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Yoga and the Neuroplastic Power of Silence

When life seems a bit noisy, I sometimes like to imagine the ancient yogis sitting in their Himalayan caves, the snow softly falling outside, as they meditate for long hours.  

Perhaps the only thing to be heard is the whoosh of the breath and the beating of the heart. I like to imagine that perhaps they also heard sounds beneath the physiologic processes – sounds of internal Sanskrit mantras emerging from the subtle body, or the sonic vibrations of the universe as the mind expands out into it.

“Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” —T. S. Eliot

When I think about the things that nourish me: asanas and meditation, time in nature, good food, loving relationships – one thing I must include on this list is silence. In this 24/7 world, silence is a rare and precious commodity.

Movement creates noise. And, as human beings, we really like to move – It’s action that gives our lives meaning and purpose.

But silence is foundational for discovering the direction of our actions.

A 2011 study showed that mice who spent two hours in silence daily grew more hippocampal cells. The hippocampus is a part of the brain important for memory formation and recall, particularly related to sensory and emotional experiences. A healthy hippocampus is essential for managing stress and creating greater resilience.

So silence really is golden.

A 2006 study showed that two minutes of silence is more relaxing than two minutes of relaxing music.

When we make time for the regular practice of silence, meditation becomes more familiar too—if you can be okay with silence, you can be okay with meditation—it no longer feels like the bizarre opposite of “real” (i.e. crazy, busy, noisy) life. The regular practice of silent meditation provides an opportunity to slow down brain waves to theta and delta where the mind gets off the hamster wheel and finds the opportunity for increasing awareness and expansion.

In meditation (as well as pranayama) the kumbhaka, or the space between the inhale and the exhale is particularly important. The yogis say it’s in this space that the mind stills and things begin to shift (perhaps we have greater access to neuroplasticity in this space as well).

So the invitation is to try, without forcing, to sit in the silent gap between the breath for a while each day. Not holding your breath, just observing those spaces of silence. After a week or so, notice—how does that empty, breathless space feel? What does it tell you? Does it help you to be a bit more present in the 24/7 noise? 

Previously published on subtleyoga.com; reposted with permission.

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