Beginner’s Mind and Neuroplasticity
Which posture is better for your brain, Eagle Pose or Extended Mountain Pose?
The answer is of course, it depends. Like any other organ in our body, our brain responds to our environment and the activities we engage in. When we repeat tasks we’ve done before, we strengthen existing neural networks. When we try new things, we create new ones. Science calls this neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to change. So, the pose that’s better for your brain depends on what you’re trying to do; do you want to reinforce or change a practice?
When we try something new we often feel awkward or uncomfortable. If it’s in a group setting, we’re two steps behind and trying hard. Our level of concentration has to be higher because we don’t have muscle memory or habits to rely on. As we continue the activity we start to develop some skills and confidence since our brain has developed a capacity for that activity.
In a yoga setting that’s the path of never having been to a class before, to starting and perhaps struggling with the postures or terminology, to yogi convert. Once we become that yogi convert what happens? Our brain converts to auto pilot and strengthens existing pathways instead of building new ones. So our sun salutations might become beautiful to look at, but where have our thoughts gone during our practice? When we first started out we were probably 110% on our mats trying to figure it all out. Somewhere along the line we transitioned to getting our grocery list and other life organization done while on our mat. How can we get back to fully showing up and ask our brain to continue to expand?
Beginner’s mind is a philosophical zen practice we can use at any time to jumpstart alternative neural pathways.
Shunryu Suzuki says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities but in the expert’s there are few.” 1
Applying a beginner’s mind is as simple in practice is making the 1,000th time you step on the mat to practice as fresh and new as the first time. Going back to Eagle or Extended Mountain, have you ever practiced putting all your attention into the feelings in your jaw as a gauge of your tension level as you practice either of those postures? When is your jaw relaxed? Where does it clench? What does your tongue do while you practice? Does your breath effect your jaw or your jaw effect your breath?
Practicing with a new perspective or level of awareness for yourself every time you practice is a way to keep your practice fresh and your neural networks continually expanding. What new questions can you ask in your practice this week to expand your brain?
Next week we’ll continue to look at building our brains with flexible attitudes.
- Shunryu Suzuki’s book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind on Amazon.
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