Yoga: Change Your Mind and You Can Change Your Brain and Offspring

Dr. Rishi Vivekananda

Swami Niranjan, Swami Satsangi, my fellow lecturers, guests and delegates. This is a very special occasion for Rishi Hridayananda and myself, because we have grown up in parallel with this organization for most of its life. We joined the Satyananda family in 1969 after we met Swami Satyananda in Australia, and have observed the growth and development, especially of Satyananda Yoga in Australia, which as you know has been great, but also here and in other parts of the world. It has been a revelation to us, for at the beginning it was all going so slowly.

Slowly, slowly

Sri Swamiji used to say, "Slowly, slowly" and nothing much seemed to be happening. We expected him to be out there advertising and telling everybody, "Here it is, come and get it." Nothing happened. Nonetheless, while we were not looking, it slowly grew, and it slowly grew from the foundations up. Sri Swamiji was great at building foundations. He was great at building everything actually, as you can see, and Swami Niranjan has taken after him. The foundations are always laid down first and then slowly, brick by brick, it happens. Over all these years, half a century, we have been observing all of these fast-growing spiritual organizations crash, due to the lack of foundations. Here you are sitting on firm foundations, we all are, and we have been for the last fifty years.

Fifty years ago, I did not particularly want a guru. I remember back in 1969, Rishi Hridayananda came back from a seminar. I was at home and she came in and said, "I met him." I said, "Who did you meet?" She said, "My guru." I said, "Ridiculous! What do you want a guru for?" She said, "Oh, he's absolutely wonderful. You should meet him." I hope you will please excuse me for what I am going to say now; remember, it was forty-five years ago. She said, "He's going back to India on Tuesday." I said, "He's Indian, is he?" She said, "Yes." I said, "Well, he is not getting any of my money!" As some of you know, he got all of it.

When I left Australia in 1977, I had a dhoti, a kurta, a head of hair and that was it. I got into the airplane and Swami Niranjan shaved off the head of hair. Of course I shaved off his too. It was a funny little scene actually. Both of us went into the toilet together, and there were two air hostesses looking at the two of us strangely as we walked in, seeing these two men walking into the toilet together. Within about five or ten minutes, us two young men walked out and we were both completely bald. The hostesses just stared at us.

I feel as if Swamiji is my brother or sister, as we have grown up in the same family together. Since those early years, this beautiful being has blossomed into a fifty-year-old fount of wisdom that is so magnificent for everybody he touches and everybody Sri Swamiji touched.

After we first met Sri Swamiji in Australia, a few years went by and we did not even see him, yet there were dramatic changes in us and in all the people around us. Everybody who he touched just blossomed and grew. Every single thing that Sri Swamiji touched just turned to beauty. That is the vision I have of Satyananda Yoga, when I look at it now, after fifty years.

From shore to shore

I have been going around the world quite a number of times recently; in 2005 I spent seven months going right around the whole world to all the Satyananda Yoga centres. Every person I came in contact with is family, and they are all absolutely beautiful people. They all have just one thing in mind: spreading yoga from shore to shore and from door to door, and they are doing a wonderful job of it. It is a very united, lovely community. Many of them are here today, and that is what makes this also a special event; it is family coming together. This is like a big Christmas party, isn't it? There are thousands of us here with one thing in mind: propagating Satyananda Yoga.

I often say to the students when I am teaching them, "The greatest thing you can do for another human being is to teach them yoga. One of the great beauties of yoga is that you always have it." You might do bhramari pranayama, a brilliant practice for dissolving anxiety. It works! I used to give it to my patients. It actually dissolves anxiety. It rattles the brain and something happens down in the limbic system. It improves the patients and they can use it all their life. They do not have to go to the doctor each month to get a prescription for bhramari pranayama. They have it and they might teach it to the lady next door. This is what is called a chain reaction. In this organization we have been seeing this chain reaction going on for the last fifty years, and it has been very inspiring to behold.

Definition of yoga

Back in 1996, Swami Niranjan was in Australia and he gave a definition of yoga in two parts and I thought, 'That is it!' At the beginning of every lecture I give this definition of yoga. It is what you might call a 'functional' definition. A functional definition is something that includes everything that needs to be included and includes nothing that does not need to be included. The definition is: 'Yoga is an ancient system of philosophy, lifestyle and techniques that evolves the whole person: the physicality, the vitality, the mind, the emotions, wisdom, ethics, a higher quality of relationships and the realization of the spiritual reality within each of us.' It is beautiful. Thank you, Swamiji.

The important word here, of course, is 'evolves'. Evolves meaning changing something from a lesser form to a greater form, or from a worse form to a better form; it is changing something. Swami Satsangi spoke about this the other day, that if we are going to evolve we have to be prepared to change.

Evolution requires change

The first form of change is physical. Is there actually a physical change that goes on? Well, you can develop the physical, you can exercise it, you can make it stronger, more flexible and more relaxed; however, do you actually change the structure of the body? I suppose in some ways you do, but I want to talk about a couple of rather amazing ways in which physical change happens. We know that we can evolve the vitality. We know that we can evolve the quality of the energy that we give out. Are we giving out the black and red energies of anger and vengeance? Are we giving out the energies of anxiety and depression? Can we evolve from that? There is ample evidence, both personal and objective evidence, that this can be achieved with yoga. This kind of research has been going on since the 1970s. There is an enormous body of this research out there, available on the internet.

We can also evolve the quality of the mind, the quality of our thinking, attitudes and opinions, and eliminate our bigotries. That produces a permanent change in our mental state and that is a typical example of how we can evolve the qualities of the mind. We can evolve the qualities of the emotions. Instead of those anxieties, tensions, angers and such feelings, we can evolve the quality of emotions right up to enormous, outgoing love such as the masters have and give us.

We can grow into the level of wisdom, buddhi. We have spoken about manas. Now we speak about buddhi. We can increase the wisdom. Wisdom really means the ability to make the right decisions. Sometimes you need a lot of intuition to do it. We can develop that with yoga. I think the best examples are when we look at the masters and see what they have actually attained and become due to their immersion in yoga and the grace of their guru.

Changes at all the above levels lead us to the higher ethics and the higher quality of relationships, which we see in everybody who is touched by yoga, especially who is touched by a spiritual master. You can see their relationships just blossom. What was once dissension is now cooperation; what was once unhappiness is now happiness; what was once rejection is now acceptance, love and compassion. Since Sri Swamiji first came to Australia in 1969, and what has happened to the people there through his touch is there for all to see.

The idea of evolving the physical is relatively new in science. If, fifteen years ago, somebody thought of as a medico had said what I am going to say now, I would have thought it was rubbish, yet in actual fact it is true. If we change our ongoing mind, our emotional and attitudinal state, and make it a more evolved ongoing state, the paths of the brain that are associated with that ongoing mood state physically increase in size and the paths that were mediating the other lower states shrivel up. They actually shrivel and the other paths actually grow. This has been observed by looking at people's brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). You can see this in the immediate moment as well.

Changing the state of mind

If you sit in a certain position and focus on a certain mind state, you can give yourself a certain mind state. The Buddhists call it the ongoing love state. They enter a state of acceptance and love, first of all towards themselves, then to the people closest to them, then to the people a bit more distant to them, then to the people who are a bit more distant than that, and they try to develop it so they are giving love out to even the people who are supposed to be their enemies. They call it meta.

When this process starts to happen, the activities in the limbic system, which are shown by the lighting up of the neurons on the MRI, quieten down and the ones in the left frontal lobe light up. That is the area associated with positive emotions. Hence, it happens in the immediate. With yoga, you can keep on with those higher emotions, the more evolved state of being and the more evolved level of attitudes to yourself and other people. If you can keep that going continuously over a period of time, that area will grow. There is then more of a tendency for you to always latch in to that. It is a kind of habit. If you latch into that area it makes it more and more difficult to latch into the other area. Somebody insults you and you think, 'Oh, that's funny', instead of thinking, 'I want to hit you.' That area switches on.

This is called neuroplasticity. The brain is plastic. I do not mean in terms of the chemical stuff, I mean in terms of the fact that it can be moulded. Even if you are ninety-five, your brain can be moulded. You can grow new neurons. We used to think that the growth fizzled out at about the age of twenty-five and then you slowly went downhill. You do start to go downhill, but you can make it very slow if you keep your mind active, especially if you keep it in a positive state. There is no avoiding the effect of free radicals and other things getting in and ageing your body; however, the process can certainly be delayed.

Epigenetics and yoga

There is another amazing idea that has come out fairly recently, and that is epigenetics. I do not want to become too complicated here, and this can be a complicated subject. That is why I don't understand it! However, it can be simplified as well. Imagine this: you inherit a set of genes with the first combination of the male and female zygotes, and for the rest of your life you keep those genes. They do not change very much. The genes make the proteins from which the body is made and every cell has the same genes as it divides. Then why do you have a liver, a heart and a brain? What happens there? This is called 'cell differentiation' and it has been a big mystery for a long time. How is it that with exactly the same genes, two cells can become two different organs? It seems peculiar.

It is only very recently that scientists have realized the cause. Initially, when they got the genes out, they found that the genes had a whole lot of protein surrounding them. They cleaned the protein away, cleaned the genes up nicely, and all the genes were the same in the cells. What they did not realize was that the actual activator or the deactivator of the genes was the protein. It is now called 'epigenetic material'. If you have a gene, a part of it will be covered and a part of it will be uncovered. The part of the gene that is uncovered is able to express itself, to produce the proteins that it is the champion at doing. If one part of the gene is covered and the other part is uncovered, a different protein will be produced. It is the movement and activity of these sheaths of protein around the genes that either cover or uncover the parts of the gene to produce the proteins that are required in that situation. That is called epigenetic material.

What has been found out most recently is that if you get into an ongoing mind and attitude state like a state of lovingness through your life or a state of vengefulness through your life, then the proteins that are required for that particular state will be produced by the parts of the genes that produce it, because the epigenes have opened up and allow those states to be produced. If you are in an ongoing loving state, other chemicals are required to propagate that state throughout the whole of your physiology. Different paths of the genes will be opened up. The epigenes get into the habit of opening the appropriate paths according to your ongoing mind state.

Yoga's power in genetic change

Yoga will change your ongoing mindset for the better. We know it. Therefore, yoga will change your ongoing genetic state for the better. Not only is it a structural change, but it is also a genetic change and the expression of those particular genes becomes a habit. The strange little twist about this is that scientists are finding now that the germ cells in the reproductive system have these epigenes. Before the gametes combine, the epigenes are supposed to be removed. They are finding now, however, that it is not all removed and that sometimes even the epigenetic form goes over to the new foetus.

Not only does yoga change our ongoing mind and attitudinal state, it also changes our brain, it changes our genetic activity, and it might well change the life of our offspring. This is something to think about. All of you people who are preparing to produce offspring, I recommend that you do a little bit of yoga, and if you have not found a good guru I can recommend one to you!

—Address, 26 October 2013, Polo Ground, Munger