 

AB: So we know that yoga helps with relieving stress and with concentration. How does it help you with problem solving?

LA: I really think if I were to give a simple tip, it would be [practicing] the Anulom Vilom Pranayama, because I think that it balances the hemispheres of our brain. That’s what we’ve learned. And I do see that when I do it, again, I just feel that spaciousness in my mind right when you want to solve a problem. I would say that the asanas also have great benefits. When you look at hip openers— for instance, if people have certain traumas, we store a lot of our emotions in our hips. And when you’re coming into that practice, you can’t just do a random, one single hip opener and expect the benefits. But when you’re in that class and you’re moving through a variety of poses and you are consciously letting go, whether it’s hip openers or forward bends, and you’re consciously letting go, I think it changes your perspective on the problem, right? So I would not say there’s [only] one thing that helps. A quick fix is some breathing, some meditation, some breathwork. But if you can dedicate two or three times a week to showing up to a class… And that group energy is just spectacular. I really feel like one-on-one classes are great, but group energy is just so beautiful. So, if you can dedicate that time, you will start to have a different approach. 

AB: And how else would you say, does yoga help improve cognitive function? So what else can you do? Give us some examples that you’ve seen. 

LA: I want to list out a few poses, just because I feel like if anyone is listening to this, maybe they go to classes sometimes, or they like yoga but they’re not able to prioritize it; life is busy for everybody. The child’s pose. A simple child’s pose. Knees wide, sit on your knees, arms forward or arms behind your body holding your feet, your forehead to the floor or on a block or a book, and just a few breaths there. I feel like the moment we do these poses, like this one, or downward facing dog pose, where the head is forward, like forward bends, and all this oxygenated blood is flowing to your brain, you’re kind of creating new connections in your cells. And those poses are really good when you’re taking the blood to the head. So headstand, for instance, shoulder stands, these poses— I don’t recommend them for a beginner or someone just practicing at home, unless you know what you’re doing. Those are best practiced in the presence of a teacher. 

AB: And in terms of asanas or Pranayama… even Pranayama, you were saying Anulom Vilom for cognitive…

LA: And Bhramari. 

AB: And Bhramari, of course. 

LA: That’s the one where you block your eyes, your ears, and you take a breath and you’re just making a humming bee sound. It’s so good. It’s a little weird to do in a group, I understand that, but it’s a good one and you have to do it for a little while. 

AB: What about an asana pranayama to help with memory?

LA: So I would say the same practices will help with memory and Anshu, I want to give this one tip that I also give other people, particularly in yoga Nidras. So yoga Nidra is like this induced yogic sleep where we actually use the mind extensively, because we’re throwing numbers, we’re throwing images, we’re doing a lot of brain activity, but the body is in deep rest, in a deep stillness. I tell people, if there’s something that’s bothering you, write down what it is, and then write down your sort of solution for it at that given point in time, what you think is the best solution to it. And then when you finish the practice, come back, look at that sheet and see if you resonate with the plan of action you had prior, or if you have a different perspective on it, or if you’ve gathered some wisdom while you’ve been in that receptive state. 

AB: So you’re saying that even yoga Nidra will help you with decision making?

LA: Yes, because you’ve learned how to just like… eventually people just fall asleep, because you’re throwing so much activity for the mind… in the way that we do a yoga Nidra practice. 

AB: So Lamya, we’ve talked a lot about yoga Nidra. Will you explain for people who might not know exactly what it is?

LA: For people who might not know exactly what it is, the yoga Nidra is also like an offshoot from the hatha practice and it is a yogic sleep. So you basically set up, you lie down and you’ll find yoga Nidras on YouTube. You’ll find them on most sites that have teachers and different practices. You’ll find them on my site as well. It’s a really simple practice where all you have to do is follow the voice of the teacher and lie down. You have to get comfortable. You can be in your bed, but I always say set up on the floor, give yourself more cushioning. If you have any lower back issues, then place something under your knees, so you can really settle into your lower back and into your sacrum. And then you do this for 20 minutes, anywhere between 20 to 30 minutes tops. 

AB: Okay, so tell me another thing, Lamya, for people who do exercise, for people who treat yoga as exercise rather, and they came for that 1 hour or 2 hours, do you feel like they will need to change their lifestyle? That they need to quit smoking and drinking or they need to change the lifestyle choices they’ve been making? They need to drink more water? Or do you feel like even if they just show up for the practice, that’s enough to make some change?

LA: This is a pretty loaded question you’re asking me. Okay, I think that if they just show up for that 1 hour over the years… You know how life is, it throws you curveballs, you start to go deeper and that’s just the practice. As you get more advanced, you find another teacher. You want to try something different and you’ll start to discover more about yourself, more within yourself. And I think yoga just gets us so in tune with ourselves that we just learn to take better care of ourselves. 

AB: And also I wanted to ask you something that I’ve asked everyone during this season. Is there an age where you would benefit maximum or where your brain would benefit maximum from starting a yoga practice? Is it best for children?

LA:  I want to say the ages of seven to 12 would be a really good time, because till seven-eight, you’re still kind of figuring out your emotional self and how you respond to things. I would say that it is helpful at a younger age. But I wouldn’t say there’s a perfect age for yoga. Because if someone comes in their 50s with a neuro issue or maybe with some kind of hormonal issue even, and they start doing yoga, then they may feel a more tangible shift than you would see in a young kid. You know what I mean?

AB: Yeah. And tell me, from your personal experience, have you seen situations where yoga has helped people substantially with their memory or their concentration or their problem solving abilities? Can you give us some examples?

LA: I have worked with clients who’ve kind of been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the earlier stages, and I’ve kind of been giving them reiki and doing a host of things from what I offer. And I know that after they would do yoga, they would sleep better. Again, the mind is active in some of these conditions. If the mind would be calmer, they would eat better. So I have seen firsthand the benefit, but the moment they stop, the benefits fall away. And I know that I’m driving this point home because it’s really about showing up and being regular and also changing it up for these guys.  

AB: Right. 

LA: For people who really need cognitive support, it’s about doing different things. So for instance, let’s look at just the styles, just the forms of yoga. A vinyasa class is fast paced, right? That could be beneficial for someone who is a bit tougher in their body, who is more earthy in their body because it’s getting them going and moving. Whereas for someone who’s a Vata like me, a slow paced practice is better because that’s the effect it’s going to have on your mind. So changing it up is also a good idea, experimenting, trying new things in your practice. 

AB: And we always end with a rapid fire round. So one quick yoga practice that can help people keep their brains healthier. 

LA: Anulom Vilom— alternate nostril breathing, hands down. 

AB: Okay. And what age group would you see gets the maximum benefits for the brain from yoga?

LA: I think it’s that seven-eight to 12 [years of age]. 

AB: Okay, so everyone should try and start their children in yoga between seven and 12?

LA: Unless they don’t like it. But yes. 

AB: Okay. Thank you so much Lamya. That was such an incredible session. Thank you for giving us all your insights. And thank you to the listeners. Hope you learned something new. Hope we brought you closer to a healthier, happier, more hopeful life. Please email me any questions you might have and any topic that you want covered. My email address is I would love to hear from you and thank you for listening in and thank you for wanting to be healthier. See you next week.