In honor of the International Day of Peace on September 21st, I thought I would share a little about the science behind feeling peaceful. The international yoga teacher training program, Kidding Around Yoga, has a mantra they teach every teacher and child who experiences their program: Peace Begins with Me. They even have a song about it! We do this practice by touching the thumb to each finger as we say the words, like this:
Thumb to forefinger = Peace
Thumb to middle finger = Begins
Thumb to ring finger = With
Thumb to little finger = Me
Kidding Around Yoga teachers around the world hear from children and parents daily how this meditation has helped them at a time when they needed to calm down. In my classes I offer a chance for students to make up their own four word phrase to use, write it down, and take it home to use for the week. Sometimes it is “I will be brave,” “I will love myself,” “I am so awesome,” and the list goes on. Whatever they use, I encourage them to make it a positive affirmation upon which to focus. Three years ago I had the opportunity to teach some Karma Yoga in Malibu, CA with the creator of Kidding Around Yoga, Haris Lender. She was teaching this meditation to the kids and the ones who remembered from her previous trip said things like, “This really works! I wish I knew why.” Haris just smiled and told them she knew why, but all they needed to do was remember to do it only on the days they brush their teeth (this always gets a laugh).
Let’s look at what happens when we touch the fingertips to the thumb; keep in mind I am not a scientist, psychologist, or neurologist. Just a “yoga dork” who likes to find out why this yoga works. Our fingertips contain acupressure points which get stimulated when we practice this technique. These particular acupressure points are connected to the head, brain, and sinuses, while the ones in the thumb are connected to the pituitary gland, pineal gland, and the hypothalamus. These parts of the brain are crucial to maintaining the body’s internal balance, or homeostasis. Keeping it simple, when these points are stimulated it causes bio-chemical changes in the brain. Research has shown the effect of these changes is the activation of areas associated with attention, emotions, and thought processes (prefrontal cortex). In addition to the stimulation that occurs from using the finger technique, the focusing of one’s attention on an ideal or phrase also stimulates activity in the frontal lobe.
Meditation is becoming more widely recognized for its benefits on many levels. Many small-scale studies have been conducted on meditation and its effect on cerebral blood flow, which increased after a period of daily meditation practice. What’s that mean? Increased blood flow improves the functions within the entire brain! During meditation the activity in the parietal lobe (responsible for sensory processing) decreases, which slows down all the signals involved in the arousal response. This is a positive thing because too much stimulation is what can lead to problems with attention, memory, anxiety, and even plaque buildup associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Andrew Newberg illustrates this in a 2009 book titled How God Changes Your Brain. He says that when there is a decrease in brain activities mentioned above, a sense of timelessness or spaciousness is felt. This is what allows the meditator to experience a sense of connection to the object of focus, be it God, the universe, peacefulness, or any other concept.
So peace does begin with our fingertips! (Might be a slight exaggeration here.) How cool is that? This small technique can calm the body, mind, and emotions in just a few minutes a day. If students practice over a long period of time, they may see improvement in decision making, social behavior, milder reactions to sensory stimuli, and of course concentration and memory. Is this practice only good for children? No way! It’s simple enough for children, but it can be a family practice. We hope you’ll give it a try, and let us know what you think!