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Creativity and Yoga


Recently I received this link from a friend of mine about an article in NYT describing research on creativity conducted at the University of New Mexico. The research utilized f-MRI technology to study and "measure" creativity under different conditions. On reading the article I noticed striking parallel between the findings of this research and yoga philosophy as given in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In order to point out the similarities to the author of the article, Patricia Cohen, I have written her the following letter:

Dear Patricia,

I read with great interest you article titled, "Charting Creativity". It is great to see this emerging research in the field of brain and creativity.

I am a student of yoga and I found it really interesting that the findings related to creativity in your article find a close parallel with the philosophy of yoga as given by Sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. Patanjali provides an 8-fold path called Ashtanga Yoga (eight limbs of yoga) as a means to attain perfect stillness of the mind. These 8 limbs are: Yama (social restraints), Niyama (personal commitments), Asana (physical postures), Pranayama (breathing techniques), Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), Samadhi (total absorption). I am giving below some excerpts from your article and how they relate so closely with the yoga philosophy.

Excerpt from the article – " The brains of those who got a flash of creative insight, by contrast, prepared by automatically shutting down activity in the visual cortex for an instant — the equivalent of closing your eyes to block out distractions so that you can concentrate better. In this case, Dr. Kounios said that the brain was “cutting out other sensory input and boosting the signal-to-noise ratio” to retrieve the answer from the subconscious."

My response – "cutting out other sensory input" – is the same as the yoga concept of pratyahara (the fifth limb of yoga). In pratyahara, the mind is shut off from any influence by the five senses. A couple of popular techniques to achieve this state of mind are – yoga nidra (yogic deep relaxation) and breath awareness while breathing deeply.

Excerpt from the article – “creativity not only involves coming up with something new, but also with shutting down the brain’s habitual response, or letting go of conventional solutions.”

My response –  the concept of memory and ‘samskaras’ or past impressions appears frequently in the yoga sutras. Our ego likes to feed on these samskaras and drive the mind crazy in the process. These control our brain’s habitual responses which lead to conventional responses (as mentioned in your article). So, with the practice of yoga one is able to keep the samaskaras under check (keep the ego at bay).

Excerpt from the article – “That’s why creative connections often occur when people are most peaceful — relaxing under a tree, like Isaac Newton, or in a dream state, like Coleridge when he thought up “Kubla Khan.”

My response – Attaining a state of peace and tranquility of the mind is the prime objective of yoga practice. In Yoga Sutras, the last three limbs of concentration, meditation and total absorption are provided as means of achieving stillness of the mind. When the mind becomes still, the intuitive wisdom shines through since we are not driven by the ego (habitual responses) any more. In that state we are able to "see" things clearly as they are, not as our ego projects them to be. In sutras (chapter 2) 2.26 and 2.27, Patanjali states that by practicing the 8 limbs of yoga one can achieve discriminative knowledge which leads to the highest state of intuitive wisdom. Once we are in that state, our creativity will find its highest level of expression.  

I would love to receive any comments or feedback that you might have.

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