Science Meets Spirituality

The power of getting to know your brain.

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My name is Anzari Atik. I have a PhD in neuroscience, I am a yoga instructor and a lululemon ambassador. This International Women’s Day (IWD), as a woman in STEM, I wanted to take the opportunity to share my passion for and background in neuroscience and how it has influenced the way I live my life.

This year’s theme for IWD is ‘Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender equal future’. This theme champions the unique skills and knowledge of women in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM) and the key role innovation plays in accelerating our progress towards a gender equal future. Women are still disadvantaged in STEM and are being side-lined in science related fields due to gender. This was highlighted in a UNESCO Science Report which reported that only 33 percent of the global STEM workforce is female and that there were 2.7 men speaking as experts on television or radio for every one woman, emphasising the gender disparity.

 

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"Practising yoga while studying neuroscience has allowed me to merge science and spirituality, which has had a profound impact on how I navigate life's challenges, as well as my general wellbeing."

 

Having an education in neuroscience has shaped not only how I live my life but the activities I engage in, one of which includes yoga, a practise that has helped me through my darkest moments and has been in my life through the happiest. Practising yoga while studying neuroscience has allowed me to merge science and spirituality, which has had a profound impact on how I navigate life's challenges, as well as my general wellbeing. I truly believe that the more you know about your brain and how it works, the more likely you are to work with it, rather than against it. This belief is what led me to start teaching yoga classes with research-based neuroscience themes, as a way of both bridging science and spirituality and making science more accessible. Not because ancient practises need to be validated by science but rather providing a different way of understanding it. Which leads me to the next topic of the incredible research into yoga - specifically movement and meditation. I think it’s important as I dive deeper into this ancient practise which dates back to 4500 -1500 BCE (speculated dates), to recognise that yoga refers to a practise that encompasses more than movement and meditation. It’s a way of living, a way of being.

 

The benefits of meditation

I think naturally when we hear meditation, we picture someone sitting with their eyes closed for hours, but the good news is you don’t have to sit for hours or even close your eyes to experience the benefits of meditation. This ancient practise that stems from Buddhist and Hindu cultures, can be as simple as watching the in and out flow of your breath or tuning into exteroception (your external environment) and noticing the noises around you. Meditation can be adapted to suit how your mind feels that day and I think that’s what makes the practise so powerful. Dr Wendy Suzuki a neuroscientist, in her studies showed that a meditation practise of 10 minutes a day decreased the stress response, improved mood and cognition. There are also now more studies on meditation than ever before, showing that a regular meditation practice changes brain regions involved in awareness, attention and emotional regulation.

 

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The power of movement in changing the brain

Adding meditation to a movement practise is one the most transformative things you can do for your brain, because you’re now combining the benefits described above to the benefits that exercise has on your brain. Similar to meditation, Dr Wendy Suzuki also showed that movement as little as three to four times a week for 30 minutes is enough to induce positive structural changes in the brain. Exercise offers an immediate protective benefit for the brain that lasts a long time - improving mood, memory, attention and reaction times, to name a few. Exercise also offers a positive benefit on brain regions affected by aging or neurodegenerative diseases. When we look at yoga as a whole, which combines physical postures, meditation, regulation of breath and a shift in mindset you can see why this practise provides a holistic approach to brain health.

There’s so much research now into brain health and the tools that we can use to optimise brain health which just highlights how much control we have in not only shifting the way our brains work but helping it in the long term. It's never too late to start, but it all starts with a curiosity of getting to know your brain better and how you can have it working in your favour. We all have such unique brains and there’s no one size fits all approach in neuroscience, but I hope this gives you some insight into how movement and meditation can be beneficial for brain health. Lastly, I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I loved sharing it and that this sparks an interest in neuroscience and the practise of yoga - while emphasising the need to support women in STEM not only because its beneficial for women, but for the industry.

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Feeling stuck on how to start? Here are two resources I recommend:

The Brain Health Revolution podcast | @thebraindocs - Drs Dean and Ayesha Sherzai share some great neuroscience research papers and information on optimizing brain health.

Huberman Lab podcast by Andrew Huberman |@hubermanlab - everyday tools and how to optimize brain function and health.

I'd like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which I work, live and play, the Bunurong Boon Wurrung peoples of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respects to elders - past, present and emerging.

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