Holistic Yoga Circle
Holistic Yoga Circle Podcast
A Yogic View of the Neurobiology of Stress

A Yogic View of the Neurobiology of Stress

Working with Samskara in Manomayakosha

Photo by Anni Roenkae

Dear Yoga Practitioner

Samskara in the Manomayakosha

As I explored in the previous article Realising Complexity, it serves us better to rely less on our lower mind (manomayakosha) when working with complex intracticable problems. In this article, we’ll explore how the samskara (patterns or programes) that reside within manomayakosha can create havoc in our personal lives (which collectively, have an impact on society as a whole). The lower mind is concerned with preserving the egoic self (ahamkara). So whilst the manomayakosha certainly has a connection to our surroundings, through the sensory nervous system, it reviews all sensory inputs in terms of “me, myself and I.”

Yogic Neuroscience

Manas is the part of manomayakosha that receives information gathered by the senses (karma-indriya) from the outside world and from within (jnana-indriya). The whole manomayakosha then acts on this information in a kind of automatic, pre-programmed manner. In neurobiological terms, the manomayakosha mounts our stress response via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Manomayakosha also detects when our environment is safe, and instigates the rest and digest response via our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This process is explained in the Taittriya Upanishad, a Sanskrit text from the Yajuveda, written around the 6th century BC, as elucidated in this article by Pranayoga.co.in.

The effects of manomayakosha activity are felt in all the layers of our being (panchamayakosha), remember all kosha overlap and affect the others. We intellectually view the panchamayakosha as separate layers, but in reality, they all act as one. The panchamayakosha system is a model or map, just like the neuroscientific map of the autonomic nervous system. These maps are not the territory, they cannot accurately describe our actual immersive experience, but they do help us to navigate and understand it.

Manas compares currently received sensory impressions (the indriya) to a vast memory bank of past sensory impressions. Neurobiologically, these impressions are stored within the parietal, temporal and occipital lobes of the brain as well as the insula. Particular impressions will trigger or elicit certain reactions, responses and thoughts or feelings within the manomayakosha. This part of us, helps us to respond quickly and appropriately in times of danger. If a vehicle is bowling towards us at high speed, we don’t stop to weigh up the pros and cons of various actions. We simply get out of the way… fast!

Trigger Happy or Unhappy

We have many positive samskara that are laid down due to the influence of our connection to the wise minds (vijnanamayakosha), of our family, friends and community. We can also access and embed this wisdom within ourselves. However, the lightning-fast, initial response of manomayakosha or the ANS is due to the quick initiation of certain subconscious programs, which aim to mobilise an effective response to the threat.

The stress responses of fight, flight, freeze or fawn are the four main ways that psychologists and trauma specialists have observed humans react in threatening situations. We may consider these the four main negative samskara (tendencies, habits) of the manomayakosha. Of course, in actual life-threatening situations, these are protective programs. Yet if we live in a state of high stress, due to an abundance of past and present stressors (some acute, some mundane) our tolerance for stress lowers. This means we become prone to triggering the stress response programs more frequently and inappropriately.

A Closer Look at the Stress Responses

Fight - to defend ourselves, get angry, aggressive, riled up or argumentative

Flight - to quickly remove ourselves from danger, avoidance, tension, restlessness

Freeze - to play dead or hide, immobility, sense of dread, numbness, can be associated with high mental activity (rumination, repetitive thinking) which is exhausting and keeps us at a high state of sympathetic arousal.

Fawn - to placate, people pleasing, putting others first, low self-esteem (in response to threatening situations where there is no immediate way of escape).

Programs such as these above responses are held in the chitta (the vast repository of the subconscious mind). They can be activated by generally harmless everyday activities that somehow bear a resemblance to previous traumatic experiences, thus embedding these programs more deeply.

TV Activates Your Stress Response

In addition, new traumatic experiences can create new programs, embedding new patterns of response. These get added to the repository of programs waiting to be re-triggered in the subconscious mind (china). Watching harrowing films or news footage will also activate and embed the programs without us perhaps even being aware of it unless we are very conscious about our viewing and able to self-regulate. There are many factors at play in this process, which culminates in a sympathetic nervous system response that can be more or less intensively aroused, in different individuals.

The Map is Not the Territory

The yogic theory of how the manomayakosha works fits very well into modern understandings of how trauma is encoded within the brain and nervous system, which bridges the misconceived separation of the body (annamayakosha) and mind (manomayakosha, vijnanamayakosha). Again the map “mind” or “body” is not the territory of our conscious embodied, rich, sensory experience of all five kosha at once.

Neurons that Fire Together Wire Together

In neuroscience, it is well understood that stressful, harrowing or dangerous experiences create faster, stronger neuronal firing, which embeds clearer neural pathways and networks within the brain. This process is called long-term potentiation. We might view it as a neurobiological expression of how we forge and fortify the samskara within the manomayakosha.

The brain is geared towards being alert to danger, and defending against it is given a high priority. It makes sense to prioritise staying alive. Yet, when we are in a constant state of stress, we can become over-focussed on threats of all kinds - real, some of them, but mostly imagined. This overthinking, or rumination about imaginary stresses that might or might not havppen, or the going over of stresses that have already happened, potentiates the fear networks in the brain. This sets off our SNS (our short-term stress response) and the HPA axis (our longer-term stress response) more often than is good for us. This means the subconscious programs of fight, flight, freeze or fawn, get set off more easily.

Modelling Our Minds

Yet, the beauty of the brain is that it, like everything in the manifest world (prakriti), is shaped by our consciousness (purusha). Neuroplasticity is the scientific term for the ability of the brain to remodel and even regenerate itself given the right inputs. New neural network connections may be forged, and underused ones can become less readily activated. Brain structures can change in volume and activity. New neurons can be created - whatever age we are! It is up to us whether we consciously guide this process, or whether we leave our brains to be sculpted by the unexamined subconscious programming laid down in the chitta. The simple fact is, if we don’t consciously choose to shape our minds, we are more prone to unconscious programs which may be unwittingly triggering anger outbursts, anxiety, fear, depression and addictive behaviours.

Tune Up Your Computer

As consciousness is so dim within the manomayakosha, we can compare it quite usefully, to a computer. The other day, I was helping a friend clean up the hard drive on her laptop. It was full to the brim with unwanted photos, old programs, cookies and other junk. Once we had cleared some space we were able to load new applications and use the existing ones more easily. Clearing her hard drive enabled my friend to get on with fulfilling her life purpose, she was no longer held back by a whole lot of unnecessary, unhelpful programming code.

Our manomayakosha is a lot like the hard drive of a computer. We need to give it a regular clear-out. Certain programs might have been lurking in our manomayakosha that take longer to clear. Psychologists agree that the most persistent ingrained patterns are those formed from birth to around seven years of age. These patterns affect how view and respond to the world, it is well worth reviewing whether such patterns are serving us or not.

How Yoga Therapy Clears Subconscious Programs

Broadly speaking, the practices of yoga enable us to identify and clear the most troublesome programming in the manomayakosha in two ways:

Regulation: this is the practice of guiding ourselves out of sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation, and the attendant patterns of fight, flight, freeze or fawn. Yoga offers a vast array of practices to regulate our autonomic nervous system, including movement (asana), breath (pranayama) relaxation (savasana); and practices that focus or expand awareness (pratyahara, yoga nidra, dhyana, dhyrana). When we are regulated, the amygdala (alarm bell of the brain) is dialled down because we feel safe. This enables the frontal cortex (a brain structure that supports considered, calm thinking) to come online.

Mindfulness: this is a Buddhist practice of paying full attention to sensations, thoughts and feelings that arise in the present moment, in a calm, curious and unjudgemental manner. If you are learning and practising the eight limbs of yoga with the ethical principles of ahimsa (kindness; non-harming); aparigraha (non-grasping) and ksama (patience) mindfulness is already being developed. Pure mindfulness creates more intentional awareness of what is happening in our panchamayakosha and the ability to be with whatever arises with compassion and equanimity.

Tools for Self Reflection

Once we are comfortable with being with our sensations, thoughts and feelings, we can use various techniques to explore more deeply, what comes up for us. I use journalling as a self-reflective tool, but my favourite way of exploring my patterns is to make time for an in-depth conversation with my partner, (we call this “going into the forge”). Heart-to-heart conversations with friends, family or even wise strangers we meet just at the right time in our journey in life, can be incredibly transformative. The important thing is that by writing or speaking our thoughts and feelings, we allow the subconscious programs to be made more conscious. As consciousness (Atman, purusha) shines its light on the samskara stored in the chitta, these programs lose their potency.

Protection Mechanisms

Sometimes we hold on tightly to our subconscious programs because they have (in the past) helped us to cope in an extremely unsafe situation, or even saved our lives. In this case, or if you have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety or other mental illness, working with a psychotherapist is necessary.

Psychotherapists work to create a safe container, a judgement-free space of unconditional positive regard. In this confidential space, we are supported to cognitively reappraise these responses using vijnanamayakosha (right hemispheric thinking, the frontal cortex). In this way, we can gradually foster resilience, empathy, creativity and a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. This transformative, long-term work enables you to ultimately gain more freedom and agency in your life.

Supporting The Work

Psychotherapy works very well alongside yoga therapy. Yoga practices support us to regulate our nervous system and develop the ability to focus mindfully on present-moment sensations. This fosters our ability to stay present and fully aware when contemplating difficult thoughts and feelings. It is neurobiologically impossible to cognitively reappraise (that is to have access to the frontal cortex and right-hemispherical thinking, which enables empathy and understanding) if we are in sympathetic (SNS) arousal.

The key part of any therapeutic process is to shine the light of the consciousness-rich parts of our mind: vijnanamayakosha, buddhi (intelligence) and atman (witness consciousness) on the nebulous realm of our subconscious mind (chitta).
In this way, we can begin the process of meeting, greeting and addressing the subconscious programs that drive the habits and reactions, that block the expression of our true nature. In so doing, we’re able to nurture our well-being and find more meaning and conscious purpose in the simple acts of daily life.

Holistic Yoga Circle
Holistic Yoga Circle Podcast
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