Yoga citta vritti nirodhah.
Yoga is the ending of disturbances of the mind.
—Yoga Sutra I.2
Nothing is quite as satisfying as a yoga practice that’s filled with movement. Whether you prefer an intense and sweaty vinyasa practice, a gentle but deliberate Viniyoga practice, or something in between, all systems of hatha yoga provide a contented afterglow for the same reason: You sync your movement with your breath. When you do, your mind stops its obsessive churning and begins to slow down. Your attention turns from your endless to-do list toward the rhythm of your breath, and you feel more peaceful than you did before you began your practice.
For many of us, accessing that same settled, contented state is more difficult to do in meditation. It’s not easy to watch the mind reveal its worries, its self-criticism, or its old memories. Meditation requires patience and—even more challenging for most Westerners—time. So, why would you put yourself through the struggle?
Quite simply, meditation can profoundly alter your experience of life. Thousands of years ago the sage Patanjali, who compiled the Yoga Sutra, and the Buddha both promised that meditation could eliminate the suffering caused by an untamed mind. They taught their students to cultivate focused attention, compassion, and joy. And they believed that it was possible to change one’s mental powers and emotional patterns by regularly experiencing meditative states. Those are hefty promises.
But these days, you don’t have to take their word for it. Western scientists are testing the wisdom of the masters, using new technology that allows researchers to study how meditation influences the brain.
The current findings are exciting enough to encourage even the most resistant yogis to sit down on the cushion: They suggest that meditation—even in small doses—can profoundly influence your experience of the world by remodeling the physical structure of your brain.