The Brain-Body Connection

We all know that regular exercise is good for your body—turns out it’s good for your brain, too. A recent study compared the creative thinking ability of participants who had just exercised with a control group who hadn’t, and found that those who’d worked out came up with more possible solutions to a problem (and also, incidentally, felt increased positivity). As Psychology Today explains it: “Sweat is like WD-40 for your mind—it lubricates the rusty hinges of your brain and makes your thinking more fluid.”

Kripalu Yoga teacher and former Kripalu CEO David Lipsius, once an Ironman triathlete, knows exactly what that feels like. “While exercising, my awareness can often and more easily be drawn inward to the physical sensations that dominate as a result of the activity. This experience is a meditation in and of itself,” he reflects. “The more I attune to the internal experiences of the exercise, the more my mind is freed of other thoughts and distractions. Often, this is when spontaneous creativity will appear, seemingly out of thin air.”

Exercise doesn’t have to be aerobic to boost creativity, according to Stanford researchers, who found that people’s creative output increased by 60 percent when walking as opposed to sitting. That’s a big incentive for walking meetings (Steve Jobs was a fan, as is Mark Zuckerberg) though fresh air is not a prerequisite: The results were the same for those walking outdoors and those walking inside on a treadmill.

Like walking, yoga might not always produce as much “WD-40 for the mind” as vigorous exercise does, but it does create similar connections between the muscles and the synapses. “Mindfulness and physical movement have been scientifically connected to changes in the brain that enhance learning, and yoga offers both in one potent package,” says Edi Pasalis, Director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, which conducted a neuroimaging study on the effects of yoga on the brain.

The focus on conscious breathing that comes with Kripalu Yoga can also play a role in brain activity, according to Janna Delgado, a Kripalu Yoga teacher and Program Leader for Kripalu Yoga in the Schools. The breath provides a portal directly into the autonomic nervous system, regulating physical and mental functioning, Janna says. “Changing one’s breath, as with pranayama, can alter heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of stress hormones, and these physiological changes will, in turn, enhance cognition and brain function.”

Most of us have experienced this first-hand: When we get stressed or panicked, our breath becomes shorter and we lose the ability to think clearly. When we consciously take long, slow breaths and feel ourselves grow calmer, a solution often arises that we couldn’t have imagined just a moment before.

Janna describes Kripalu Yoga as a top-down and bottom-up practice—in other words, the body-based practices of asana and pranayama “trickle up” to the mind, while mindfulness practices like meditation “trickle down” to the body. “Combined, these practices quite powerfully integrate the functioning of the body and mind,” she says.

Whether you’re a marathon runner or a hiker who likes to stop and smell the roses, whether you gravitate toward vigorous vinyasa or gentle, restorative yoga, the good news is that an experience of heightened creativity is available to you. David describes it as “a state of flow where the perceived limits of thinking no longer apply, and answers or solutions come to me that would not have been available without that deep inward dive that focused movement creates.”

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