Lesson 17: Neuroscience for Yogis:

Hebb’s Axiom, Neuroplasticity and the Science of Integration

Neuroscience for yogis includes 5 subsections: “Introduction”, “Neuroanatomy”, “Neural Integration: the Development and Functioning of the Nervous System”“The Language of Neurobiology”, and “Mind, the Nervous System and Self Regulation.”


UnknownNow that we have looked at cells and tissues on a general level, we will now look more closely at the nervous system. As Yoga students, it can be very helpful to have an understanding of not only the structures, but also the nature and functioning of the nervous system as it is a crucial component of life and our main interface in our practice. To help consolidate a lot of complex information, we can reduce our take home points to three basic ideas or principles that also immediately apply to our personal practice. The first two are the notions of  balance and integration. The third is fundamental law of neuroscience known as Hebb’s Axiom.

Our primary metaphor for balance is the Goldilocks principle. In the more modern versions of the story, Goldilocks was seeking balance in life. Neither too hot, not too cold, too hard nor too soft, too high nor too low; but just right! A major role of the nervous system is to regulate all of the activities of life, holding them within the boundaries of ‘just right’. We might visualize a river flowing between the banks of chaos (too much) and rigidity (not enough). In a healthy individual or society, ‘just right’ is a fairly wide river of possibilities. Unhealthy states are when the river of balance is very narrow and we easily get snagged on the banks. In yogic terminology, the dominance of rajas is ‘too much’, the dominance of tamas is ‘not enough’, but when sattva is the dominant guna,  this is ‘just right’. The capacity to self regulate is inherent in the cellular-physiological systems, but deeper and more complex ways of self – regulating psyche and emotions can be discovered through yoga/meditation practice. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are a masterful presentation of transforming psychological and emotional rajas and tamas to sattva. In lesson 1 we will explore this in sitting.

Integration is the second principle. Integration allows new levels of complexity and creativity to emerge by linking two or more differentiated systems to create something more that the sum of the parts. Music and team sports provide numerous examples of the possibilities of integration. Different musicians come together in a band or orchestra to create music impossible for a soloist. Same with athletic teams. A computer is a modern example of integration, combining screen, mouse, keyboard, memory, cpu, and software to produce an extraordinary tool. The brain is an amazing organ of integration and within the brain are regions that have evolved to integrate and complexify the process of integration.  With more and more information streams arising, from the world around us and our inner responses, the integration process is crucial for health and well being. As we will see, yoga is the definitive science of integration.

Donald Hebb was a Canadian neuropsychologist and one of the pioneers in neuroscience.    In 1949 he proposed what is now known as Hebb’s axiom, which states “neurons that fire together, wire together.” When a nerve or cluster of nerves fires at the same moment in time, linkages in the wiring are formed that facilitate the likelihood that the same set of neurons will fire together in the future. The more times they fire together, the stronger the wiring becomes and the faster and stronger the signal travels through the nerves. This further increasing the probability that this pattern will continue. The cluster of neurons operate as a single unit and become more and more efficient. Think of a cross-country ski trail, or the evolution from game trails to human pathways, to roads, to super-highways. This neurological process is the foundation of memory, habit and learning and the key to spiritual practice.

When I was maybe 3 or 4, I remember visiting my great aunt one spring when she stayed in a cottage near the ocean, surrounded by amazingly fragrant blooming lilacs. Now, every time I smell lilacs the whole childhood scene returns: the scent of the sea, the old wooden cottage, subtle nuances of spring. As a main stream baby boomer, when I hear songs from the 60’s, many adolescent memories come flooding out, in all modalities, from smells and tastes, friends, painful times, crazy times, all encoded together. Sometimes the repetition brain amygdala strengthens the connections. In trauma, a single very charged and intense event can become deeply imprinted. Memory is built upon Hebb’s axiom.

A habit is a pattern of behavior that, through repetition, becomes easier to repeat. I used to drive back and forth every day from my house in Arlington to the old Mystic River Yoga center in Medford. On many occasions, I found myself turning towards the yoga center when actually I was supposed to be going somewhere else. This is a lesson in both the power of habit and the role of mindfulness practice in changing habits. Hebb’s axiom led to, ‘if you are driving in this direction, you must want to go the the yoga center”. Mindfulness would allow me to override the habit and say, ‘today we will do it differently’. In other words, the mind can be used to change the firing patterns in the brain. This is very important in practicing yoga postures as it is very easy to slip into habits patterns in our poses and to stop being fully present. Or, we may have very strong habits that are so unconscious we do not even see them. Maybe I subtly contract my spinal muscles with the beginning of every inhalation and never notice. I just keep repeating the habit and make the linkage even stronger. We must be mindful at as many levels as possible to encourage healthy action.

Unknown-2In “The Bond” author Lynne McTaggert takes Hebb’s Axiom into the social realm. “It may also be true that people that fire together wire together. When we work with others for a common purpose, we very quickly and literally get on their wavelength. All of this suggests that coming together in small groups with a superordinate goal provides a social cohesion beyond money, job, or size of property. We may be at our happiest when neighbors are helping neighbors-as neighbors used to do, for instance, when raising a barn.” In our highly alienated modern world, this is a great lesson to be re-learned.

By carefully identifying and working with balance, integration and practice, we can continue to grow in our practice. We need to find the places of balance, integrate them into our life activities, and mindfully sustain these patterns so they become stable through time.

Neuroplasticity and Integration

Which brings us to learning. When we understand how the mind and brain work together, we can use this in our yoga practice to continue to grow and learn. Acronym lover Dan Siegel (2007) describes this process as ‘Snagging the Brain”, SNAG being an acronym for Stimulating Neuronal Growth and Activation. In mindfulness and meditation practices we learn to direct our attention to our intentions which in turn activates the middle pre-frontal regions of the brain that are know to be major centers of neural integration. In other words, neurons from this region send out links to all other areas of the brain and ‘even the social world of other brains.” (Siegel 2007). We have discovered regions of the brain that function to integrate and coordinate many other regions. This is the integration principle that governs yoga practice. As Dan says, we use the mind to change the brain in an ongoing spiral of deeper and more extensive integration. We will see that integration is health and will develop this further in a later section. The principle of neuro-plasticity says that the brain is dynamic, not static. It responds to conscious choices and can participate is its own growth and development. For some extraordinary real life examples of this process, please read ” The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge. As yoga students and teachers, if we can really come to an understanding of this, our practice and teaching will enter new levels of integration. To help, we will begin with a brief overview of the basic structures of the nervous system

Neuroanatomy: The Anatomy of the Nervous System

It is helpful for yoga students and teachers to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the large scale structures of the human nervous system that are involved in its functioning. Integration is the guiding principle to provide coordination amongst all of there regions and modalities.  We’ll begin with a general explanation of the primary anatomical components and then look more deeply at the evolutionary development, the functioning and integration of the various regions. We refer you also to the section on cells, tissues and the living matrix for a description of the neurons and glial cells, the micro-anatomical structures of the nervous system.

Although the scientific language can be confusing, there is really only one “nervous system” in the body. Each subdivision of the system is also called a “nervous system,” but all of these smaller systems belong to the single, highly integrated nervous system. Each subdivision does have structural and functional characteristics that distinguish it from the others. Some will be familiar, and others not, so spend some time with those regions that are new to your understanding. To begin, the human nervous system as a whole has two subdivisions: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

The Central Nervous System

images-1The brain and spinal cord are the two organs of the central nervous system. Because they are so vitally important, the brain and spinal cord, located in the dorsal or posterior body cavity, are encased in bone for protection. The brain is in the skull, and the spinal cord is in the vertebral canal of the vertebral column. Although considered to be two separate organs, the brain and spinal cord are continuous at the foramen magnum, the ‘big opening” at the base of the skull where it joins the neck. In addition to bone (the skull and vertebrae), the CNS is surrounded by connective tissue membranes, called meninges, and by cerebrospinal fluid.


There are three layers of meninges around the brain and spinal cord. The outer layer, the dura mater, is composed of tough white dense connective tissue. The arachnoid or middle layer resembles a cobweb in appearance. It is a thin layer with numerous threadlike strands that attach it to the innermost layer. The space under the arachnoid, the subarachnoid space, is filled with cerebrospinal fluid and contains blood vessels. The pia mater is the innermost layer of meninges. This thin, delicate membrane is tightly bound to the surface of the brain and spinal cord and cannot be dissected away without damaging the surface.

Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF)

Unknown-3CSF is a clear bodily fluid circulating throughout the central nervous system providing two important benefits. Through circulation, the CSF delivers nutrients to the structures of the nervous system and removes wastes from the brain and spinal cord, detoxifying the environment of the nervous system. As a shock absorber, the CSF protects the brain and spinal cord from trauma brought upon by movement, falls, blows, etc. In the more subtle inner work, the CSF also carries information in the form of sound waves that are part of deeper integration systems in the living matrix; (see “Stalking the Wild Pendulum” by Itzak Bentov), and cranio-sacral practitioners sometimes call it ‘liquid light’.


The brain is a network of electrically active cells known as neurons and supporting cells known as glial cells, from the Latin word for glue.* It is divided anatomically into 4 regions: the cerebrum, diencephalons, brain stem, and cerebellum; and functionally / developmentally into 3: the reptilian, the limbic or mammalian, and neocortical or human.

*(Originally these glial cells were thought to be nothing more than ‘bubblewrap” for the neurons, but breakthroughs in modern science are unlocking the amazing complexity that the glial cells bring to the overall functioning of the nervous system. Although the glial cells make up 50% of the brain’s weight, glial cells outnumber neurons roughly 6 to 1).

Cerebral Cortex

The largest and most obvious portion of the brain is the cerebral cortex, or cortex for short. It is quite thin, only six layers deep, but folded again and again to give it a ‘brain-like’ appearance. The cortex is divided by a deep longitudinal fissure into two cerebral hemispheres, known popularly as the right brain and the left brain. The two hemispheres are two separate entities but are connected by an arching band of white fibers, called the corpus callosum that provides a communication pathway between the two halves. (In “My Stroke of Insight” brain scientist Jill Bolt Taylor offers fascinating observations of how differently these two ‘brains’ function. And with the emerging understanding of the principle of neuroplasticity, we now know that any part of the brain can change and take on other roles!)

Each cerebral hemisphere is divided into five lobes, four of which have the same name as the bone over them: the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe, the occipital lobe, and the temporal lobe. A fifth lobe, the insula or Island of Reil, lies deep within the lateral sulcus. The insula will be seen to play a major role in the emotions.

With neroscience becoming more and more refined, we now know a lot more detail about the functioning of the different regions. As a small example, the frontal cortex can be further divided into the frontal and pre-frontal regions, the prefrontal further divided into the side or dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex where working memory and executive functioning processes are mediated, and the middle prefrontal cortex. The middle contains the ‘orbitofrontal cortex’, the anterior cingulate cortex, the ventral lateral cortex and the medial pre-frontal cortex.

Dan Siegel, my favorite neuroscientist, has come up with a great way to learn about the three functional layers of the brain.Unknown-4 If you fold your hand over your thumb as Dan is showing, you have recreated your brain. The fingers are the cortex, the tips of the fingers, the important pre-frontal cortex, the thumb is the limbic system and the wrist the brainstem leading down the arm as the spinal cord.Unknown-6 Notice the pre-frontal region connects to both the limbic area and the brain stem. If the pre-frontal region becomes disengaged, then the emotions can run wild if you flip your lid! Meditation/mindfulness practice helps wire the pre-frontal cortex to allow a conscious slowing down of the emotional reflex arc that leads to unconscious acting out. The emotions still arise, but the impulsivity can be greatly diminished through a disciplined practice.


The diencephalon, or inter-brain, is located in the center of the brain nearly surrounded by the cerebral hemispheres. It includes the thalamus, hypothalamus, and epithalamus. The thalamus, about 80 percent of the diencephalon, consists of two oval masses of gray matter that serve as relay stations for sensory impulses, except for the sense of smell, going to the cerebral cortex. The hypothalamus is a small region below the thalamus, which plays a key role in maintaining homeostasis by regulating many visceral activities. The epithalamus is the most dorsal or posterior portion of the diencephalon. This small gland, operating like a biological clock, is involved with the onset of puberty and rhythmic cycles in the body.

                                                             Brain Stem
The brain stem is the region between the diencephalon and the spinal cord. It consists of three parts: midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata. The midbrain is the most superior portion of the brain stem. The pons is the bulging middle portion of the brain stem. This region primarily consists of nerve fibers that form conduction tracts between the higher brain centers and spinal cord. The medulla oblongata, or simply medulla, extends back and down from the pons. It is continuous with the spinal cord at the foramen magnum. All the ascending (sensory) and descending (motor) nerve fibers connecting the brain and spinal cord pass through the medulla. The brain stem regulates/mediates basic elements of energy flow such as arousal, alertness, temperature, heart rate, and respiration and matures by early childhood.


The cerebellum, (Latin: “little brain”) is the second largest portion of the brain, located below the occipital lobes of the cerebral cortex . This ‘movement brain” plays an important role in the integration of sensory perception and motor control. Three paired bundles of myelinated nerve fibers, called cerebellar peduncles, form communication pathways between the cerebellum and other parts of the central nervous system including the cerebral motor cortex (which sends information to the muscles causing them to move) and the spinocerebellar tract (which provides proprioceptive feedback on the position of the body in space). The cerebellum integrates these pathways using the constant feedback on body position to fine-tune motor movements.

Spinal Cord

The spinal cord extends from the foramen magnum at the base of the skull to the level of the first lumbar vertebra. The cord is continuous with the medulla oblongata at the foramen magnum. Like the brain, the spinal cord is surrounded by bone, meninges, and cerebrospinal fluid. It is divided into 31 segments with each segment giving rise to a pair of spinal nerves. At the lower end of the cord, many spinal nerves extend beyond the conus medullaris to form a collection that resembles a horse’s tail known as the cauda equina. In cross section, the spinal cord appears oval in shape.

The spinal cord has two main functions:
• Serving as a conduction pathway for impulses going to and from the brain. Sensory impulses travel to the brain on ascending tracts in the cord. Motor impulses travel on descending tracts.

• Serving as a reflex center. The reflex arc is the functional unit of the nervous system. Reflexes are responses to stimuli that do not require conscious thought and consequently, they occur more quickly than reactions that require thought processes. For example, with the withdrawal reflex, the reflex action withdraws the affected part before you are aware of the pain. Many reflexes are mediated in the spinal cord without going to the higher brain centers.

The Peripheral Nervous System

Unknown-7The organs of the peripheral nervous system are the cranial and spinal nerves and ganglia that branch out from the brain and spinal cord and form the communication network between the CNS and the peripheral organs such as muscles and glands. Nerves are bundles of nerve fibers, much like muscles are bundles of muscle fibers. The basic nerve fiber is called an axon and is the output end of a nerve cell or neuron. Ganglia are collections, or small knots, of nerve cell bodies outside the CNS.

Cranial Nerves

images-3Twelve pairs of cranial nerves emerge from the lower surface of the brain. All of these nerves, except the vagus nerve, pass through foramina of the skull to innervate structures in the head, neck, and facial region.

The cranial nerves are designated both by name and by Roman numerals, according to the order in which they appear on the inferior surface of the brain. Most of the nerves have both sensory and motor components. Three of the nerves are associated with the special senses of smell, vision, hearing, and equilibrium and have only sensory fibers. Five other nerves are primarily motor in function but do have some sensory fibers for proprioception. The remaining four nerves consist of significant amounts of both sensory and motor fibers.

Spinal Nerves

Thirty-one pairs of spinal nerves emerge laterally from the spinal cord through the lateral foramen of the vertebrae. Each pair of nerves corresponds to a segment of the cord and they are named accordingly. This means there are 8 cervical nerves, 12 thoracic nerves, 5 lumbar nerves, 5 sacral nerves, and 1 coccygeal nerve.Unknown-9

Each spinal nerve is connected to the spinal cord by a dorsal root and a ventral root. The cell bodies of the sensory neurons are in the dorsal root ganglion, but the motor neuron cell bodies are in the gray matter. The two roots join to form the spinal nerve just before the nerve leaves the vertebral column. Because all spinal nerves have both sensory and motor components, they are all mixed nerves.

Afferent (sensory) and an Efferent (motor) divisions.

The peripheral nervous system is further subdivided into an afferent (sensory) division and an efferent (motor) division. The afferent or sensory division transmits impulses from peripheral organs to the CNS. The efferent or motor division transmits impulses from the CNS out to the peripheral organs to cause an effect or action.

The efferent (motor) nervous system is further subdivided into the somatic nervous system, also called the somatomotor or somatic efferent nervous system, and the visceral efferent system or the autonomic nervous system.

Somatic Nervous System

The somatic nervous system, consisting of nerves that go to the skin and muscles, supplies motor impulses to the skeletal muscles. Because these nerves permit conscious control of the skeletal muscles, it is sometimes called the voluntary nervous system and is involved in conscious activities. This is where yogis begin their enquiry.Unknown-6

Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system is a visceral efferent system, which means it sends motor impulses to the visceral organs. It functions automatically and continuously, without conscious effort, to innervate smooth muscle, cardiac muscle, and glands. It is concerned with heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and other visceral activities that work together to maintain homeostasis.

Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Divisions

The autonomic nervous system has two parts, the sympathetic division and the parasympathetic division. Many visceral organs are supplied with fibers from both divisions. In this case, one stimulates and the other inhibits. This antagonistic functional relationship serves as a balance to help maintain homeostasis.

Evolutionary Origins of the Nervous System

In his book “i of the Vortex” neuro-scientist Rodolfo Llinas describes the probable emergence of the first primitive nervous system in multi-cellular beings who needed to be able to move around in space. “The nervous system has evolved to provide a plan, one composed of goal -oriented, mostly short-lived predictions, verified by moment to moment sensory input.” The life experience of the modern sea squirt offers a major clue. The adult lives rooted to a stable object in the sea such as a rock. It reproduces by budding. That is it grows a bulging arm bud that contains a primitive, brain like ganglion of cells. This bud breaks off into a tadpole like creature with a tail that then swims about until it finds a suitable place to root itself. Upon rooting, it digests these brain cells and the tail and returns to being an unmoving adult. No need to move, no need for a nervous system, as in plants.

Development and Functioning of the Nervous System

As we have seen, the nervous system is a vast and complex entity whose fundamental function is to integrate the activities of life. A healthy central nervous system allows a person to be able to move well, speak fluently, play and develop the skills necessary for every day living and learning, but it does not arise fully formed. Its development begins from conception and emerges in a regular sequence that is the same for all humans regardless of cultural influences. Although highly complex, certain aspects of the developmental sequence are well known and are foundational in understanding the relationship between movement and yoga postures. These include the both development of movement possibilities along with the capacities to receive and process information from the environment. Occupational Therapy has evolved to help mediate in children and adults who have developmental challenges in these areas.

Parts of this regular sequence of developmental stages are identified by the movement images-4patterns which occur at each stage. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen* refers to these as the alphabet of movement and they include Primitive Reflexes, Righting Reactions and Equilibrium Responses. Each of these is seen to play a part in the necessary growth of the fetus, infant or young child. Each reflex also prepares the way for the next stage of development. Thus in the development of an infant from conception to birth, and on to the toddler stage, there is a sequential occurrence of survival or primitive reflexes. Differentiation and lateralization offer more complex responses to the world.  I am eternally grateful to Bonnie for her amazing ability to work with infants and to teach others how to identify and integrate these foundational patterns. (See “Sensing Feeling and Action”)

Primitive Reflexes
Primitive reflexes are movement responses to specific stimuli occurring sequentially in the first few weeks of fetal development up to birth and are the foundation of all movements that will come in the future. Reflexes come in complimentary pairs, yin and yang, that allow modulation of the response and we will see this process of modulation carried forward in our yoga poses and sequences.

They are directed by the oldest part of the brain, the brain stem, and executed without involvement of higher levels of the brain (the cortex). Under normal circumstances, each of these reflexes plays a part, and then the CNS allows the package of interrelated movements to “break-up” and be integrated into increasingly complex voluntary controlled movement. Many variables however, can interfere with development. For instance, genetic pre-disposition or inherited characteristics, stresses during pregnancy, birth trauma, and environmental deprivation are but a few examples of possible interruptions in the evolving integration of the movement vocabulary. These reflexes will then be retained indicating and therapeutic intervention will be needed to re-initiate the process of movement integration.

Research in the U.K. and Sweden, has shown that retained primitive reflexes may impede subsequent behavior, motor control, sensory perception, eye-hand co-ordination, and cognition. Neuro-developmental delay is a term which describes the presence of a cluster of aberrant reflexes because of an omission or arrest of a stage of early development. Certain combinations of retained reflexes exhibit themselves in ways that affect emotional and social well-being and academic progress. See (

Righting Reactions

images-6These are more complex patterns controlled from the mid-brain. They begin to develop at birth,  are most active as the infant begins the process of standing and walking at 10- 12 months, and remain active throughout all of life. Bonnie describes two main categories of righting reactions; ones that bring the head to vertical in gravity and ones that coordinate the alignment of head and torso. These come before the equilibrium responses.

Equilibrium Responses

These are automatic responses to help maintain balance as ones center of gravity moves around in space and are integrated primarily in the forebrain. They come in two basic categories: those oriented to gravity or downward and those orienting to space. We will explore these specific orientations in the early part of the practice course. Further discussion of these and more complex combinations of reflexes leading to more complex movements can be found in “Sensing Feeling and Action.”


Differentiation of response allows the inhibition of primitive reflexes and more. It is the ability to direct one part of the body to move according to plan while all other parts remain still. It is the precursor to the development of lateralization, and helps the brain establish specialized centers.

Children with immature differentiation may demonstrate overflow movements. This means that when one part of the body (e.g. a hand) moves, other parts move as well. Immature differentiation also accompanies an apparent weakness in kinesthetic memory (the memory that the muscles have for movement), since overflow movement defocuses the brain’s processing of the intended movement. Such children may not realize that they are kicking, knocking over, or in other ways disturbing people and objects in their environment. They disclaim responsibility for these actions and may be viewed as liars. It is usually evident that there was no malice in their actions. However, after prolonged periods of receiving blame and punishment for these problems, an individual may begin to exhibit the behaviors that his/her peers seem to expect. It becomes easy to see how irregularities in differentiation can cause poor academic learning and also serious social problems.


Lateralization refers to development of lateral dominance (right or left eye, ear, hand, leg) and development of specialized centers and functions in the left and right brain hemispheres. The right side of the body sends messages to and is controlled by the left side of the brain, and the left side of the body by the right side of the brain. Differentiation is a precursor to the development of lateralization. The ability to cross one’s midline is also a necessary component for mature lateralization.

Most people develop unilateral cerebral dominance – that is their dominant eye, ear, hand and leg are on the same side of the body. Approximately 20% of the population has mixed dominance or other irregularities in the development of dominance. Those irregularities of dominance that are the most difficult to resolve without therapeutic help involve alternating reliance on one side or the other without conscious decision to do so. Such children will use first one hand when writing and then the other, for example. This causes instability in perception and performance. Immaturities and irregularities in lateralisation can cause perceptual, organizational and performance problems in all areas of life.

Sensory Systems

In addition to the reflexes and movement patterns listed above, the nervous system also has to evolve the capacities to take in and organize sensory information. The vestibular system is primal in orienting to gravity and one of the most important systems in yoga practice.

The vestibular is the first sensory system to fully develop as it is ready by six months after conception. This system controls the sense of movement and balance and is the sensory system considered to have the most important influence on the other sensory systems and on the ability to function in everyday life. Directly or indirectly, the vestibular system influences nearly everything we do. It is the unifying system in our brain that modifies and coordinates information received from other systems. The vestibular system functions like a traffic cop, telling each sensation where and when it should go or stop.

The sense organs for the vestibular system are located within the inner ear and consist of three semicircular canals, the utricle and saccule . Projections from the vestibular system to other parts of the brain and sensory organs serve as communication channels. One of these projections is the vestibulo-cerebellar projection. Through this connection, the vestibular system influences the autonomic nervous system. This explains why individuals may have problems breathing or may develop nausea or irregular heart rates when the system is overwhelmed.


Proprioception refers to the brain’s sense of the body-in-space. Essentially we use five systems to determine where our bodies are in relation to their environment and where various parts of our bodies are in relation to one another:

1.  The information received by the brain from the inner ear regarding the position of our heads, the pull of gravity, the speed and acceleration of our movement.

2.  The interpretation of messages received by our eyes about both the space and our position and posture

3.  The assorted information received by our brain from tactile, kinesthetic and proprioceptive sites located throughout the body

4.  The messages received by the brain through smell, a sense on which we unconsciously rely to discern direction and distance from objects and events in our environment

5.  The interpretation of the messages we have received through hearing, which also helps us orient to specific objects and events in our environment.

If any of these functions are irregular, we either have a diminished sense of body-in-space or place greater reliance on another system (such as vision) to compensate which in turn causes us to use our eyes inefficiently for broader or higher level visual functions.


Proprioception differs from kinesthesia in that kinesthesia is the sense of relative muscle, joint and tendon position in specific situations. Kinesthetic memory involves learning these positions and the sequence of shifts in these positions for rote, repeated movements (such as gymnastics or swinging a golf club). Proprioception is a dynamic sense, allowing continuous accommodations and adaptations to a shifting environment (such as in dance, or moving through a crowded room).

The Visual Sense

Vision exerts strong and sometimes supreme command over our other senses, as optical illusions demonstrate, and it exercises similar effects on our posture and locomotion (movement). With one’s eyes closed, standing soon becomes difficult, and, unless by luck, we would find it impossible to thread a needle.

Most people think that if a child’s vision is 20/20 then everything is fine. This is usually tested by a nurse with a Snellen chart (containing letters of different sizes that have to be identified at a certain distance). What needs to be understood is that vision is more than just clarity. It also includes binocular coordination, speed accommodation, vertical movement and other visual functions necessary to visualise, understand and apply the information that comes through the eyes. Children may not have these abilities in spite of having ‘good eyesight’ and this results in learning problems. Difficulties arise because vision impaired children rarely report symptoms. They think everyone sees the same as they do.

Unknown-10Our two eyes are supposed to work together – to perform as one entity. This is a skill that must be acquired through use during the preschool years. Not all children adequately develop visual skill and this can interfere with comprehension, the ability to perceive spatial relations, and the ability to concentrate. For example, there may be visual discomfort or distortions of the text while reading. This reduces close attention to details and sustained mental effort. As a result, a child will be easily distracted. The signs of inattention are not only observable, but also many times interpreted (or misinterpreted) simply as Attention Deficit Disorder.

Further Levels of Maturing and Integration

“As the child develops, the mind begins to create a sense of continuity across time, linking past experiences with present perceptions and anticipations of the future.” Dan Siegel,
“The Developing Mind”. This process creates what is called an autobographical narrative; and is one of the ways that the mind create coherence within its own processes, and a sense of ‘self’.

” Studies of child development reveal that by the third year of life, a ‘narrative function emerges in children that allows them to create stories about the events they encounter during their lives. These narratives are sequential descriptions of people and events that condense numerous experiences into generalizing and contrasting stories. New experiences are compared to old ones. Similarities are noted in creating generalized rules, and differences are highlighted as memorable exceptions to these rules. The stories are about making sense of the events and the mental experiences of the characters. Filled with elements of the characters internal experiences in the context of interactions with others in the world, these stories appear to be functioning to create a sense of coherent comprehension of the individual in the world across time.”  Developing Mind, pg 323

My son went through a fascinating phase of narrative learning, telling stories based upon a character he called Robbie Rabbit. At first Robbie was the star. He drove trucks, he ran restaurants, he could fly airplanes. Then he acquired friends to help him run his restaurant, his woodworking shop and whatever other enterprise was being explored by Sean at the time.

How Else Does a Sense of Self Emerge?

“(The) self is the centralization of prediction”

The self is not born out of the realm of consciousness, only the noticing of it is (i.e., self-awareness). … Understanding that the brain performs prediction on the basis of an assumed self “entity” will lead us to how the brain generates the mindness state.”
Rodolfo Llinas ” i of the Vortex”

Mindness: ” In my view, from its evolutionary inception, mindness is the internalization of movement.” R L, ” i of the Vortex”,  pg 5

“Our notions of self-hood start from the way the brain represents our body image, our physical self-as its implicit main physical axis. This body image represent our soma. Infants soon begin to develop their representations of a implicit psychic self (their psyche) at many covert levels along the framework of this physical core. Only from this overconditioned psyche do we look out later into the world, and behave accordingly, for better and for worse.” James Austen, Zen Brain Reflections, Pg 24

The pejorative self vs the transformed self:

Problem Self:                              Transformed Self
an arrogant I                               an actualized i
a beseiged ME                            a buoyant me
a clutching Mine                          a compassionate mine

In Lesson 18  Ahamkara: Parts, Voices and the Sense of Self, which follows, we will go into more depth on this fascinating topic of Self.

The Language of Neurobiology and Some Quotes

Representation: a pattern of neuronal activation or cluster of neuronal activations, arising in a variety of possible modalities and levels of complexity, that ‘represent’ specific information about an experience. For example, we have visual representations for shapes and colors, for familiar faces, for abstract symbols such as words. Each sense provides differing representations, as can abstract thought.

Memory: ” The way past events affect future function” DM pg 24. Also: the way the mind encodes elements of experience into various forms of representation.

Mind: the patterns in the flow of energy and information…emanating from the activity of the neurons of the brain. DS  The mind emerges from the substance of the brain as it is shaped by interpersonal relationships. DM 1

“My view is that having a mind means that an organism forms neural representations which can become images, be manipulated in a process called thought, and eventually influence behavior by helping predict the future, plan accordingly, and choose the next action.” Antonio Damasio, “Descartes Error” pg 90





Related Links

Science of Meditation
Rick Hanson’s Neuroscience Newsletter
Dan Siegel Resources


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Micro-Cosmic Orbit: Pt 2

Exploring and Embodying Three Dimensions

In the previous post we explored the micro-cosmic orbit as a means to refine our focal attention (samadhi) through bringing our attention to specific points along the orbit and linking these points into lines, arcs and circles. As we work more deeply this way, we may discover that we can find these points at three levels. The first is out beyond the confines of the skin, in an ‘orbit’ in the energy field around the body. The second is directly on the skin, where an acupuncturist or shiatsu practitioner would apply needles or pressure. The third is in the interior of the body along the planes of fascia interwoven through the organs, blood vessels and nerves. When we can feel all three of these levels simultaneously, we are inhabiting our spherical energy field and can begin to fully realize the possibilities of having three dimensional/spatial sensitivity, perception and consciousness.

images-5The girdle vessel (Dai Mai,) the fourth vessel we use, is a latitude line and is essential in finding our three dimensional perceptual field. This yang vessel pairs with the yin ‘thrusting vessel, the vertical center axis, creating horizontal stability, and allowing us to rotate/twist. Rotation inherently builds the third dimension of depth ( A circle has length and width. To create a sphere you add depth. ) and is the gateway to cosmic awareness as well as a more vibrant embodied presence.

Rotation drives the whole manifest universe. In our solar system, the planets spiral around milky_waythe sun. In our Milky Way galaxy, the stars, including our sun, spiral around a center (probably a giant black hole! If you can find Sagittarius in the night sky, and you will probably have to wait until next summer, look through and imagine 26,000 light years off in the distance.) The earth rotates on its own axis creating weather patterns as well as a sense of day and night.

The spinning top (one of the oldest toys known to humans, found in archeological sites all over the world) demonstrates the cosmic principle in physics we are embodying. The faster it rotates, the more stable the vertical line. When the top slows down it starts to wobble and when it stops spinning, it falls over. To keep the rotation, you need to keep feeding it with energy. The bicycle uses this same principle, flipped 90 degrees. Another aspect we explore is the radius of the horizontal circle. Rotation pushes from the center outward (yang) in what is called centrifugal force. As this is counterbalanced by theGM2434B-1 yin centripetal (center seeking) force, we can change the volume of the energy field by playing with this ‘expanding – condensing’, yang – yin relationship.

In this top, the widest circle with the most outward thrust, the purple one, is below the center of the vertical axis. Lowering the center of gravity adds even more stability, which is why we emphasize the lower dantien in our breathing, movement and meditation practice. When we discover how to work with this principle in the energy field, our twisting poses can actually help expand the body. If we work muscularly, you will feel constricting in twisting poses.

SBK_1711254-24Traditionally the ‘dai mai’ girdle vessel surrounds the body at the level of the pelvis in the lower dantien. but we can move our attention to awaken other ‘latitudes’ of the body. To begin in the feet, stand with the right foot forward, the left foot back, as if you are about to move into a standing twist (without the forward bend), but haven’t yet begun. Before you move any further, imagine a spiraling coil of energy beginning below the floor (the Antarctic Circle) and traveling up the center. Notice how this mimics the girdle vessel. Now imagine the coils widening as they rise up from the base ( moving toward the equator), as the yang energy expands outward. The girdle vessel is very yang so this is quite natural. Feel the energetic volume expanding and condensing with the breath, but slowly expanding in overall volume

To awaken the front body-yin energy field, we can take the hoop forward to fully engage the arms and shoulders. Now imagine the hoops extends through the back body, receiving the rising spiral and expanding as the action of twisting. SBK_1711254-2SBK_1711254-9Most students eventually leave half of the body behind and end up contracting rather than expanding, especially along the spine column. Imagine the center of the spinal canal opening outward in an expanding circle/spiral, melting the tissue, feeling spaciousness, transcending the limitations of structure.SBK_1711254-4 (My front foot turns out much more than average to release the inner groin. Don’t feel you have to imitate this, but find out for yourself where openness and balance meet.) The hoop is moved to the front to expand the yin/organ/front body qi field and expand the ‘wings’ of the body, but also feel the back body softening and opening. This feeling can be evoked in sitting, lying and inverted twists as well. If you do not have a hula hoop handy, you can also use a thera-ball to find the volume.SBK_1711254-8


Another key component awakened here is the Pericardium 8 point, PC-8 (or P-8) in the center of the palms. Analagous to the K-1 points on the feet, P-8 is a gateway between the inner and outer qi fields. The SBK_1711254-11Pericardium, the fascial connective tissue membrane surrounding the heart, arises embryologically from the same cells and tissues that create the diaphragm and liver. The ‘heart protector’ literally does this, on many levels. As someone with a well-armored heart, I am finding that opening and nurturing the heart protector so that is does its job with over doing it is awakening a level of sweet vulnerability that is both precious and scary.

SBK_1711254-12In acupuncture, the pericardium meridian is part of the JueYin channel and connects all the way through the femoral canal to the legs. For those of you who have been practicing ‘climbing the wall’ for the last few years, you can actually trace the whole fascial continuity of the Jue Yin. (Use imagination to fill in the blanks.) Rise up from K-1 (not the heels, even though they do rise on their own) (DFL for those of you who know Tom Myers’ ‘Anatomy Trains’ system) to P-8, passing through liver, diaphragm and pericardium.

You can also track the qi from P-8 back into the body horizontally, again using the wall.SBK_1711254-14 Using the tip of the  middle finger of your other hand (PC-9) to feel the connections, trace the qi from the the wall and P-8 into the area around the pec minor muscle and then go inside the body to the pericardiam itself, along with the liver and diaphragm. Use the breath and your imagination. Then go back and try the twistings shown above with these new perceptions.

SBK_1711254-20To continue our building of a three dimensional perceptual qi field, we can return to the thera-ball to provide sensation and visualization. I like the feel of my third chakra having organ support, so I find placing the ball there and using a wall creates a powerful presence on the inside. Embryologically speaking, this is the extemely yin yolk sac which becomes the entire gut body. The conception vessel points on the micro-cosmic orbit are stimulated by the ball, bringing sensation and perception here. The liver comes from the yolk sac, so I can use this position to also find the Jue Yin channel we explored above. Lying SBK_1711254-19over the ball in a forward bend creates a similar feeling, with even more yielding and softening to the yang back body erector muscles. By moving the ball to the sternum, I can activate a new set of points on the conception vessel and engage the inner tissues surrounding the 4th chakra

If I want to build up my back field perception, I use the ball from behind and awaken sensation on the yang Governing Vessel.SBK_1711254-16 Here I have dropped it a bit lower to find the sacral-lumbar junction and here I can feel the possibility of both lumbar flexion and extension, from S curve to C curve and back.  The very important GV-4 Qi gong Image‘gate of vitality’ is here The inner abdominal space also opens and the front back and center plane begin to become conscious. This becomes trickier as you move upwards towards the liver. You can place the ball anywhere and feel different points coming alive. Feel their inner as well as outer presence. Back support can also help open the front. I haveSBK_1711254-17been trying to open my throat more for my sax sound and using the ball (or any elastic support) helps soften and melt tight tissue.

SBK_1711254-21Fish body support, opening some Gall Bladder Meridian points is another way to use the ball. I am using the wall, but this can be done on the floor as well, with slightly different effects. All of these ways of playing with the three dimensional field are ways of awakening and establishing a dynamic energetic field, centered in your heart, and radiating out throughout the whole of the cosmos. When you are out in Nature, feel this. When you are out and about in the human sphere, feel how you respond. It is fascinating to see what happens.

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