The subject of neurology has been on my mind (pun intended) since I recently put down the book “Upward Spiral” by Alex Korb. The book as well as my own personal findings gathered along the way explain what is happening when our hungry brain craves dopamine, the natural chemical secreted in our brains when we feel pleasure. Sounds like a pretty mundane subject but in my experience and study I have found that it is at the root of so much suffering in life. Addiction and depression to name a few. It is also, as I will discuss here, the key to fulfilment in life and a vital ingredient and tool in Yoga and for those seeking recovery.
Before I get to that, let me first introduce a bit of brain function and mapping out what specific parts of the brain do with regard to habit, addiction and cyclical behaviour. Understanding these functions and processes are key to understanding the importance of Dopamine and the connection it has with Yoga and Recovery.
Neurology – The Company Brain
There are three main parts of the brain; the most evolved part of the brain is the Prefrontal Cortex which is the conscious thinking brain, relying on serotonin
(motivation) and norepinephrine (mental adrenaline). This is the centre of planning and decision-making, the part that thinks about the outer world and our inner world entertaining thoughts of worry, guilt, shame, indecisiveness and how clear our judgement of perception is based on other parts of the brain’s functioning. This part of the brain is responsible for controlling impulses and motivation. If you can imagine it being like the CEO of the company Brain and the other parts of the brain, the Limbic System and the Insula being the office workers and different departments keeping the company functioning.
The Limbic System is the more primitive part of the brain, responsible for things like excitement, fear, anxiety, memory and desire. Within the context of our office analogy with the Prefrontal Cortex being the CEO, the Limbic System is the computer server
which houses all the data, stores the memory and creates alerts when systems are threatened. It is divided into many parts. One part of the Limbic System is the Hippocampus which is responsible for taking short-term memories and making them long-term. Like a computer, it hits “SAVE”, especially when the memory has more of an emotional context. It does this with positive emotions but more often negative emotions get saved, which create a strong negative bias in the brain to keep one safe from danger. It is sensitive to stress, which weakens the ability to “SAVE” any long term memories. The Hippocampus communicates closely with the Amygdala, which works the brains input of senses and communicates to pull up memories to keep the human “safe” as well as regulating emotional reactions. If the Amygdala senses danger, it instructs the Hippocampus to open danger memories which then sound the alarms to the Hypothalamus, which is the defensive base of the brain. The Hypothalamus is armed with reactive arsenals and ready to go off at any sign of threat. This is the part of the brain responsible for the “fight-or-flight” mode which has a direct line to the pituitary gland and adrenals that flood the body with adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones.
Within any company there are different departments. Each of these departments usually has a certain type of personality or culture that is consistent in any given department. Some are full of nerdy “squares” that have a specific way of doing things (usually the IT department, no offence if you are in IT). There are some departments that are filled with co-dependent hand-holders (Accounting?) and there are some that are crazy, reckless and spontaneous characters (usually Sales). The part of the brain that houses all these different departments is the Fronto-Limbic System which for simplicity sake we will divide into completely separate wings of the office called the Striatum and Insula. The first wing is the Striatum and is the department of the office that has no regard for long term consequences, it isn’t conscious or rational. Its function is to carry out routines, habits, impulses and anything that creates enjoyment or dopamine! There are two parts to the Striatum so we will put one on the ground floor with all the other departments, it is called the Dorsal Striatum and then the other part is the Nucleus Accumbens which is the lower part, these are the party-ers and we will put them in a basement just below the Dorsal Striatum.
The Dorsal Striatum is the nerdy square characters in the office, liking routines that turn into habits which are done unconsciously however giving pleasure in the familiarity. Routines like how you dress for work in the morning, which hand you sip your coffee
with, or the route you travel to work, all the tasks or repetitive things we have in our lives that bring a bit of a smile to our face. The routines we choose, however, have the power to change and shape our lives without conscious thought. Once a routine becomes a habit, it can never be broken. For example, your routine in learning how to ride a bike forms and creates the habit in how to ride a bike without conscious thought. Now, if you don’t ride a bike for 10 years and you get back on, shortly you will remember and be able to ride a bike. This Dorsal Striatum is wired so strongly that habits can’t be broken, only weakened and replaced with other habits that create equal or more dopamine.
The cheeky reckless character that we have put down in the basement is the Nucleus Accumbens, still part of the Striatum, but definitely not part of the IT department on the ground floor. This office worker is, as mentioned before, the party-er of the company Brain. The only interest of the Nucleus Accumbens is in taking risks, seeking pleasure and impulsive behaviour. Whenever you do anything that is fun, exciting or enjoyable, you get a huge hit of dopamine, stimulating this part of the brain. For example it is the part of the brain to blame when you have eaten 4 biscuits without realising it, reached for the phone to check social media or emails, or the glass of wine you poured is already consumed before you even noticed. The Nucleus Accumbens communicates very closely to the Limbic System receiving emails when you feel sad, upset, stressed and pulls out all the stops in trying to make the office happy and entertained again. This will start off innocently doing things that receive dopamine, however by its nature it will demand more and more impulse actions to get a fix. At some point, something that gave you pleasure and becomes a habit isn’t impulsive anymore and the Nucleus Accumbens stops taking interest. At this point a habit has been formed and addiction rears its ugly head. This explains why addiction becomes a progressive thing.
The last part of this office, housed in the opposite wing from the Dorsal Striatum is the Insula. It is the wiring and infrastructure of the office. It’s function is to communicate to
the Amygdala and Hippocampus informing the pain circuits and bodily sensational awareness of any problems in increased heart rate, pain, breathing troubles etc. If everyone is happy, the Insula lets everyone know that the system is happy. If everyone isn’t happy, the Insula communicates that message across as well. For example, if you get recognised for doing an amazing job at work and are publicly praised, you feel great, thoughts, emotions and memories of all that you have done for the company are now validated, an award of dopamine its presented which influences the body in feeling great. Then, you get a phone call stating really bad news, all the self-doubt, insecurities and fear come flooding in which then turns everything around and co-dependently the body feels crap, stressed and all aches and pains return. The path-ways that facilitated all the ups and downs for each of those states were facilitated by the Insula.
In a nutshell, there are three main parts (departments) to the function of the company Brain; the Prefrontal Cortex, Limbic System and the Fronto-Limbic System. They all work together in the same office building and all have different jobs and functions that sustain life, thought, sensation and emotion for the being it is attached to. It tends to be a democracy so if two vote over one, the majority rules. The Brain can have departments that are weaker than others and departments that are dysfunctional at times. It is a dynamic system of departments and complex to say the least but one relies on the other just like any successful company and that is where the analogy of the office ends and the subject of addiction begins.
I am an addict. Not in the conventional sense of the concept as an alcoholic or an illicit drug-addict, but a human addicted to dopamine nonetheless. Anything that gives pleasure, positive or negative, provides the brain with dopamine. Dopamine is a powerful organic chemical in our brain that works as a neurotransmitter creating a reward loop in motivating behaviour. My addiction is feeling in control or having some sort of power over an outcome so I feel safe, important, needed, seen, loved, validated, belonged, etc. It is said that the mind is the forerunner of all things, so what we think and act, our world becomes. Quite a nice thought when everything is going just fine but what if things are not so fine and we feel ourselves stuck in a loop where things never improve: addicted, depressed, anxious, fearful?
Here is an example.
There is an alcoholic that is trying to stay sober. They get in a fight with their partner which is highly emotionally charged. They storm out of the house and hit the streets to burn off steam.
- They are flooded with feeling, thoughts and memories of pain and stress (Limbic & Insula). They pass their old hang-out called “Ray’s Happy Bar.” The door is invitingly open, the sounds of glasses clinking, bouts of laughter cry out. The old familiar smells of worn leather, stale beer and … The process which happens in milliseconds goes like this.
- The Limbic System senses anger, sadness and hurt, drawing memories of all the other times when the alcoholic felt this way flooding the brain and the body with stress hormones.
- The Dorsal Striatum suggests that when the alcoholic felt this way the routine and habit it has is to go into the bar and drink.
- This perks up the Nucleus Accumbens, which cries out YES! We haven’t had fun for so long! Let’s go party!
- Then the reasonable part, Prefrontal Cortex, steps in with authority and says NO! We are trying to stay sober and change our lives for the better.
Now, in this example there are two out of three parts of the brain heavily leaning to go and drink. Especially, one with no care for long-term consequence and in a need to get dopamine (Nucleus Accubens)! Who will win? Usually, the impulsive habit which will pacify the Limbic System in feeling better even for a short time will win. Unless this alcoholic has replaced their addictive routine/habit with something that provides equal or more dopamine than the act of drinking then the Nucleus Accumbens gets to have it’s party. This is where the Prefrontal Cortex needs to come in again to plead to the other two offices. “We are going to AA meetings. In those meetings people see us, give us warm tea, hugs, share lives and make us feel less alone with our issues. Why don’t we call an AA friend, sponsor or go to a meeting instead of the bar. Remember what happens after a night of drinking? We make it worse in the end, making more of a mess and it gets to become unmanageable as our drinking progresses, bringing us right back where we started.”
This is an all too familiar example for what the office dialogue might be for a recovering alcoholic. Two systems are leaning towards going into the bar. If the alcoholic has not replaced the addictive routine/habit with something that provides an equal amount of dopamine, the Prefrontal Cortex will get vetoed and the addict will go back down a path of drinking and the continuous negative loop. It is almost that simple.
Formula for Positive Change
There is a simple equation that Yoga provided me years ago when I became a student. It made sense to me instantly, resonates with me to this day and helps in illustrating the parallels of Yoga and a 12 step program. The formula is this:
I(d) + i(e) ≥ R
I:intention, d: desire
i: intensity, e: energy in effort
The intension of my desire, plus the intensity of energy in effort I give that desire, has to be greater than or equal to the resistance. The only way I have been able to make any movement to positively change my life is by welcoming study of my resistance and having greater intensity in effort and intention of my desire to change. The only way of removing the darkness in a room is to turn on the light, to shine light on our “stuff”; routines, habits, what motivates our negative choices. In Yoga we call this Vichara, in the 12 step fellowship we call this “inventory taking”. It is a way of taking accountably and responsibility of the unmanageable feelings, thoughts and actions we accumulate by addressing why we think we can be powerful over things we are powerless to control. It helps us to pause and choose something other than what we normally do to return us to a state of sanity (insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results). If we can divert our path and regain grace within the moment to see everything, this becomes a teacher to mirror back to ourselves and our part in the drama of messiness. This acceptance and state of surrendering in the turbulence of life, gives us a moment where we can make better, more helpful choices not ruled by our impulses, feelings or reactions, but giving us more of an opportunity to learn different and more helpful actions. “
“Higher Power, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Serenity Prayer, Anonymous
I will give you a personal example. After my late husband of 13 years passed away of cancer all whilst in the grip of his own addiction issues, I was left a mess. As much as my practices served to keep me fulfilled and sane, I found the affects of living with an addict who was dying of cancer terribly hard. It was dark. It chipped away my self-esteem, self-belief and sense of love. However, I found I was teaching great and my career was flourishing, I felt my purpose in this world stronger than I had done before, I also felt the presence of spirit and a deep trust in life. But, my relationship to love, sensuality and sexuality was dormant. I realised that this needed to be addressed for me to live again fully.
My resistance that kept me stuck was a message (or Vikalpa) I consciously and unconsciously entertained repeatedly when feeling dark. The message was “I am not enough to be loved or to love.” This isn’t just a “false-belief” left from my late husband, this was a string which I tugged on that was attached to many roots that stemmed from childhood. This was painful and stressful and you know where my mind went when it was triggered? It went to over-working, chocolate, yoga, exercise, listening to podcasts, more chocolate, tv, social media, shopping, more chocolate…yeap, I was a full blown dopamine addict. Getting a quick fix that never filled the void. The loop kept me trapped in this wheel of experiencing the Kleshas/mental emotional afflictions.
- Avidya/ignorance. “All is F.I.N.E.” (F**ked up, Insane, Neurotic, Emotional).
- Asmita/egotism: “I am unloveable.”
- Raga/craving previously experienced pleasures: “I will consume anything so not to feel my feelings!”
- Devsa/aversion: “I am never going to make myself feel vulnerable to anyone ever again.”
- Abinivesha/fear of death: “This feeling is going to kill me.”
I was trapped in that loop until I was so sick and tired of being sick and tired that I consciously decided to move on. My experience had proven that I never changed if I was comfortable. I had to hit below ‘rock bottom’ before I gained enough dis-ease, or felt enough heat of discomfort before I was able to get off my pity-pot. Desperation is a gift, it is the key to change. That heat motivates us to move into the unfamiliar and risk. The heat (Tapas) is what we re-create on the Yoga mat within our bodies and mind, the dis-ease of telling ones story to strangers in a room during recovery. This is where the positive change begins to occur.
I have never been able to effectively heal from the suffering I experience by myself.I embraced my pain, yet I did not do it alone. I discovered in rooms with others who walk this path a shared experience. They held space for me to come to this point and celebrated me when I finally had the strength to implement loving action for myself. “I desire and am worthy of a loving relationship” became my mantra, sankalpa. I found what I desired; a loving relationship with a man who had shared characteristics and virtues within me. Every time the core false-belief, negative feeling, my darkness would pop up, I would find the discipline to STOP it and replace the darkness with the statement of light. I would practice delaying gratification to feel the heat of discomfort to practice embracing suffering in service to manifest my desire. Facing my resistance was like the anonymous quote “The reason I didn’t get burned in the fire, is that the fire within me burned brighter.”
When we are calm and serene the brain function can work towards experiencing this state of being or well-being. Allowing the Prefrontal Cortex to implement a new structure, so when the Limbic System gets triggered and causes the Striatum and Insula to react, there is more opportunity for a healthier and positive outcome as we grow and thrive in life.
I have to say within 7 months after my husband passed, I found love, a best friend and a partner who embodies all that I have always adored, admired and aspired to in this human experience. I burnt through the resistance and addictive pull. It doesn’t mean that I am immune from bad things ever happening again. I have to practice on the little things, the mundane, becoming more skilful in waking up to the unmanageable that manifest due to having a human brain! So this was my “ah ha” experience and I am lucky to have had it. Teaching the concept for each individual is a bit harder as we all have our own different “stuff”. Kleshas can only be overcome if they are recognised and each of our unique loops must have a bespoke antidote.
So to put the equation I introduced earlier into practice for an aspiring “Yogi” it would go like this:
The intention to practice yoga and mediation everyday plus the intensity of energy put into the effort and determination to make this happen has to be equal to or greater than the resistance usually manifesting in statement like “I’m too tired, not feeling in the mood,” “it’s my “moon-cycle” “this morning, I have no time.”
Understanding that the loop can be broken and the neurology that keeps you in this loop must be addressed is key to positive change. Your Prefrontal Cortex must find a way to veto the Limbic System and the uncomfortable messages being communicated by the Insula. The Yogi must find a practice that can release dopamine and create another habit more alluring than the loop and the Kleshas that feed it.
Reprioritising, relearning and practicing new disciplines is how I have been able to be most effective in transforming my life today. I have done this by studying these methodologies as well as seeking support from my teachers and my sponsor in recovery. My teachers and 12 step sponsor are normal people on this path. They too apply these techniques in their lives. I have chosen them to be the source of deep support for me as I have seen the influence of these systems work for them. I also see they are in a process as humans, not perfect, affected by life, family, work and responsibilities. They have faults and struggles and courageously share these struggles with me and with each other. They have used Yoga or 12 steps in working through life’s difficulties.
“We all have limitations, yet we all share the human ability to self-reflect and the capacity to experience something beyond our conditioned consciousness.” Rod Stryker
“Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. And between the two my life FLOWS” Nisargadatta Maharaj
7 Stages and 12 Steps
Neither Yoga nor the 12 step fellowships are religious. However both open you up to practice a spiritual way of life. Whatever your personal experience of a higher power, source, nature, love, God-head, Pure Conscious Awareness, one can practice both methodologies that direct practices in the direction of having our own personal awakening to whatever it is. Ultimately revealing that the Divine is within us, as us, works for us and within us to wake us up to its presence in everything. This is important because both the Yoga Stages and 12 Steps rely on a foundation of surrendering or acceptance to the belief that there is something else out there that is omnipresent. The “something else” could be knowledge or spirit or energy but the understanding is we must be humble and realise it does not come solely from ourselves. What we seek can only be created through a gradual process that builds over time and must be open-hearted in nature.
There are 7 stages of Yoga and 12 steps of recovery. For someone just being introduced to the concepts it may seem like a lot of work and not enough time in your life to implement them. However, think about this: how much time do you waste entertaining routines, habits and impulses lead by unruly thoughts and feelings that have the same undesirable outcome? From my practice of Yoga-Asana I have personally experienced that if I create effort in my body I experience effortlessness. I can create action to experience stillness (which is the whole traditional reason for Asana, to prepare the body and mind for meditation, stillness, through action, postures). For every choice there is a consequence whether desirable or undesirable. I put into my life what I want to get out of it.
7 Stages of Yoga:
- Self-Transendance/Padarth Bhawna
An abridged version of the 12 Steps:
- Acceptance/I can’t
- Confidence/“GOD” can
- Surrender/Let “GOD”
- Self-examination/Look within
- Self-honesty/Admit wrongs
- Willingness/Ready self for change
- Humility/Seek “GOD’s” help
- Forgiveness/Become willing
- Restitution/Make Amends
- Admission/Daily inventory
- Seeking/Pray and Meditate
- Unconditional Love/Give it away
To have greater and positive impact in life you have to cultivate awareness in a situation. From understanding that situation there needs to have some sort of injection of humility and acceptance for the situation. Then and only then can you take skilful action. Here is an example:
Stuck in traffic. There is awareness that traffic will make you late. There are two choices that will effect the outcome.
- Stress, honk the horn and get angry over something you have no control over or
- Relax, remember next time to give yourself more time to get to this destination.
You will arrive in one of two conditions due to whether you accepted the situation or not. Arrive angry flustered and project that forward into your next interaction with someone or arrive calm and that much wiser that traffic is an obstacle in life, but leaving earlier next time will help you overcome that obstacle. Which action would be of benefit to long term happiness and serenity? We are powerless over people, places and things, however we are powerful over how we react or respond.
Each of the 7 stages and 12 steps can be further simplified into three points of focus that work well with choices and consequences:
Stages of Yoga:
Steps of Recovery:
Another way to practice these stages/steps using a situation that involves a little more power over the situation, is to delay gratification:
The next time you are idle, try sitting. Notice how you want to unconsciously reach for your phone, turn the radio on, entertain thoughts of fantasy or projection (this is the Dorsal Striatum searching for a dopamine hit).
- Sensing Self-Awareness dawning sit and find the grit or heat of not doing what you normally do, it’s difficult. Good. Then breathe. Watch the inhale and exhale. The transition between the breaths. Watch how the ego screams out that it has better things to do, like watch cute kittens on Facebook.
- Become more proficient in Self-Knowledge. Breathe. Connect with the witnessing state of awareness. Sense yourself calming with every breath. Stay connected to an internal stream of consciousness that rests with the rhythm of the breath that leans you into a feeling and current of consciousness that is calm, quiet and still.
- Continue on the path to Self-Realisation.
Yoga is the ongoing waking-up and cultivation of a deep state of profound self-awareness of the absolute truth that rests within everything. Being conscious within ourselves every moment that passes, we gather information to effectively and efficiently navigate through life. The consciousness aides us to find mastery of self-knowledge through self-study, skill in action to know what practices to preform to create harmony as well as creating greater impact to whatever we put our minds to. This then leads us down the road to the science of self-realisation where we transcend the mundane experiences being human and transform into that which is at the source of all knowledge, enlightened and “God”-knowing.
It’s big stuff and by no means easy. Discipline and practice and in some cases years of becoming comfortable with self-awareness is the key. Some people really find that understanding the neurology of how we continue to live in these unhelpful and negative cycles helps to gain self awareness. It speaks to the logical and rational self which might need explanation in concrete terms. Knowing that dopamine and three parts of the brain are constantly at odds with what rationally we might perceive as healthy choices, is just the beginning of the journey through the stages/steps.
I am an addict
I am an addict. I use the tools that Yoga and the 12 Step provide me to work in harmony with this human condition and to experience that which is beyond it, finding Moksha/Freedom from the cycle of unhelpful habits. I bravely face every moment honouring myself, seeking joy, contentment, connection and love to ultimately celebrate a faith-filled, fearless awakened life. I go into every experience bravely connecting to my unique power and experienced wisdom with great confidence, self-belief and the courage to intimately share the beauty of me. Every day, I honour the best of myself. I honour my past to inform my present moment. I open myself to receive those teachings that reveal the light of knowledge in me. Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om.
I myself am a member of Al-anon and a sponsor for Ala-teen (Al-anon for teenagers), which are fellowships for friends and family members of alcoholics and addicts. For one addict, there are on average ten people affected by their behaviour. It is an anonymous fellowship, not a secret society. I have chosen to break my anonymity to help others by sharing my story and the ways I have been able to live one day at a time, whole-heartedly with joy, contentment and serenity. Healing by being of service to each other, sharing reasons why we suffer and finding meaning to the suffering. It is a community and if you are reading this and think a community might be able to help you break free from the loop, I recommend finding some Yoga teachers that you see something inside of them that you aspire to. Find someone that can take you through these steps, teach you more in-depth yoga that is beyond asana. If you find yourself needing a 12 Step Fellowship, research the best one for you. Attend at least 6 meetings to make up your mind if it is for you or not. Then find a sponsor, who you are willing to have a long lasting relationship with to work these steps.
Feel free to reach out to me as well. I teach at a treatment centre in London called The Recovery Centre, however there are many other centres that use 12 steps as well as Yoga, Meditation and Holistic practices. I also teach public classes at The Life Centre in Notting Hill. Visit my web page www.zephyryoga.com for retreats, workshops and other blogs, but most importantly have the courage to recognise the cycle and the loop and acknowledge that in life the human condition is imperfect and that the journey through life is merely a practice in making it more fulfilling. Understanding brain function and how to make it work for you are essential skills to have on that journey.
Overeaters Anonymous http://www.oagb.org.uk
Anorexia and Bulimia Anonymous http://aba12steps.org
Sex and Love Addicts http://www.slaauk.org
12 Steps of Recovery:
- We admitted we were powerless over people, places & things – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of that Power as we understood it.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to the Power of your understanding, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have that Power remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked the Power of your understanding to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with the Power as we understood it, praying only for knowledge of its will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.