How do you notice when a subconscious thought pattern becomes part of your ‘story’?
Meditation and yoga support the acknowledgment and re-direction of negative thought patterns by helping to make the unconscious become conscious – not only this, but they also provide a safe and non-judgemental space in which to do so. The Neuroplasticity of our brain allows for these changes to take place, & once they have occurred it helps us to create new pathways down which our thoughts can travel more often. This has numerous effects on the quality of our physical and mental health, as well as on our sense of empowerment to take back control of them.
Read on for more about how this works!
What is Neuroplasticity??
Neuroplasticity is the term used by scientists and many modern-day philosophical thinkers in the spirituality and yoga spheres to define our brain’s ability to re-direct and re-arrange neurons (nerve cells) in order to adapt to new or unexpected environmental shifts within the body and mind. This is observed most clearly when physical injury or disease creates a blockage in the body’s natural patterns of reactions; in this case the neurons will naturally re-direct themselves in response to the new circumstances, adapting to the situation and finding ways to direct energy towards healing the ‘blockage’, while still carrying out their function. In the case of physical illness or injury, all of this happens unconsciously.
In the case of what modern medicine would label ‘mental illness’ however, these patterns are a little harder to identify. This is because it doesn’t even technically have to be a diagnosed mental illness for a thought pattern or habit to become damaging to our life and overall wellbeing. We all have bad habits, and this includes our thoughts and habitual responses to external stimuli and situations. Think about it – do you have a pattern of getting into the same kind of dysfunctional relationship? Running into the same difficulties when trying to improve your fitness or dietary habits? Have you noticed yourself complaining ‘why do I always do this??’ in response to a particular situation?
This is a sign that on some level, you’re already aware of these subconscious responses.
When these habits go unacknowledged and remain unconscious, (often they can be too overwhelming to face head-on initially), they can lead to ongoing difficulties; increasing the likelihood of developing mental illness such as depression and anxiety – among other disordered behaviours.
How it Works
By means of neuroplasticity, the neurons in our brain which activate in response to certain external situations form things called neural pathways. The creation of neural pathways can be understood in context to cutting that first section of grass after months of experiencing an overgrown lawn; the first time, it’s hard to cut through it and stay on track. The first time might even occur in response to a traumatic event (many of these occurrences happen during childhood) – this is how the unconscious mind forms its responses to trauma and external stimuli. Modern Neuroscience has helped us prove that the more this same track is revisited, by means of repeated behaviours and responses to perceived similar stimuli, the easier it becomes to allow neurons (or thoughts, in this case) go down that route. This patterning forms our unconscious behaviour and responses to our external world, defining how we react to difficult or triggering circumstances without stopping to rationalise the situation.
Where Do Yoga and Meditation Come Into It?
It’s only by identifying and acknowledging these negative patterns and habitual responses to circumstances that we can begin to do the work to actually change them. It’s thanks to neuroplasticity we are now aware that changing them is actually very possible. Though I’m by no means preaching that it’s the only way to do it, Meditation and Yoga is the context through which I have learned to acknowledge and deal with my own subconscious mind and patterning. The Traditional Hatha (and Yin) practices involved in stilling the mind and activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) to relieve the stress response from the body helped my mind to begin slowing down from an unconscious state of heightened anxiety for the first time in years. This more rational and relaxed way of thinking meant I was finally able to acknowledge the irrational, limiting beliefs and patterns which for years had kept me stuck in cycles of depression, anxiety and disordered eating behaviours.
Creating Our Own Reality
In my own journey to unpack the stories and negative thought patterns I’d formulated through years of conditioned and repetitive unconscious behaviours, there were certain things that began to stand out very, very clearly. I realised that the unconscious reactions and habits had formed the basis on which (almost) all of my perceived stressors and anxieties grew. As I became more aware of the patterns my subconscious mind was following, I began to understand more about them and how they worked.
It was as if by thinking a thought like ‘I am not a good teacher’, I subconsciously created a space in my brain where that reality actually existed. All I then then had to do was to fill that space with (unconscious) actions that confirmed the thought, and voila, evidence that I am not a good teacher became my truth. Cue panic attacks and elevated stress responses at the thought of even standing in front of a class, let alone singing on a stage (for which my brain held yet another set of subconscious beliefs altogether, but that’s another story…).
In hindsight, I see now that the act of allowing those thoughts to take over actually permitted my anxiety to exist and confirmed my status as an ‘unfit teacher’*, regardless of the level of my teaching skills or knowledge of the subject (be it yoga, music, Irish or something else entirely) itself.
*For the record, the label of ‘unfit teacher’ is something I gave myself way back when these thoughts were allowed to run rampant with no rational direction or clarity. I see now that I am in fact quite a good, if a little scatterbrained, teacher.
Changing The ‘Story’
As my understanding grew, I became really interested in learning more about the WHY and the HOW; Why did I feel so ‘together’ and capable of handling daily struggles when I’d practiced yoga and meditated, and why did it seem like everything completely fell apart if I hadn’t? The stories we tell ourselves surrounding certain situations I will admit have a significant effect on their outcome, yet the more I delved into what I’d labelled as my ‘truth’, the more I realised that it didn’t necessarily have to be the way things operated at all. Hearing about Neuroplasticity helped me to realise that through observing and accepting our habitual thought patterns (for me this happened during meditation), we open up the ability to Change Our Story.
I know what you’re thinking here – “Don’t you think it might be placebo effect?” While that may be true to some extent, we can’t deny the evidence that long-term meditation and yoga practice definitely have some extremely tangible effects on the brain. Part of what I try to teach to my yoga and meditation students now is that it’s not necessarily the physical achievements that are the signature of an ‘advanced’ yogi, rather their ability to recognise, accept and change their thought patterns to remain rational and centered even when challenged.
Taking Back Your Power
In acknowledging that we actually have the power to re-direct our thoughts and create new pathways through which they can travel, there is an element of self-empowerment like nothing I have experienced before. Yes, repeatedly hauling negative thoughts back from the precipice like a naughty child who keeps testing your limits is a daunting task to face at first, but after the first few times, it genuinely does become easier and easier. You begin to realise that you actually do have the power to shift your perception around things you once thought impermeable; creating a whole new reality and way of being.
The fact that science now supports these shifts in awareness is a really positive thing. It’s a great way to get more people to open up to trying the ancient practices of yoga and meditation – traditions which have countless other health benefits besides helping us to understand and manage racing thoughts. It’s also crazy to think that we’re now turning more and more to ancient wisdom and practices to counteract the impact of modern faced-paced society, but I guess it just goes to show that the knowledge of source energy and cognitive understanding has really been there all along – it’s just been buried under layers of subconscious beliefs and negatively-wired neural pathways. We just have to get still enough to recognise it again.
This is a good video which explains Neuroplasticity for more visual learners.
This is a post for another day, but there are also studies which support the use of certain binaural frequencies to increase the neuroplasticity of the brain – I love using this music during yoga classes as it provides a subtle background vibration with less of the distraction of pumping music.