In the early 1970s when I was first introduced to Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings, I would read things he said about spiritual development, and how it is possible to become a fundamentally different person through the practice of meditation. A statement of his on the power of Kriya Yoga especially impressed me. He once said to someone, “I bet I can take a group of boys with the worst character and the most restless temperament, and I’ll teach them to meditate. And if they will meditate two hours a day for four years the way I tell them, I’ll make saints of them.”

From saint to sinner

Yogananda wasn’t simply going to make these boys nice citizens. He was going to make them saintly people. I thought, “How is it possible to transform someone so profoundly in such a brief period of time?” I was very inspired by this but also a little perplexed. As a medical student at the time, I could see that Yogananda’s teachings were radically different from the scientific theories then widely accepted, which essentially said that the adult brain changed very little in the course of a lifetime.

I also heard a very similar thing from Swami Kriyananda, who said, “If you do a regular practice of Kriya Yoga meditation, in ten years you won’t recognize yourself.” I thought to myself, “What does he mean? Will I look different physically?”

What I came to understand through my own practice of Kriya Yoga is that certain tendencies unhelpful to one’s spiritual development, like anger or procrastination, tend to fall away and the divine spirit you are begins to emerge. Like a sculptor working on a marble statue, meditation chips away at all the things not related to our true nature.

Science catches up with yoga

In the last twenty-five years, scientific thought has come full circle in its understanding of the brain and its potential for change. We now understand that the brain and the central nervous system are among the most changeable organs in the body. This “plasticity” of the brain is part of what allows us to make fundamental changes in our behavior.

The pre-frontal lobes are a hot topic right now in the neurosciences. They are the part of the brain in the forehead that is right above the eyebrows. This is where we focus our concentration in many of our meditation techniques.

Suddenly researchers are beginning to recognize that the prefrontal lobes’ function is incredibly important to our psychological health and well-being. Neuroscientists have begun to look more closely at the pre-frontal lobes because we now have brain-imaging tools such as “functional MRI”, which we didn’t have twenty-five years ago. It’s now possible to observe brain function, literally, on a moment-to-moment basis.

What makes us human?

The pre-frontal lobes are the most highly evolved portion of the brain. They are tremendously important to our function and behavior on a day-to-day basis. They are intimately involved with our level of happiness and well being, including our ability to concentrate, our will power, our sense of humor, our creative abilities, our ability to learn new things, and our ability to feel empathy — all qualities that help define us as human.

We are beginning to see that meditation works directly on this portion of the brain and improves all these positive functions associated with it. In fact, it makes sense to me, that saintly beings are those individuals who have risen above old, outworn habits of behavior through a process of inner realization, including prayer and meditation, in which they transformed their pre-frontal lobe function.

Yogis have been talking about the importance of the pre-frontal lobes for thousands of years. Yogananda said that if you want to grow as much as possible spiritually, one of the easiest ways to do this is to keep your concentration focused at the “point between the eyebrows” in the pre-frontal lobes of the brain. He said the more you can do that, the more quickly you can transform this area of the brain and with it, your behavior.

Meditation vs. medication

A speaker at a neurosciences conference I attended recently gave two examples of ways to improve pre-frontal lobe function. One is anti-depressant medication such as Prozac. When we give people Prozac their pre-frontal lobe function will get better while they are taking it. Unfortunately, as soon as you take away the Prozac, they tend to drift back toward their old pre-treatment function.

The other way is using meditation techniques. The speaker went on to say that meditation is different from drugs like Prozac because changes brought about by meditation tend to persist. When he said this I almost wanted to stand up and cheer!

Yogananda talked of many things during his life (1920-1952) which heralded the new field called “neurotheology,” that has only developed over the last 10-12 years. Neurotheology looks at how a person’s brain function is changed by religious and spiritual practices. With the brain imaging tools we now have, researchers can observe what happens in the brain when someone sits down to pray. They are also able to see which areas of the brain become activated when someone does a rhythmic chant or chants AUM.  In time, we will also learn more about the long-term effects of spiritual practices on the brain.

Neurotheology: an end to dogmatism?

What neurotheology is beginning to show is that the changes in a person’s brain are similar from one religion to another, whether of whether a person meditates, prays, or chants. In other words, the changes that occur in the brain are similar despite differences in religious practices. Given this knowledge, it’s only a matter of time before the idea that “my way is the only way” will seem faintly ridiculous.

Yogananda said it very clearly: it simply doesn’t matter which religion you belong to; the brain and nervous system is the pathway every person has to travel to achieve Self-realization. In The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Explained, Yogananda says it even more directly, “The road to God is through your own nervous system.”

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