01.10.2009 Yoga

Healing the Heart Mind

Neuroscience is catching on to ancient yogic understanding of the "second brain", the heart mind, says Chandrika Gibson

In working with natural mind body medicine it is necessary to engage the feeling heart-mind along with the rational intellect. Understanding the human being holistically is both an art and a science. Self healing requires both mundane knowledge and inner knowing and perception. So while the functions of the brain are fascinating, the new science is moving towards an understanding of the "second brain", that of the heart's consciousness.

In yogic terms, the kind of thinking which is processed in the heart chakra and above is of a higher order than the baser survival instincts and desires for pleasure of the lower centres. In Buddhism, the observation of the mind leads naturally to a more compassionate worldview only when the heart is connected to all living things.

Now neuroscience is catching on with some powerful breakthroughs which are adding to the burgeoning momentum for the shift to a new holistic paradigm.

Natural therapies students are sometimes asked to discuss the three aspects of body, mind and soul or spirit which are frequently used without much thought to their differentiation or lack thereof. In addressing the question of souls, many people are left reaching for worn out religious ideologies or new age touchstones which serve only to further obscure the understanding of the soul. What people can get genuinely in touch with, though, is the level of feeling which convinces them of the existence of their own soul and connects them to others so definitively that there is no doubt that all beings also have this deep well within.

The feeling of being connected to others is one of the better qualities of the human condition. Under extreme stress, when people are forced into their lower, more self centred aspects, they can feel isolated, separate from others, rejected, unloved, even hateful and unfeeling. Humans in that sort of condition are capable of visiting terrible atrocities on others, as they completely lack compassion and empathy.

In the process of healing, the mind can lift up from the fog and heaviness and one of the first desires to spring back into gear is the urge to connect. We all share the desire to understand and be understood by another. It is massively healing to feel understood whether by a therapist, friend, colleague, parent or partner.

Feeling connected to just one person often also changes the small interactions of life in a society, as we begin to see that everyone is special, unique and to be valued. With this realisation comes sensitivity, respect for others and the ability to form meaningful relationships. From there springs forth a bigger picture, a sense of connection to the natural world of plants and animals. Eventually, the whole cosmos feels friendly again.

Albert Einstein said (and Bruce Lipton paraphrased) the biggest decision a person makes is to decide whether the universe is supportive or antagonistic. From the subtle mind to the cellular level this decides whether you are in a state of growth or defence. If everything outside yourself is your enemy, there will be no relaxation, and hence no opportunity to heal. If you decide the universe is benevolent, you can see the gifts in even the most trying circumstances. The yogis perceived that the mental propensity for hope is processed in the heart chakra. The heart, so easily hurt, is crucial to healing on every level.

Science is now understanding that what you feel influences what you think which influences the biochemistry within your body. Dr Candace Pert PhD in Molecules of Emotion gives a detailed insight into the growing field of psychoneuroimmunology or the mind, body and spirit interface. She does not shy away from incorporating spirituality and science and for that she is much lauded as a frontrunner in the field.

In neurocardiology, the University of Montreal's Dr J. Andrew Armour has studied the extensive mass of neurons in the heart and likened it to a "second brain". He first introduced the concept of a functional heart consciousness or heart brain in the mid '90s. At the time, it was confounding to the establishment to concede what his research proved, that the heart can act independently of the brain. He showed that it is possible, and may even be beneficial to think from the heart.

A mass of neurons with a separate yet connected consciousness is exactly what the yogis were describing over 7000 years ago when they perceived the chakra system. In yogic physiology, the thousands of channels for consciousness to travel through (nadi) merge at seven major points along the spine. Modern medicine agrees that these areas are nerve centres or plexi. Now they are agreeing, too, that feelings and thoughts are processed at these areas and affect the chemical signals through the nervous system. So physiological changes such as hormone levels and organ function can be detected with variations in the states of mind the individual experiences.

California's Heartmath Institute has conducted research which verifies the way the changing rhythms of the heart brain influence how the thinking brain functions. If you've ever tried to sit an exam after a fight with a loved one, you will know that how you feel dramatically affects how you think. HeartMath is putting this knowledge to pragmatic use in schools across the US, teaching children basic relaxation and meditation techniques to take mastery over their feelings, lower stress levels and learn optimally.

In The HeartMath Solution Doc Childre and H. Martin offer an exciting scientific look at the heart's association with the mind and the body. They describe the heart as a complex, self organised system that maintains a two way dialogue with the brain and the rest of the body. Their findings are cutting edge but scientifically valid, having been published in major medical journals.

It may seem like society is flipping completely from its previously held paradigm of material science, but wise thinkers have been expressing these truths for thousands of years. In fact, many scientific breakthroughs have come through listening to the heart or intuitive mind rather than through pure intellect and reason.

Greek philosopher Aristotle, who died 322 years before Christ was born, wrote, "Intuition is the source of scientific knowledge." Albert Einstein made many references to intuition and its importance. He said, "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift." In his own groundbreaking research, he allowed his heart brain to lead him into new territory. Einstein also wrote, "I believe in intuition and inspiration; at times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason."

Dmitri Mendeleev, credited with creating the periodic table of chemical elements would have agreed. Mendeleev was a Russian scientist of the 1870s inspired by love for his mother and his country. As a rigorous academic and gifted teacher, he had a firm foundation in the scientific knowledge of the day, but his advancement of the existing knowledge came, according to legend, in a dream. He awoke from the dream and jotted down the periodic table including the known elements and some gaps for elements which were yet to be discovered. His amazing insight was supported by findings through the 20th century and is still on every chemistry classroom wall today.

The feelings we experience so potently seem to precede our logical rationale for them or even preclude logic at times. As we go through life gathering wisdom, hopefully we learn to trust our feeling, to follow our hearts and let the brain catch up.

Antonio Damasio, a Portugese neuroscientist based at Iowa University, has demonstrated the effect of emotions on brain function in his work with neurological patients. He has found that every decision an individual makes needs an emotional impulse because humans cannot act based purely on reason.

Students and educators, as well as therapists, know that facts with an emotional connection are what we remember. Hence students excel at subjects they feel passionately about.

Damasio's work supports that of Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Robert K. Cooper, author of The Other 90%: How To Unlock Your Vast Untapped Potential For Leadership and Life. Damasio also published a book decrying Descartes' philosophical axiom, "I think, therefore I am." Goleman promoted his book on speaking tours with the catchphrase, "I feel, therefore I am." Cooper works with corporations and leaders in various fields to encourage people to make decisions using all their different sources of intelligence. He writes that many people have learnt to block the gut and heart allowing only the head to lead the way. The new models of business are thankfully embracing leadership with heart and getting the best out of people in the process.

Embracing the old and the new knowledge, drawing wisdom from experience and healing the wounds that prevent people from living up to their full potential, all happen simultaneously in the heart mind.

Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath.

Chandrika Gibson

Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath