You and Your Brain

The Power to Change Your Brain

The ancient practice of yoga was developed to encourage the health of the mind as a way to connect to inner wisdom and access the power of the brain. It encourages us to utilize our brains in healthy ways. Because our brain is the machine responsible for creating what we perceive as our mind, let’s learn more about it.

Join us for a Mindfulness and Movement Practice for the History of Yoga: 42 mins

The brain is the most valuable organ in our body. It’s responsible for communication between our systems, organs, muscles, and bones. At the same time as being in constant communication with our bodies, it’s also interpreting information from the outside world.

As one of the largest organs in the body, weighing about three pounds, it’s also the fattiest organ. Like the rest of the human body, it’s about 75 percent water so be sure to eat your healthy fats and drink water to nourish and hydrate your brain cells today!

What’s actually inside the brain? Lots of different kinds of cells! The soft tissue of the brain is often called gray matter, which contains neurons, nerve cells, and glial cells. Let’s talk about neurons. They are fundamental to our nervous system and very important to understand because our brains use neurons to communicate directly with our bodies. Neurons are the micro version of your most charismatic teachers. Like very skilled teachers, they specialize in receiving information and passing it along to cells (AKA students). These electrically excitable cells communicate with other cells via specialized transmission sites called synapses. They fire inside the brain, sending an electrical signal that gives direct feedback on whatever you are doing. This is literally where we have the power to spark inner change, inner transformation. We have the power to make anything happen by attempting to rewire our brains.

To learn more easily and effectively, we need to make new connections in the brain, which are called neural pathways. A neuroscientist from the 1940s named Donald O. Hebb stated, “When neurons fire together they wire together,5” meaning when a neuron is fired it attracts even more neurons to fire and cluster together. These bonds of neurons help us process new information. Strongly bonded neurons are the basis for how learning and memory occur. We are literally reorganizing our brain cells in response to stimuli. This is also called neuroplasticity. Deviations in your brain’s ability to change and reorganize its cells can cause many challenges. Using the skills in your yoga practice can help ensure that your brain continues to carve healthy neural pathways throughout your entire life.

Lizards, Foxes, and Monkeys.
Oh my!

Now that we know what’s inside the brain and how it works, we can break it up into three main parts. Each part has a special function and can be linked to the evolution of reptiles (lizard), mammals (fox), and primates (monkey). See graphic below. The oldest part of our brain is our brainstem, sometimes referred to as our “reptilian brain.” It controls our fight or flight response and is all about survival. Our lizard brain keeps us safe from danger!
The next part is our “mammalian” brain (limbic system.) It is centered around emotion. When we are feeling emotionally dysregulated, this part of the brain is over-activated. Only when we move into a wiser state of mind, do we have the power to change our brains. When we make the shift from brainstem functions of survival to using our prefrontal cortex or neocortex (neo is Greek for new,) can we gain control. When you rest your head in your hands, you’re basically holding your prefrontal cortex in the palm of your hand. It sits right behind your forehead and is the newest part of our brain or the part that developed last in human evolution. It specializes in performing executive functions like planning, moderating social behavior, and controlling certain aspects of speech.

If it ever feels like you just can’t change your behavior, you might be working from your lizard brain. The structure of those parts of our brains can’t think differently about a certain situation. That’s not what they evolved to do. Stimulating different parts of your brain comes from habit. Interrupting old programming and creating new neural pathways can also become a habit. Changing our responses happens with attention and awareness. Focusing on making these changes can make the greatest impact on how we feel. Practicing mindfulness is one of the best ways to interrupt old programming.

“Mindfulness-based interventions and the language of the brain becomes instrumental in teaching children how to directly modulate their brain function towards more regulated states … Meditation is being advocated as a promising educational, clinical, and social intervention for youth, fueled by new evidence from neuroscience about the benefits of ‘growing the brain through meditation,’ convergent with recent data on developmental neuroplasticity,” states a 2016 scientific article entitled ‘Mindful Interventions.6

Parts of the Brain

The Brain Stem

The brain and the spinal cord are part of the central nervous system. The brainstem is a stalk-like part that connects the cerebrum with the spinal cord. It’s the main part of the brain that keeps us breathing and controls other involuntary functions. It communicates with the lungs to keep us alive without us needing to exert much control. Like a switchboard, the brainstem tells the heart to move more blood or the body to digest lunch. It’s made up of three parts: the midbrain, the pons, and the medulla oblongata.
The Midbrain – The midbrain supports hearing, vision, and sleep cycles.

The Pons – The pons is a pathway of fibers and neurons that relays messages from the cerebrum to the cerebellum and the spinal cord.

The Medulla Oblongata – The medulla oblongata is positioned above the spinal cord and is responsible for our vital functions like heartbeat and breathing.

(#7 above)

Buried deep inside the brain, underneath the covering of the prefrontal cortex and above the brainstem is the limbic system. See our graphic on Flipping Your Lid to practice and learn more about how the three work together when we perceive a threat. The limbic system plays a major role in regulating our basic needs, like eating, sleeping, caring for ourselves and others, and reproduction. Our emotions, motivation, learning, and memory also originate here. Practicing yoga can calm the deepest parts of our brain.

(#7 above)

Associated with learning and memory, it formulates where we are in space and our relationship to everything else. Located in the medial temporal lobe and closely related to the amygdala, this area supports our memories of past experiences and the regulation of emotions attached to them. Dysregulation in this part of the brain has been associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s.

(#7 above)

The center of the limbic system, it regulates our autonomic functioning and works as an internal thermometer, maintaining our temperature. When we are cold we feel goosebumps, we shiver, or our teeth chatter, and when we are too hot, we sweat. The hypothalamus sends signals for all these things to happen.

(#7 above)

The gatekeeper of our emotional brain. When we experience fear, anger, or anxiety, we are functioning from the most primordial and the most vital part of the limbic system, the amygdala. Stimulation of the amygdala causes intense emotion, such as aggression or fear. Long, slow, deep breaths help to bring us back online, lowering our heart rate, and decreasing our pulse until we feel like we’re coming back to a calmer state of mind. Breathwork exercises can soothe signals of anxiety coming from our amygdala.

(#7 above)

It’s a Greek word meaning inner chamber. Sitting in between the midbrain and the cerebral cortex, it is responsible for relaying signals from the brain to the body that support our consciousness, sleep cycles, and feelings of wakefulness. The thalamus is responsible for helping us relay sensations of what we feel to the body through the nervous system.

Flipping Your Lid . . .

. . . blowing a gasket, and losing our mind are all terms that reference what happens to the amygdala when it becomes dysregulated. Using your hand, make a fist, wrapping your fingers over your thumb. The wrist represents the brainstem, the thumb represents the limbic system, and the fingers represent the prefrontal cortex. When your thumb (amygdala) sends out an alert about a posed threat, your wrist (brainstem) increases your heartbeat and your prefrontal cortex (fingers) stands at attention, getting ready for the fight or flight impulse. You lose all connection to rational thought and reason, relying instead on your limbic system for safety and security. Only after a few long, slow, deep breaths can you return to a more regulated, or wiser state of mind. When your heartbeat slows, it signals to your limbic system that the threat is gone.  When your prefrontal cortex starts functioning again (fold back over your thumb).  Since this part of our brain controls language, it’s now possible to have respectful and considerate conversation.

(#5 above)

The wrinkly pink image most of us think of when we hear the word “brain.” The cerebrum is the part of the brain that controls our voluntary muscles and big motor skills, like running and dancing. The cerebrum helps the brain with logic, reason, and making smarter choices for ourselves. It controls our voluntary movement, speech, intelligence, memory, emotion, and sensory processing. It is divided into symmetrical left and right hemispheres. There is a cross-lateral connection in the cerebrum, as scientists have confirmed that the right side of your brain controls the left side of your body and the left side of your brain controls the right side of your body. 7


The cerebral cortex is the outer sheet of tissue attached to our cerebrum, the wrinkly part that we often see in images of the brain. It’s referred to as folded grey matter. Billions of neurons are found in this area of the brain, processing most of our information. It is associated with greater processing of emotion, language, memory and higher levels of conscious thought. The cerebral cortex is composed of four lobes, frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital.

(#1 above)

The prefrontal cortex is located in the front of the frontal lobe. It is the most recently evolved part of the brain or neocortex. It helps us manage all executive functioning: self-control, self-regulation, and self-expression. All these “selves” play a major role in making up our personality, which is developed in our prefrontal cortex. Empathy, insight, intuition, and choosing the next right thing are all areas that our brain accesses in self-reflective moments. Our ability to pause and breathe in response to hard times shows our growth and maturity in this region. Our path forward is guided by our ability to discern. This area of our brains helps us see our future and take the next right step to fulfill our dreams.

(#5 above)

Helps the body translate movement, balance, and coordination. The brain signals the muscles to initiate movement. All of the things that you love to do physically involve your coordination — especially yoga! The cerebellum houses many axons for wiring and firing that keep you physically able.


It’s small but mighty! It’s considered the master gland of the endocrine system but it’s only the size of a pea. The pituitary gland is the main hub for hormone secretion in the body. For example, it’s in charge of signaling the adrenal glands to release cortisol, “the stress hormone.” When we need energy for fight or flight, this gland tells certain organs to increase or decrease functioning. It supports our development and growth through all stages of puberty and into adulthood, where it monitors reproduction.


Its main function is to support our circadian rhythm, determining our waking moments and our sleeping moments so the body can produce the hormone melatonin. Stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light, melatonin helps modulate our sleep patterns, which supports our nervous system.

Take a Minute

Find a friend or family member to have a conversation about the differences between the brain and the mind. How do you perceive your mind working and your brain? What are the differences? Can you build a practice around stretching your capacity to imagine? When can you spend time imagining your goals today?

The seat of our consciousness
is said to live in our cerebellum.

The Four Lobes of the Brain

The left and right sides of the brain each contain four lobes.

Frontal Lobe (#1 above): Located in front of the parietal lobe and above the temporal lobe. Where we develop discernment, planning, and problem-solving; speech development and self-expression; and body awareness and coordination.

Parietal Lobe (#2 above): Located directly behind the frontal lobe. This part of the brain is a processing center for all sensory data. The body’s sense of touch, pain, and temperature are regulated here.

Temporal Lobe (#4 above): Located close to the temples, giving it its name, the temporal lobe is where the brain processes auditory information. Hearing, understanding language, the memory of visual cues, and body language are processed in this area.

Occipital Lobe (#3 above): Located deep in the back of the brain, it is the center for our visual processing. This area of the brain interprets the way we see color, light, and movement.

The mind is not the brain; it is the product of the brain. The mind is what the brain does. We can be aware of the machine in operation (the mind) without being the machine (the brain).

When the brain is animated with life, the mind is processed through the brain. Essentially, the mind is the brain, animated. Without the brain, there is no mind.

—Dr. Joe Dispenza, Evolve Your Brain

How Central Command Makes Room for New Information

The brain governs our intelligence, creativity, emotion, and memory. It is fed information through our senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. As a central command center, the brain coordinates our movement, actions, and reactions. It controls our thoughts, our long and short-term memory, and the way we communicate with the world through speech. The brain’s tasks are unending. That’s why meditation is the key to realigning with our brains when stress and emotion take over.

Although everyone’s brain is made up of the same things, the power of our brain is as unique as the individual. Our brains are constantly growing. Learning helps to grow and reorganize the brain, which is why learning different things at certain times is imperative. Through the continuous processes of synaptic pruning and myelination, the brain makes room for new information and transmits that information faster. During childhood and into adulthood, the brain goes through the natural process of eliminating synapses the brain no longer uses or needs. It is a literal pruning, just like cutting away old branches on a tree. It makes room for new growth and patterns of behavior that we are good at or curious about. This synaptic pruning is equated to a maturation process in the brain. The other process that takes place inside our brains as we grow is called myelination. This allows for more complex brain processing by forming insulation around the nerves. Myelin is a fatty sheath, a layer that grows around the nerve cell axon allowing electrical impulses to be transmitted faster and more efficiently to the brain. When information is processed quicker, our nervous system is able to function more optimally, whether it is on alert and responding to danger or calming down and falling asleep. Quicker transmission is the advantage of a mature brain.

With brain development beginning as soon as a few weeks after conception, it is said that 90 percent of the brain is developed by 6 years of age, however it continues to develop into our early 20s. Throughout our adolescent years, synaptic pruning allows our brain functions to become more apparent to us, especially as we learn to self-regulate and self-reflect. As the prefrontal cortex continues to develop, the brain refines its memory, decision-making, and emotional responses.

Unfortunately by this time, most of us have experienced some sort of trauma, meaning something we were unprepared for and did not have the skills to deal with at the time, that continues to impact us emotionally or psychologically. It can be mild or extreme, and it’s not your fault. It’s part of being human. But, because adolescence is a crucial time for brain development, it’s important we pay close attention to our tendencies toward depression, anxiety, or substance use as coping mechanisms.

Talking about how we feel with a compassionate listener, while practicing mindfulness and meditation, are key skills teens can use to rewire their brains and move beyond these challenges. Beginning healthy habits now helps us manage and process complicated feelings for a lifetime.

Flow State

One cool thing our brains can do is something called flow state, a state of complete absorption into the task at hand. When you’re cooking, making art, or playing sports, you’re entirely in the present moment, losing track of time and self. When your brain is in flow state, it’s releasing a flood of dopamine that rewards you for being “in the zone,” at peak performance. Other neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine are released, too. Once flow state is achieved, the brain and the body want more. Minimizing distractions and practicing mindfulness increases student engagement and makes it easier for students to enter into flow state.8 Imagine if students could tap into flow state — at will — during a project, or before a test — that could transform education! Find out how to tap into your flow state by answering the Take a Minute questions on pages 54-55.

Take a Minute

8 Ways to Create Flow State:

Set a timer for 5 minutes and write your answers to the following questions.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first recognized and named Flow State as a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity.9 He has listed these eight characteristics required for Flow State.

1. Complete concentration. Reflect on moments when you’ve been totally focused. What was in your immediate environment? What elements were surrounding you? What did you feel in your body? What senses do you remember experiencing? What did you smell, taste, or hear?

2. Crystal clear goals. Instant feedback comes when you know exactly what is required to meet the goal. When success or failure are immediately perceived, you are rewarded every step of the way as you get closer to the goal. List five goals. Use the SMART acronym to check that they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based. How can you adjust some of your goals to fit these constraints?

3. A feeling of timelessness. Experiencing an altered perception of time, either that time is speeding up or slowing down, is a marker that your mind has entered a state of Flow. Mark your day in time. List the percentages of how much time you spend doing things considered productive. Mark the hours you spend eating, sleeping, going to school, doing homework and after-school activities on a typical day. Next, track the activities and time spent doing what you would consider “wasting time”: scrolling, gaming, watching movies etc. Think about what’s actually important to you. How does it relate to how you spend your time?

4. The experience is immediately satisfying. Regardless if the goal is reached, engaging in the activity itself is fulfilling. Flow State has a very high I-ROI (Immediate Return on Investment). Can you think of a time when you got lost in an activity? What activities do you do that are intrinsically (coming from your own inner desire) rewarding? Are these activities as rewarding as when you do things that someone else told you to do?

5. Effortlessness and ease. Soften into the grace of what comes natural to you. What activities are easy for you, that you don’t have to muscle through or force?

6. There is a balance between challenge and skills. Neither boredom or anxiety exist within the Flow State. Can you recall a time when you found the sweet spot between completing a task that was difficult but you knew just enough to do it successfully without getting frustrated or bored? Did you want to try something more challenging in order to stretch your skills further?

7. Actions and awareness are merged. There is no room for worry, fear, distraction or self-conscious thinking when there is a feeling of total unity with our actions. Have you ever felt absolutely confident in your actions while doing something you love? Have you ever felt “one with nature?” Have you ever felt the sensation that an entire group of people were working together as one unit when a team works together to get a goal?

8. Actions and awareness are merged. There is no room for worry, fear, distraction or self-conscious thinking when there is a feeling of total unity with our actions. Have you ever felt absolutely confident in your actions while doing something you love? Have you ever felt “one with nature.” Have you ever felt the sensation that an entire group of people were working together as one unit?List a few activities you have attempted to learn. Which ones “stuck”? Which ones were you naturally good at, that you mastered? What happened to the others? Why did you stop engaging in them? Was it boredom or frustration? With the activities you have mastered, do you allow yourself time to enjoy the feeling of Flow State?

Brain Waves

Brain waves are all about the activity and movement of the brain. Their speed is measured in hertz. Just like the ocean, brain waves can be big and vast or small and closer together. The number of times the waves go up and down is called frequency. Different states of mind relate to different frequencies.

In times of higher intelligence, when the brain is problem solving or working on logistics, brain waves are faster. In flow state, when the brain is in a state of absolute concentration, high-speed brain waves stimulate the imagination and serotonin production. However, it’s a fine line between feeling stressed during faster brain activity and feeling highly creative. Heightened heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of cortisol often occur in states with higher-speed brain waves.

What’s the difference? How can higher-speed brain waves make us feel both anxious and extremely calm? When we’re in reaction to a stimulus (either internal or external), we are in a Beta state. Our mind is busy, actively trying to figure out what to do next. Once we’ve moved beyond Beta state and we are fully concentrating, we are now in Gamma state, the state most open to learning. Pay attention to what it feels like to move from Beta to Gamma. Notice if breathwork or movement helps that transition.

The mind also needs to move slowly to stay healthy. Moments of meditation and deep sleep are restorative. You can build an optimal environment for whatever state of mind you are trying to achieve. Conscious Classroom’s philosophy of the 4A’s: Awake, Aware, Align, & Activate (Module 3: Philosophy of Yoga) are essential steps to achieving the state of mind you desire. By using our breath and our awareness, we can develop healthy habits that bring balance to our daily lives and a practice of lifelong learning.

Gamma (35 Hz)

Problem-solving and high concentration occurs here. This state is perfect for learning and studying, as it stimulates imagination, creative ideas and serotonin production. Our minds are more receptive to the Gamma state after practicing breathwork and yoga poses.

Beta (12-35 Hz)

Busy, active mind, anxiety, worry, stress, moodiness, anger are all common in this state. People spend the most time in Beta states. Levels of cortisol are increased, with a heightened heart rate and blood pressure. Notice how often you slip into this state. Notice what type of breathing or thoughts help you move beyond it.

Alpha (8-12 Hz)

Reflective, positive yet passive, our body takes over as the thinking mind softens — increased concentration and meditation begins here. The chatter of the mind is slowed down, and distractions are eliminated. Flow state (See page. 53 for flow state definition) occurs here and dopamine production is increased. Which yoga practices would help you induce this state?

Theta (4-8 Hz)

This zone hosts deep relaxation, introspection, creative visualization, emotional intelligence. This is a state of deeper meditation, on the verge of sleep, where acetylcholine is produced and cortisol production is lowered. Consider Corpse Pose to practice this brain state.

Delta (.5-4 Hz)

Sleeping or dreaming—the most restorative state during deep meditation and dreamless sleep—rejuvenates, renews, and restores health. Delta brain waves are dysregulated with brain trauma, some cases of ADHD, and when we are processing difficult experiences. If you’ve ever meditated and felt like you were falling asleep that’s good!

Take a Minute

Brain waves help us become more efficient.

1. What times of day are you in Beta state: busy mind, anxious, worried, or stressed? What does it feel like? What are the effects of being in Beta state all the time?

2. Was there a time today when you were in Alpha state, reflective, positive yet passive, increased concentration, less distracted?

3. Do you have a way to get yourself into a Gamma state with efficient problem solving, high concentration and creativity?

4. How does it feel when you are about to fall asleep in Theta state? Do you give yourself time to doze off without looking at a screen? When was the last time you had moments of relaxed creative visualization? Could you take time today to purposely get into Theta state?

5. Do you remember your dreams while in Delta state? Do you wake up in the morning feeling rejuvenated? When was the last time you got regular 8-10 hours of sleep?

A desire arises in the mind. It is satisfied immediately, another comes. In the interval which separates two desires, a perfect calm reigns in the mind; it is at this moment freed from all thought, love or hate. Complete Peace equally reigns between two mental waves.


Learn to use certain parts of your brain more effectively! It’s the most important organ in your body with tons of jobs. From basic survival to keeping your memories and coordinating your movements, you’ll discover which parts of the brain are in control. Find out how neurons fire and rewire to create new neural pathways and prune away old ones. Regulate your emotions and calm an overactive limbic system with a continued practice of mindfulness and meditation. Check out what it means to Flip Your Lid and come into a wiser state of mind. Use your imagination daily to help your brain become more active, animated, and alive.