The Connection Between Yoga, Ayurveda, and Dopamine

The ancient practices of yoga and Ayurveda can help you hack dopamine deficits, along with related unconscious patterns and behaviors.

In This Article

Yoga and Ayurveda

In the tender formative first six years of life, we receive much of our programming. Childhood patterns become driving forces of adult behaviors, and it’s hard to create the opportunity or awareness to change these old patterns.

Most of us think we’re in control of our thoughts, desires, and aspirations, but science begs to differ. What we actually do have control over—our conscious mind—controls only ~5% of our behaviors. Surprisingly, it is our unconscious mind that controls 95% of what we do, say, feel, and think.1

Of course, a good chunk of the unconscious mind is busy blinking, breathing, and digesting, but even our inter- and intrapersonal behaviors stem overwhelmingly from the unconscious.

Vedic Science + the Unconscious

While yoga and Ayurveda offer many benefits, Vedic sciences are ultimately dedicated to helping us become conscious. All positive and negative impressions we felt as children from our parents, siblings, classmates, environment, and community are responsible for unconscious aspects of our personality we all too often carry into our lives as adults.1,2

Sadly, because most of these impressions were survival mechanisms, unconscious behavioral patterns are mostly stimulating, reward-based, limiting, negative, or based on illusory fears that may have protected us as children, but no longer serve us as adults.

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Dopamine + Reward-Based Behaviors

Dr. Gregory Berns, an Emory University neuroscientist and author of Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment, researches dopamine levels in relationship to anticipation of novel stimuli. Basically, Dr. Berns describes the complex neurochemistry of retail therapy and why it works so well: when you go shopping for shoes, for example, your dopamine levels start to rise. The promise of satisfaction peaks as you find the perfect pair and dopamine floods the brain. Once you take them to the register, pull out the credit card, and swipe it, dopamine crashes down. The reward (anticipation and excitement of new shoes) is over.3,4

Your brain, now stripped of satisfaction, pulls out its how-to-get-happy menu and browses through all the possible locations in the mall that could deliver the next reward. The menu maps the quickest route to the food court and the next thing you know, you’re steering your friends to the nearest Cinnabon. Then, once the reward route has been set and you head in that direction, dopamine levels begin to rise yet again.

Establish Being, Perform Actions

We have created a reward-based culture that too often finds its only satisfaction from the stimulation of our senses through the latest action movie, the new house, car, job, partner or, of course, eating or going shopping. Yoga and Ayurveda are Vedic sciences aimed at increasing self-awareness so that we can take transformational action steps to free ourselves from these childlike patterns.

Ayurveda uses lifestyle, herbs, exercise, detox, and rejuvenation to bring the body back into balance, remove physical stress, and enhance self-awareness. Yoga uses breathing and asana to move prana (life force) through the body in order to activate the subtle nadi pathways that help transport awareness into both the body and the mind.

With heightened awareness in both mind and body, there is less physical and mental chaos, creating the opportunity for the body to restore balanced function and for the mind to take transformative actions to free us from needy childlike reward-based behaviors.

In yoga and Ayurveda, the ultimate goal is the enhancement of self-awareness—a union of mind and body—but this is only half the job. Until you have taken action based on awareness of your truth, you will not change childlike patterns. True human nature (although it has the capacity to be violent) is loving, kind, generous, and giving. Actions coming from this place can transform the mind and lend access to a lasting sense of contentment that does not require a fleeting reward or stimulus.

Studies on the health of the microbiome support this, as beneficial gut microbes proliferate in a loving, kind environment and are obliterated in a stressful one. Giving without expectation has been shown to oppose the reward hormone dopamine. Giving, loving, and caring activate oxytocin and have been shown to improve health and extend life compared to reward-based activities.5-11

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Traveling through Inner Space

There are many benefits of yoga and Ayurveda for the body, mind, and spirit, but perhaps the most important benefit comes from an investigation of one’s inner space, which requires us to become aware of our fascination with the rewards of outer space.

Once we employ the tools of yoga and Ayurveda properly, a new fascination naturally occurs: one designed to unveil your true nature, which is to be loving, joyful, and kind for no reason.

It goes something like this: “I love you, but it is no concern of yours.” Rather than looking for a response or reward, we have found the courage and self-awareness to let something more delicate, sensitive, and even powerful out.

References

  1. Szegedy-Maszak, M. Mysteries of the Mind: Your unconscious is making your everyday decisionsS. News & World Report, February 28, 2005.
  2. Laibow, R. Edited by Evans, James R. and Arbarbanel. Quantitative EEG and neurofeedback. Academic Press; 1st edition, 1999. P. 99.
  3. Berns, G. Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment. Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition 2005.
  4. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB113382650575214543
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4354898/
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24099859
  7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3813596/
  8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25675509
  9. http://www.pnas.org/content/110/50/20308.short
  10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25907371
  11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16294427

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