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TEDx Talk: Cognitive Impact of Yoga

Ellarkum Vanakkam!

One thing after another

All of us want to be suc­cess­ful, and want to become great per­sons. The new age def­i­n­i­tion of great­ness is in terms of being capa­ble of han­dling cog­ni­tive load, with a heart. It so hap­pens that, dur­ing our 10th stan­dard, we are told,”Do your 10th stan­dard well.” And that life will be good. Right? You work hard…that seems to be a lit­tle chal­leng­ing cog­ni­tive­ly, you do well or oth­er­wise, and then we go on to the lev­el in 12th stan­dard and we are told,”Do your 12th stan­dard well. That’s it. Get into a good col­lege. Life is set.” Now 11th stan­dard also becomes impor­tant. You do your 12th stan­dard and you come to col­lege. What hap­pens? Now…”Do your col­lege well. Get into a good job. Then who’s going to both­er you? You are finan­cial­ly free.” Nobody is going to both­er you, or so every­one says. You know what hap­pens. This goes on. This at each stage of life, there is some­thing called cog­ni­tive load. We face chal­lenges. We want to be suc­cess­ful in what we take up, but that means you also need to learn how to face those chal­lenges, han­dle the cog­ni­tive load. Espe­cial­ly at the end of your col­lege life, it so hap­pens you will mul­ti­ple career paths, wide open before you. You could choose let’s say a reg­u­lar job. You could choose Mas­ter’s in engi­neer­ing, take up GRE and so on, you could choose man­age­ment edu­ca­tion, you could choose civ­il ser­vices… there are so many options. If you explore even one such option you would see that, prepa­ra­tion for that seems very chal­leng­ing. On top of your reg­u­lar work. You pre­pare for CAT or GRE, or GATE, or civ­il ser­vices. Let’s say you choose to pre­pare for civ­il ser­vices. What hap­pens? You put in a lot of effort. It is like a gru­elling sched­ule. And there is no guar­an­tee as to your result. You don’t know if you will suc­ceed. But you def­i­nite­ly want to suc­ceed. Because you also aspire to be a great per­son, through that. And hence you put in lot of effort towards that, with no guar­an­tee of suc­cess. Let’s say you suc­ceed. What hap­pens? You get into the civ­il ser­vices, train­ing, which is much more gru­elling, than your stud­ies, your prepa­ra­tion for civ­il ser­vices is not so gru­elling than that. And they post you. Is that the end of the sto­ry? No def­i­nite­ly not, only then it has begun. You get post­ed as a col­lec­tor or a for­eign ser­vice offi­cial or a rev­enue offi­cial, any­thing, even a police offi­cial. So these are the lead­ers of soci­ety that we see. We also look at lead­ers, busi­ness lead­ers, top lead­ers that we hear of — Tata, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs – all of those lead­ers have become very famous because they have been able to process the cog­ni­tive load, with­out com­plain­ing, and with a heart.

Uncertainty and Complexity

Today we will be look­ing at the prin­ci­ples of how to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly approach this. So that our aspi­ra­tion of suc­cess, as well as, towards great­ness is not an emp­ty aspi­ra­tion. There are prin­ci­ples that gov­ern the path. It is not a ran­dom thing, that some­one is born a genius, or some­one is born lucky, it is not that. And there, we use the path of yoga. Yoga as a sys­tem­at­ic sci­ence through which we can build in us the capa­bil­i­ty and strength to han­dle cog­ni­tive load. Cog­ni­tive challenges.The future actu­al­ly belongs to lead­ers who devel­op these excep­tion­al cog­ni­tive capa­bil­i­ties, and we have been look­ing through the day, and also in our lives, we have been look­ing at 2 impor­tant aspects – one is uncer­tain­ty and anoth­er is com­plex­i­ty. Even in our lives, the deci­sions that we need to take, there is so much uncer­tain­ty, and hence uncer­tain­ty and com­plex­i­ty have become a part and par­cel of day to day liv­ing. Now, how we approach that actu­al­ly deter­mines whether we are a leader, whether we are suc­cess­ful at what we do, and suc­cess is not sta­t­ic. Once you are suc­cess­ful, for­ev­er you need to apply prin­ci­ples that you have got to be suc­cess­ful. Oth­er­wise, it is not a one-time affair, a one-time thing. This is not new. This is in fact, a very ancient prin­ci­ple. We have been talk­ing of big his­to­ry And that human beings have an advan­tage over oth­er species, in terms of col­lec­tive learn­ing. And how this learn­ing is passed on from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion.

Bheeshma’s Capability

We, in India, have a rich tra­di­tion of the oral his­to­ry being trans­mit­ted down the gen­er­a­tions. For exam­ple, in every fam­i­ly, ear­li­er, there used to be this con­cept of kula purana. Kula purana, means the fam­i­ly his­to­ry would be taught to the new child com­ing into the fam­i­ly. Now we have lost that. Now that’s where our ancient his­to­ry becomes very very impor­tant, for us to be able to take for­ward this col­lec­tive learn­ing.

So there, I will just give a tid­bit, of one episode in the Mahab­hara­ta. Bheesh­ma is the com­man­der-in-chief of the Kau­ra­va army. There are 11 akshauhi­nis that are on the side of the Kau­ravas, and 7 akshauhi­nis on the side of the Pan­davas, and it is huge calami­tous war. It is such a trag­ic war, a world war, that the cur­rent world has not seen. The cur­rent world wars that we have seen amount to mil­lions of peo­ple dying. But this is much big­ger than that and hence it is in our col­lec­tive learn­ing, col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, we remem­ber, that such a thing should not hap­pen. And hence, what are the prin­ci­ples by which we can have peace? That is the whole idea of these process­es, these his­to­ries. So there is Bheesh­ma, who is the com­man­der-in-chief of the 11 akshauhi­nis. And it is a com­plex war for­ma­tion. There is cav­al­ry, there is infantry, there is ele­phantry and there are char­i­o­teers. Char­i­ots. He has promised Dury­o­d­hana, who is the king, the son of Dhri­tarash­tra, he has promised that every­day, he would elim­i­nate 10,000 ratis. That is 10,000 char­i­ot-war­riors. And these char­i­ots are not what you have seen in seri­als and movies. These are awe­some machines of destruc­tion. Huge­ly well-equipped. Now, Bheesh­ma’s role as com­man­der-in-chief, is quite com­plex. If you look at the cog­ni­tive load, he has to first pro­tect his own life, he has to pro­tect the life of his char­i­o­teer, his hors­es, he has to pro­tect the flanks plus it is not a flat ground, where it is just sta­t­ic. These are pow­er­ful machines which are mov­ing, and con­stant­ly in dynam­ic motion, it is undu­lat­ing sur­face, it is not flat ground, you are mov­ing, you need to focus, hit and 10,000 war­riors in 10 hours and that comes to 1000 in a hour, and that comes to every 3 or 4 sec­onds, rough­ly being elim­i­nat­ed, all the time pro­tect­ing your­selves and all of them around you. So you can imag­ine the kind of phys­i­cal capa­bil­i­ty, the kind of emo­tion­al bal­ance and the kind of cog­ni­tive load that Bheesh­ma would be crunch­ing all through the war – immense noise all around, and com­plex deci­sions to take and on top of that he is also the com­man­der-in-chief. That means the entire army looks up to Bheesh­ma for com­mand, for deci­sions, very impor­tant deci­sions that need to be tak­en on the fly and exe­cut­ed prop­er­ly.

Cognitive Load This, what we are talking of, is exactly cognitive load, being able to handle it. And there umpteen instances, umpteen heroes, who have displayed such cognitive capability. So we are not talking of just current CEOs, business leaders or industry leaders, or even you and I. Not just that, but these principles are embedded in our history, as to how we can learn to manage cognitive load. Towards that, we look at three aspects:

Physical Body

One is body. In yoga, this is looked at as an instru­ment. The out­er instru­ment. The capa­bil­i­ty to han­dle this instru­ment is con­sid­ered very impor­tant. Oth­er­wise you can­not do what you want to do. For exam­ple, today I am leav­ing for the Himalayas. I am tak­ing a group of 20 peo­ple, on a trek of about 60 kms in 4 days time at 30,000 ft above sea lev­el. So you can imag­ine, it is cold, it is a trek, how many of you have trekked up this hill? Okay a few hands. How many of you have from here to the city, which is just about 15 kms? You would think of it as a chal­lenge. So you can imag­ine the heights, Himalayan heights, 60 kms in 4 days, and the oxy­gen might also be a lit­tle less­er than the plains. So it is a chal­lenge. So the chal­lenge, it helps us assess our own capa­bil­i­ties, our own strengths. And with every chal­lenge that we face, our learn­ing grows and we become more and more capa­ble. That becomes very crit­i­cal, for suc­cess and great­ness. So the phys­i­cal aspect that we push, you will see, ini­tial­ly it behaves a cer­tain way, then the body also learns. It has a very good intel­li­gence that is built in, and with every chal­lenge that you take up, it learns. For exam­ple, a very sim­ple chal­lenge, right now, that I can show you is this is called pad­masana. How many of us would be capa­ble of per­form­ing this? Okay, a few hands go up. How many of you will be capa­ble of per­form­ing this in a mon­th’s time? How many of you think you will be capa­ble of per­form­ing it, if not now, in a mon­th’s time, how many of you would be able to per­form? Actu­al­ly all of us. How many of us would be able to trek up the Himalayas? Actu­al­ly all of us, giv­en suf­fi­cient sys­tem­at­ic prepa­ra­tion. So it is not that, right now, and you need to do it or not, that is not. It is about how we approach it sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly. Towards that, in yoga we look at the out­er instru­ment. Mak­ing this super capa­ble. What is capa­bil­i­ty? Being able to han­dle any stress that comes to this phys­i­cal­i­ty. With­out this los­ing its bal­ance. That is capa­bil­i­ty. Phys­i­cal capa­bil­i­ty.


The sec­ond step that we look at, is the emo­tions. How we han­dle our emo­tions, under nor­mal cir­cum­stances, is on one side. How we han­dle our emo­tions under stress­ful cir­cum­stances, becomes the touch­stone of true great­ness. All great lead­ers have demon­strat­ed this capa­bil­i­ty of being bal­anced emo­tion­al­ly no mat­ter what stress­ful cir­cum­stances they face. Because that becomes a very impor­tant capa­bil­i­ty, at the same time, retain­ing your heart, because you are not alone, you have peo­ple and oth­er life all around us, that com­pas­sion, main­tain­ing that becomes very very impor­tant. Oth­er­wise, you are not human. That requires us to learn the prin­ci­ples of how to main­tain this emo­tion­al bal­ance, no mat­ter in what con­di­tions we are in. All of us as we aspire for suc­cess and great­ness, we go through stress­ful cir­cum­stances, which make us lose our bal­ance of mind, bal­ance of emo­tions. That is the sec­ond aspect that we look at in yoga.


And the most impor­tant aspect that we look at, as part of the yog­ic prac­tice is cog­ni­tion. Not just the phys­i­cal, not just the emo­tions, but also the cog­ni­tive aspect. See that, we look at 4 com­po­nents of cog­ni­tion. These are called the inner instru­ments. The man­as, chit­ta, bud­dhi, ahamkara. So in terms of the ahamkara, it is con­sid­ered an instru­ment. How many of us have this false belief that ego is bad? Ego is not a problem.…we look at it as “Ahamkara” means “I am the doer” Aham + kara = I am the doer. It is a doer­ship prin­ci­ple. Now what man­as does is, you receive input through the out­er instru­ment, through the sens­es, man­as does the first lev­el of pro­cess­ing, of this data. We see, we hear, we process it, the man­as does the first lev­el of pro­cess­ing. For exam­ple, sim­ple thing, I am trained as a com­put­er engi­neer. We do some­thing called image seg­men­ta­tion, you know, in image pro­cess­ing and com­put­er pro­cess­ing. Image seg­men­ta­tion is see­ing this image (points to his body) as sep­a­rate from this (not his body; points to table). What are the bound­aries? Even such sim­ple aspects are processed by the man­as. We have learnt over a long peri­od of evo­lu­tion and we are con­stant­ly learn­ing and feed­ing it back, for the species evo­lu­tion, for the col­lec­tive evo­lu­tion. Chit­ta is the stor­age space, this is like mem­o­ry. And mem­o­ry is not just to do with the brain. It is there even in your body. Your body remem­bers. You are hit, it will retain that mem­o­ry for some peri­od of time. When you try, you just tap (on the table), you will feel that sen­sa­tion for some peri­od of time.

Preferential Memory

And we also store some­thing called pref­er­en­tial mem­o­ry. “I like this” “I don’t like this” “I hate this” “I love this” — all of this is stored in chit­tha. Bud­dhi, is the com­po­nent that makes deci­sions. It helps us in deci­sion mak­ing. Look­ing at all of this con­tent, and decid­ing what is right, what is not. There our focus becomes very use­ful. We decide, giv­en all our back­ground, what do we choose? Should I go for high­er stud­ies, or should I go to a job? This can become a very very frus­trat­ing expe­ri­ence, if you do not under­stand the right prin­ci­ples. And to all of these process­es, we give a stamp say­ing, “I did it” That is the doer­ship prin­ci­ple. And hence, train­ing all of these sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly, is the process of yoga. Which through such train­ing, we are com­plete­ly con­nect­ed with every­thing around us. Oth­er­wise we build bound­ary walls, not because we want to. We all want peace, we all want to be lov­ing and car­ing, but we build bound­ary walls, sim­ple because of inca­pa­bil­i­ty. Inca­pa­bil­i­ty to han­dle uncer­tain­ty and com­plex­i­ty. When things become uncer­tain, we all become ner­vous, tensed and we start shout­ing. It is a very nor­mal phe­nom­e­non. That is where, sys­tem­at­ic train­ing, that the yog­ic sci­ences offer, become very help­ful. So I thank you all for the oppor­tu­ni­ty.

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