A neural pathway to peace – The Saltspring Centre

by Bruce Burnett

Your cell phone won’t stop ringing and those emails, each demanding an immediate response, keep piling up. You become an adrenaline and cortisol factory and that malevolent duo of stress hormones is further fuelled by that double-double you gulped in the car. “The brain is a wonderful organ,” wrote American poet Robert Frost. “It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”

We live in hectic times. According to studies at the US National Institutes of Health, approximately 90 percent of all illnesses are caused or aggravated by stress. And stress annihilates brain cells. Little wonder we are increasingly turning to Eastern contemplative traditions to assuage the slings and arrows of anxiety. By a wide margin, yoga tops the list of Eastern meditative practices in North America. According to NAMASTA, the North American Studio Alliance, 1.4 million Canadians now practice yoga, an increase of 45.4 percent from 2003. Furthermore, the Print Measurement Bureau, a Canadian non-profit agency measuring consumer behaviour, reports that about 2.1 million Canadians say they intend to try yoga within the next 12 months.

Yoga, however, is not new to Canadians, especially on the West Coast. In 1981 the Dharma Sara Satsang Society opened the Salt Spring Centre of Yoga on Salt Spring Island, itself a haven of rural peace and quiet. The Centre, housed in a renovated, 100-year-old farmhouse on 28 hectares of beautiful meadows, forest and organic gardens, offers a peaceful, positive environment for the instruction and practice of classical Ashtanga Yoga as taught by yogi Baba Hari Dass.

The name Dharma Sara means “the essence of right living; through the paths of selfless service, devotion and self-study.” A guiding principle of the Salt Spring Centre is karma yoga, or the performance of duty with an attitude of selfless service and enthusiasm. To this end, the Centre is staffed mostly by volunteers. Among its many goods works, this registered, non-profit charitable organization provides both financial and volunteer support to the Sri Ram orphanage in India.

There is no doubt about the healing power and therapeutic value of yoga and meditation, both of which have been practised for thousands of years. Modern psychiatry is animated with the new buzzword, neuroplasticity, substantiating that mental activity sculpts neural structure, meaning that changes in your mind can trigger enduring changes in your brain. As a survival mechanism the brain is predisposed to negativity. Just one unsuccessful encounter with a predator would mean the end for a prehistoric human. Palaeolithic man or woman had to be constantly alert and prepared for the worst. Unfortunately, as humans, we are still genetically programmed with this flight or fight mechanism and it is killing us. When stuck in a traffic jam or confronted with a hostile and intransigent boss or customer, we can neither fight nor flee. The result: unbridled stress, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, insomnia, irritability and eventually cancer, heart disease and other diseases of modern society. It takes mindful effort to undo a million years of inherent programming. Studies show that one of the most effective methods is meditation, which yoga incorporates. An article published in the 2009 edition of the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy about the long-term benefits of meditation, states, “Meditation is believed to cultivate the tendency to observe and label present moment experiences nonjudgmentally and nonreactively and to lead to improved psychological functioning.”

According to neuropsychologist and meditation teacher, Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, “Meditators have a thicker anterior cingulated cortex and insula (a part of the brain that tracks the internal state of the body); a thicker cortex indicates more synapses, capillaries (bringing blood) and support cells.”

Yogacharya (yoga teacher) B.K.S. Iyengar tells us, “Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” The Salt Spring Centre of Yoga offers a venue to do just that.

Based in Ladysmith, BC, Bruce Burnett is a chartered herbalist, an award-winning writer and author of Herb Wise: Growing Cooking Wellbeing. For more information about the Salt Spring Centre, visitwww.saltspringcentre.com

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