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Ep 385 - The Neuroscience of Yoga and Meditation with Brittany Fair

A person holding meditation beads in the yoga postion.

Modern research in the field of neuroscience shows what happens in our brains when we engage in yoga and mindfulness practices. In this episode of The ABMP Podcast, Darren and Angie speak with author Brittany Fair about her motivation to write The Neuroscience of Yoga and Meditation, whether these practices in daily life help with neurogenesis, and how these contemplative practices affect the brain.


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Author Bio

Brittany Fair is the author of The Neuroscience of Yoga and Meditation and a science communicator at the National Alzheimer’s Coordinating Center based at the University of Washington. With a background in philosophy, ecology, medical studies, and neuroscience, she has taught courses at universities and workshops nationwide. She teaches science writing at UC San Diego Extended Studies and is the former president of the San Diego Science Writers Association. Outside work, she is a competitive triathlete, yoga teacher, and twin mom.


Darren Buford is senior director of communications and editor-in-chief for ABMP. He is editor of Massage & Bodywork magazine and has worked for ABMP for 22 years, and been involved in journalism at the association, trade, and consumer levels for 24 years. He has served as board member and president of the Western Publishing Association, as well as board member for Association Media & Publishing. Contact him at

Angie is a licensed massage therapist and is the advertising director for ABMP. She is Chopra Center Certified in meditation and ayurvedic lifestyle. Her training explores physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Angie is also the founder of the nonprofit, Project Inti, an organization that provides aid to low-income Peruvian families and communities. For more information, visit





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Full Transcript

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0:00:50.9 Darren Buford: I'm Darren Buford and welcome to the ABMP podcast. I'm joined today with my good friend, Angie Parris-Raney. Hello, Angie. 


0:00:57.0 Angie Parris-Raney: Hi, Darren. 


0:01:00.0 DB: Angie, we both practice daily meditation and often practice yoga. I know we're both excited about today's podcast and guest because we get to dive into the science behind these amazing practices. But first, listeners, Angie is a licensed massage therapist and is the advertising director for ABMP. She is CHOPRA Center Certified in meditation and ayurvedic lifestyle. Her training explores physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Angie is also the founder of the nonprofit Project Inti, an organization that provides aid to low-income Peruvian families and communities. For more information, visit Our guest today is Brittany Fair. Brittany is a San Diego-based science writer and yoga teacher. With a background in philosophy, ecology, medical studies, and neuroscience, she has taught courses and workshops at yoga studios, schools, and universities nationwide. And she is the author of "The Neuroscience of Yoga and Meditation", the basis of our discussion today. Hello, Brittany. And hello, Angie. 


0:01:58.6 AP: Hi, Brittany. 


0:02:00.7 Brittany Fair: Hi. Thank you for having me. 


0:02:02.8 AP: So good to have you here. So we just kind of gave you the introduction here and I am a big geek over your book. I actually read this thing front to back. It was a lot of rich content in there. I spent a lot of time just in the first half of it just really going through a lot of review of the nervous system and it was so well done. It was very presentable. So thank you for that. 


0:02:28.4 BF: Yes. Thank you. And thank you for... I am so impressed you read it front cover to back. There's a lot in there. 


0:02:33.4 AP: There is, but you made it very easy to approach so thank you. So let's just start with what motivated you to write a book on "The Neuroscience of Yoga and Meditation"?  


0:02:45.8 BF: I, at the time, was in a PhD program for neuroscience at the University of Vermont and I was in class 8 AM till 4 or 5 P.M and studying every hour outside of that. The graduate program there is through the medical school ao I was taking all my classes with the medical students. I had a full-on cadaver lab that I spent hours a day dissecting someone's body, someone who had donated their body to science with two other students. It was a lot. I mean, it was really draining both in terms of the academics, but also emotionally. I mean, it's a really intense process to spend so many hours a day dissecting a human. So there was a lot going on and I felt like I didn't have balance in my life, and I really needed something else. 


0:03:38.1 BF: And I was practicing yoga at the time at a local studio called Sangha Studio in Burlington and they were starting up a teacher training. And I was like, oh, this would be such a great balance to what I'm doing. So I enrolled in the teacher training and it was just perfect. It was that sense of community with people who really valued being in the present and learning in a very different way than how I was being taught in graduate school and I just kind of fell in love with it. And I was studying the brain all day, every day, but then I had this like on the weekends, was learning about the practice of movement and meditation and what that meant, all the different types, and I was so interested in how the practices of meditation and yoga could impact the brain. 


0:04:22.0 BF: And so I went to go learn more about it and realized that there was very little material on this, but there was a huge interest in it. So right then and there, I was like, oh, man, I want to write this book. But it really wasn't the right time. I was still in graduate school, I was doing my yoga teacher training, but that kind of sparked that idea. And then I went to Kripalu in Massachusetts for a yoga research conference just to kind of learn and be there and sat down with someone named Brent, who actually ended up writing the foreword for my book. And I told him kind of what I was thinking. He's like, "Oh, you should do it." Yeah, yeah. But it's a lot to take on a book, right?  


0:05:07.3 BF: And I think the other thing that really inspired this book was when I was taking yoga classes, even at Kripalu, which is a world-renowned yoga retreat center, I just kept hearing all this stuff about the brain in these classes that was just wrong, just blatantly wrong. And it was really frustrating to me as a yoga teacher in training and as a neuroscience graduate student. I'm just like, oh, that's not how that works. And I think one example that that speaks to me right away is I've heard a lot that headstands, handstands improve blood flow to the brain and it's actually a study. Someone has studied this and that is just not true. And I wanted to be able to dispel myths in the yoga community and I thought the book would be a great way to do that. Now, how it actually all came together was a little bit crazy. I was uber pregnant with twins and working full-time. I was reviewing a book for this company called Handspring Publishing that is like an academic publisher, but specifically for like bodywork, yoga, contemplative practices in general. 


0:06:16.8 BF: And they actually asked if I wanted to write this book and I was like, okay, that never happens. I mean, I had to submit a formal proposal and do all that, but I had a publishing company who wanted me to write this book. I was like, okay, the timing was terrible. I was literally scheduled for a C-section like the next week. Yeah, I was just like, oh, what am I... I know this is going to be bad, but when is this going to happen again? I mean, sometimes you just have to go with it and it was crazy. I wrote the majority of the book during my maternity leave. With twins, it's like a little bit chaotic. Well, no, it's a lot of it chaotic let's be real here, but I committed to writing one hour a day for a year or two and it happened. 


0:07:03.5 DB: I love how you chunked the work to get it done. That's super smart. We're talking to a real life superwoman here. Holy good lord, how did you do all that at the same time? That's so impressive. 


0:07:13.2 BF: I mean, it was crazy. I luckily have actually a bunch of friends who write books and I was like, "How do you write a book? Like, how do you actually get it done though?" And there's lots of different strategies that I felt like setting aside that time of the one hour a day really worked for me personally. Some people like to wake up and write. I didn't have that privilege because I had to help the kids and then work. So for me, it was 8 to 9 PM. We put the kids down, I write the book, and then they probably want to breastfeed again. 


0:07:47.7 AP: You are a perfect example of somebody where if anybody's got a goal that they want or a dream that they want to achieve, you just gave us the perfect example of here's how you do it. You take it one step at a time here. So thank you for that beautiful example. 


0:08:04.6 DB: So Brittany, let me ask you a question. I mean, were you like seriously containing yourself when you were doing this training and you knew some of the information was incorrect? Did you speak up and correct the teacher or is that just more fodder for the book at that time?  


0:08:18.6 BF: I think typically no, because maybe there's something I didn't know. And actually that studio, Sangha, hosted my first workshop, which was on the neuroscience of yoga. I called it NeuroFlow. I really wanted kind of a funny tangent there. I really wanted to bring a brain to the workshop, but I, for a lot of legal reasons, can't bring a human brain. So I was like, we're going to get a brain on short notice. And being it's Vermont, I was like, well, maybe like a farm, maybe they have a farm animal brain. So I asked around and someone's friend or cousin or something that had had a sheep pass away the night before and they were like, "You can have the sheep's brain, but you have to come get it out yourself." 


0:09:05.6 AP: Oh my gosh. [laughter] 


0:09:08.8 BF: I was like, okay. So I drive off to the country of Vermont to this random sheep farm and show up and like, here's the workshop, here's the tools, here's the head. And they helped me get it out and it was beautiful and I was able to bring it to the workshop to actually show some of these areas in the sheep brain. 


0:09:30.8 AP: How did your students respond when you bring in this brain? Well, how did you make this class happen?  


0:09:38.0 BF: I mean, people are really interested. You don't normally get to see your brain, right? So it's pretty cool, I think. And I really tried to make the workshop a combination of movement, meditation, and then actually talking. I don't want it to be... It's not a lecture. We're not in a graduate school, but yeah. So it's kind of a combination of these things and then the workshop kind of grew from there. I taught it at a couple of different studios in the country and outside of the country. And after that, MIT, their... I forget what it's called. Like their exercise division or whatever picked it up as a class. So I actually taught it at the class at MIT, which was really fun. 


0:10:16.1 AP: So I really enjoyed the section on the sensory experiences of yoga and meditation. You really wove in some beautiful facts and examples of how the brain works with all of our senses, with smell and sight and taste and sound and touch obviously. We're talking to a massage therapist here. Let's not forget touch. So one of the things that fascinated me was how therapists, meditation teachers, yoga instructors could incorporate sound or music or mantra as part of the healing practice. So you go into more of the science behind how this affects brain biology. So what happens in the brain when it hears sound or music? And then can you tell us a little bit more about resonance theory of consciousness?  


0:11:06.0 BF: Okay. So there is a lot going on when we listen to music or chant, participate in a mantra or anything like this in a yoga or meditation class. I mean, hearing in general, there's a lot going on. It's not one brain region. There's a lot of our brain that is at work. And in general, I also want to say I think when we first learn about neuroscience, we think of it in terms of brain regions, what brain region does this, what brain region does that, but that's not typically how the brain works. It really is a network of areas that are working together to produce everything we do, be it hearing or consciousness or the experience of music. And, for example, like just breaking it all down, when we hear a sound, those sound waves are coming into our ear and then they're hitting our eardrum, which is like a membrane that vibrates and this vibration impacts these tiny bones in our ear. 


0:12:11.7 BF: It sends waves of the fluid and eventually this tells our nerve that a sound has occurred, which then transmits that signal to the brain. And in particular, music is you also have like that emotional response, right? It's not just an input, but there's a processing and then feelings arise, right? That's why we have favorite songs or get sad if we hear a certain song. There can be an association. So, for example, if it's like a memory that comes up, that kind of music or sound would involve our hippocampus, our memory center. So some signals are being sent there and being integrated. And the other thing, when you feel those positive emotions, that rush, one thing that happens is the brain releases dopamine, which makes us feel good and so that then also helps create that positive association. 


0:13:09.3 BF: And I know you mentioned talking more about, I guess, mood and emotion. There was this really exciting study about the breath and mood and emotion and that was done actually in mice at Stanford University and it was... It's interesting because the study was actually an accident. So in this study, the researchers were examining neurons in the brain-stems of mice and the brainstem is essentially this little part of the brain that shoots down in the back. It comes down behind us. And they were interested in the specific area of the brainstem called the medulla that helps control our respiratory rhythms, that rate of breathing. So they destroyed this group of neurons that they thought were involved in this respiratory rhythm to see if it would change the breathing rate in mice, but what they found is that these mice actually could still breathe at the same rate. 


0:14:07.7 BF: The rhythm wasn't disrupted, but instead, these mice were unusually calm and relaxed and that was very bizarre. They were like, why? What is going on? And it turns out that this group of neurons that they had found is actually sending signals to another part of the brain that's involved in the stress response. So basically, they'd stumbled upon this link between breathing and stress. When we breathe in a certain way, our brain is sending signals like, oh, this is stressful or no, it's not. And that you can think about it in terms of maybe when you're anxious and you realize you're taking short, shallow breaths, that's actually communicating to our brain that there's something wrong. So there's this really interesting link. 


0:14:54.1 BF: And this group of researchers at Stanford, I believe, are continuing to follow up on this in humans and we should know more at some point. That being said, it's really hard to study this stuff in people because in mice, you can essentially kill a group of neurons and see what happens. In humans, not so ethical to do so. Maybe the exception is like if someone happened to have a stroke in this very particular area, then you could see how it affected the brain and that is how a lot of early neuroscience occurred, right? Okay, here's a person who had an accident. What does their brain look like now? But you can't obviously take 20 people and roll them in a study and kill their neurons. 


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0:17:00.9 AP: So you talked about, you mentioned hippocampus and memory, and even us as massage therapists or yoga instructors or whatever, like what can we be thinking about that really affect the biology and the neurology of our clients when we're working with them as it relates to senses?  


0:17:21.6 BF: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think one thing to keep in mind, and I want to make this very clear because there is a confusion I think in not only just in the contemplative practice world, but in the world in general, about when we are doing these practices, are we creating new neurons, right, this neurogenesis? And another myth I've heard a lot in yoga. Yeah, we're probably not creating new neurons with these practices. I think the research is a little bit divided. There's kind of two worlds of thought. One is neurogenesis, that creation of neurons does not occur in adults. It is something that happens very early age and kind of ceases to happen. There's the other side of things, which says, yes, you can create new neurons, but it's very, very minimal and it's really only in the hippocampus, that memory center. And there's kind of like two lead researchers who are like fighting this battle and we don't know the answer yet, but the one that is a little bit more on the positive end that we can has shown in his work that exercise can help create neurons in this area. 


0:18:36.0 BF: So it is a possibility, but it's not in the whole brain, and it's definitely just in this one area, and it's a maybe. That being said, how we practice and use our bodies can affect the wiring of our brain. So that's more of our brain plasticity of how our brain communicates with itself, so one area to another. And I think a really good example of that is, again, someone who's had a brain injury, so maybe a stroke or a TBI or something that's occurred where there's been cell death and this area isn't working, sometimes it was an extreme injury, then that person will lose the ability to do what they were doing using that part. But in other cases, when it's a less severe injury, the brain can rewire itself and it can find a new path to allow that person to move that arm again with a lot of physical therapy or whatever it may be. 


0:19:34.1 BF: So that's really the brain creating new connections versus creating new neurons. So those are kind of different things. But through yoga and meditation, it does seem like you can help more positive outcomes, so maybe that is learning how to deal with stress in a more positive way. Okay, I'm feeling this anxious way. Let me sit down and practice meditation or I am feeling tight because I have a lot going on at work. I know that it can get worse and lead to other issues, so let me go get body work done now to help prevent that. And it just kind of helps our full body learn to respond to things in different ways. 


0:20:18.5 DB: Brittany, when it comes to touch sensations in the brain, how does the brain deal with too many signals?  


0:20:24.6 BF: So when you are practicing yoga, you're obviously... There's a lot of touch going on. You might be holding on to a yoga block, you are touching the ground, your clothes or touching you. If you're doing AcroYoga, you could be touching someone else. So there's lots of signals that are coming in and that... But how does the brain not get overwhelmed, right? So there was a recent study from researchers, the Salk Institute here in San Diego, and they found out there's this region of the brain in the brainstem called the cuneate nucleus, which appears to be kind of filtering out the this signals so that signals about clothing touching your skin isn't what is the primary sense here, but it's okay, let me grasp the hand of the person as I lean back for this position or movement, or let me make sure I have the block in the right way so that I don't fall. [chuckle] So we're starting to learn a little bit more about the brain does filter that information to provide us with the information that we need to be successful in movement. 


0:21:29.9 AP: So Brittany, let's dive into meditation and the brain. There's more and more research here indicating that there's more research but much more to be done, but what are some of the wide range of benefits from practicing meditation?  


0:21:46.0 BF: Learning how to breathe can help you alter your reactions that you experience every day to the world, be it waiting in line at Starbucks for coffee and it takes forever. Instead of getting, sealing that anxiety, build and build, taking that deep breath using your diaphragm and recentering yourself, obvious benefit, but there's a lot of other benefits too. I think one that maybe isn't talked about as much because there's not a lot of research per se on it, but we're starting to learn more about it as a community aspect, there's a lot more meditation centers popping up and meditations communities that are building and being a part of these groups, sometimes it's almost like that experience of going to church. Like I have to go Wednesdays at 9:00 PM and we're all gonna meditate for an hour together, maybe you discuss a certain topic led by a guide, and it becomes this community endeavour and that obviously has a lot of benefits in terms of the feeling of belonging, feeling like you have a place. 


0:22:46.9 BF: And so there's that as well. And then there's also the benefits of in terms of if you have a certain condition or disease, meditation has proven to be very beneficial. And even down to things like addictions like smoking cigarettes, there's a scientist in Massachusetts, Judson Brewer, who has really shown that mindfulness meditation can help you stop smoking and it's really powerful research. His studies are very well designed, very well controlled, and he has shown that essentially bringing the smoker into the present moment and really experiencing what a cigarette feels like is enough to make them wanna stop smoking because a lot of the time people will take up the cigarette if they are feeling overwhelmed and they just wanna take that quick break, but when you really think about the inhalation of tobacco into your lungs and how that feels, is that making you feel better? People start to realize that reading that. And so there's a lot of exciting stuff going on and research coming out about how meditation can benefit in a ____ of ways. 


0:24:03.6 DB: Brittany, in the book you go through four categories of meditation and research. What are they in? What are some of the differences?  


0:24:10.6 BF: I didn't create these categories that are in the book, but these are categories that have been established in the research field as kind of a way to decipher what's going on in meditation research, but also the lay of the groundwork for future research as like these are the key areas to focus on because they are a little different, right? So those areas are the focused attention meditation, and that's really where you are trying to focus on the breath and coming in... Bringing your attention to the breath. 


0:24:41.1 BF: So an example of that would be like then meditation and then there's the mantra meditation where you're kind of repeating a sound or a phrase that can be then actually either out loud or in your head. It seems like they both kind of work the same way in terms of the brain and then the loving kindness or compassion meditation. So that's where we are cultivating kindness or compassion either to ourselves, to another, just an external entity, whatever it may be. And then the third is that open monitoring meditation. So that's where we're bringing in the attention to the present moment without any sort of focus. So it sounds a little bit similar to the attention meditation, but it's really the present moment. It's not the focus on the breath. So that's more of that mindfulness meditation of just sitting and being here. 


0:25:35.4 AP: Is there one that is more beneficial than the others? Is there any kind of research that's supporting one over another, or how does that look at the current moment?  


0:25:46.2 BF: Yeah, I don't think there have been any studies to really compare the four. Definitely it would be interesting to see. I think the majority of research has focused on this open monitoring meditation, that mindfulness meditation, because it is more established in the field. There's a framework for it. They're all beneficial. I would say they're beneficial in different ways. So something like the compassion meditation, that's going to have different effects than if we're just focusing on being in the present moment where we're trying to develop compassion for ourselves, and that requires a lot of focus, attention and possibly brain rewiring of how we feel about ourselves or another maybe someone we don't even like that much. So that's a very different practice than just being here in the moment, which is challenging in its own right because when you're really just sitting and being here, your senses are going to become heightened. 


0:26:52.5 BF: What do you smell? What do you hear? What does it feel like to sit in this place right now? So that's gonna bring in more of the senses instead of being more of an internal thing. And one thing that they've shown in particular with compassion and empathy, loving kindness meditation is that because we are focusing in on the compassion and empathy, it tends to involve this area of the brain called big anterior cingulate cortex. A lot of people just call it the ACC for short in the neuroscience world, but the anterior cingulate cortex basically use the front of the cingulate cortex and it wraps around our brain a little bit like a rainbow on the flip front part of it. And this area has been shown to be that introspective part of the brain. And so when we use this sort of meditation, loving kindness meditation, we're using this part of our brain and we're saying, okay, yes, we want to cultivate this. And as we start to use it more, if we practice loving kindness more and more, this part of the brain can start to become more rewired so that it becomes more available and accessible and so it will become with practice theoretically a little easier and easier, right?  


0:28:16.3 AP: And so the point here too, is making sure it's got that cumulative effect, right? So it's that constant daily practice. This isn't recreational and just think that, okay, I'm just gonna suddenly invoke feeling compassion or whatever it is that we're trying to manifest. It definitely has to have that cumulative effect, that neuroplasticity, I guess to your point earlier, laying down that new groove pathway or whatever. 


0:28:42.5 BF: But it does seem to be what they call the dose of facts in these practices. You have to have a certain amount of them, you have to be consistent enough to see benefit and what that value is, something people are still figuring out, it seemed like with yoga, it's probably two or three days a week. With meditation, not as clear, but certainly the more consistent having that daily practice does seem to provide the most benefit. And it doesn't have to be an hour or two. It can be 10 minutes, but it's just using that part of the brain every day. 


0:29:19.7 DB: And so Brittany, as we bring this podcast to close, Angie has kind of a fun question that she wanted to ask. She wanted to know are larger brains better? And can we make our brain grow larger?  


0:29:32.0 BF: Yeah, it's a great question. Neurosciences don't know. [laughter] And it seems so... Well, is bigger better or not? It seems like a simple question, but I'll break it down. So basically, when we think about the brain, I would say generally, yes, we think of larger brains as being better. Theoretically, a larger brain could mean more neurons, which could help age your ability to think, and this, that and the other, but the reality is is we actually don't even know that. A larger brain could mean that you have more support cells or glial cells, which is probably also very beneficial, but we don't know if it's neurons or not. It can also mean you have more blood vessels in your brain which also is probably a good thing, bringing more nutrients in, and people are trying to figure that out in mice. And then the other way to look at it kind of like the opposite is Einstein's brain was actually smaller than average. 


0:30:27.5 BF: So it's not like a larger brain means you have a higher IQ. That's certainly not necessarily the case. His brain however was more dense than the average brain. So the theory is that his brain had more connectivity than the average brain. So again, it's that neuroplasticity using all of these areas so much that these neurons create connections with one another, and he had a greater ability to... I don't wanna say think, but come up with theories in this way. So that's kind of the opposite side of it. But yeah, it's a really good question. I don't know. It's probably both. 




0:31:08.5 DB: All right. I wanna thank our guest today, Brittany Fair. For more formation about Brittany and her book, visit Thanks, Brittany, and thanks, Angie. 


0:31:19.0 BF: Thank you so much for having me. 


0:31:20.8 AP: Thank you, Brittany. 




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