The Science of Well-Being: Where Neuroscience, Ayurveda, and Yoga Meet
Recently I had the opportunity to live-stream an event called “The World We Make.” It was hosted by the Center for Healthy Minds, open to the public, and featured the top thinkers associated with the science of well-being (including the Dalai Lama). Participants explored how we can cultivate well-being in ourselves, in our communities, and across the world.
At an early point in the event, neuroscientist Richard Davidson remarked, “Well-being is a skill.” I am a yogini and ayurvedic health counselor, and to hear him speak of well-being as a learned skill sent me over the moon. I thought of friends, family, and students over the years who’d shared their feelings about not having enough money or enough time to cultivate well-being. I’d been there myself years ago, believing that because of past trauma, I was destined to struggle with depression for the rest of my life. Through the power of yoga and ayurveda, I’d come to understand that well-being is available to everyone—regardless of socioeconomic level or past circumstances.
Well-being is a skill.
In speaking of well-being as a skill that can be learned, Davidson invited listeners to consider that behaviors leading to a sense of well-being can be practiced and adopted by anyone who wants to learn them.
Given the speed of daily life, well-being can at times feel quite elusive. Remembering that it is a learned skill demystifies well-being, as we lean into the habits we can cultivate with practice. Over time, we learn that our state of mind is not dependent on external circumstances; we are empowered through our actions to move toward an experience of well-being.
Davidson then described four key constituents of well-being that are supported by neuroscience: resilience, positive outlook, attention, and generosity. As I listened, I felt my excitement mounting. The practices of yoga and ayurveda support these pillars!
The first of these components of well-being is resilience, which Dr. Davidson defined as the speed with which we recover from adversity. To me, resilience feels very grounded in the felt sense of well-being, because it isn’t about avoiding adversity (since for most of us that is impossible). Resilience is about bouncing back.
Richardson and his colleagues conducted a study that indicated “having purpose in life may motivate reframing stressful situations to deal with them more productively, thereby facilitating recovery from stress and trauma.”
Yoga and ayurveda intersect with these findings in a number of ways, but two immediately jumped out at me: the practices that help build our digestive fire (agni) and the four desires of the soul (purusharthas).
From an ayurvedic perspective, our digestive fire, agni, is the power through which we digest and assimilate everything we take in—using what is useful and releasing the rest. This digestion is happening not only on the level of food, but also on the level of sensory impressions and experiences. When we can digest what happens to us, we can bounce back with more ease, because we have taken what’s useful from the situation and let go of the rest. Having a strong digestive fire enables us to see all of life as a teacher, extracting knowledge from the lessons we learn, and turning that knowledge into wisdom through the assimilation process.
Ayurveda gives us many practices for keeping our digestive fire strong—proper eating habits, a diet based on the six tastes, daily routine (dinacharya), and living in alignment with nature’s rhythms. And yoga gives us countless practices for cultivating a bright inner fire—such as asanas, bandhas, mudras, agni sara, and meditation. When our agni is strong, we digest our food well; from the essence of that food we are able to build ojas, the vital sap of vigor that builds a strong immune system and vitality.
Ayurveda as a practice promotes a balanced life, which frees us to pursue what the Vedas (the texts that form the basis for ayurveda and yoga) describe as the soul’s four desires. These four desires, or “aims,” are: dharma (life’s purpose), artha (the means of fulfilling one’s dharma), kama (pleasure), and moksha (liberation). Rod Stryker’s book The Four Desires has many exercises designed to help readers explore their relationship to these four aims and to live into the full potential of each of them.
As Richardson's research found that having purpose in life contributes to resiliency, so too did the sages understand the need to know and fulfill our dharma, or life's purpose. The self-inquiry practices of yoga give us tools to develop the clarity needed to find purpose and meaning in life, and to ensure that our actions are in support of that purpose.
With a strong digestive fire that helps us digest the challenges of life, along with the vitality of ojas and the life purpose and meaning developed through yoga and self-inquiry, the building of resilience is deeply supported.
2. Positive Outlook
Neuroscience research confirms that the ability to savor positive experiences and cultivate a positive outlook in life is an important contributor to well-being. Richardson’s research found that people with more sustained levels of activity in the area of the brain linked to positive emotion and reward, reported higher levels of psychological well-being and displayed lower levels of stress hormones.
Neuroscience research confirms that the ability to savor positive experiences and cultivate a positive outlook in life is an important contributor to well-being.
Ayurveda helps us cultivate a positive outlook because its practices help us build clarity. According to Samkhya, the philosophy on which yoga and ayurveda are based, all matter is imbued with three gunas (or qualities): tamas (inertia), rajas (activity), and sattva (clarity). These qualities also characterize the mind.
When the mind is more sattvic, we naturally have a more positive outlook and are less swayed by our likes/dislikes and attachments (rajas), or by dullness or depression (tamas). The movement of the mind away from tamas and rajas, and toward sattva, is a key component of ayurveda. A mind imbued with a sense of harmony, clarity, and well-being will have an easier time making choices that keep the body and mind in balance.
According to Ayurveda and the Mind, by Dr. David Frawley, ayurvedic tools for building sattva include: right diet, physical purification, control of the senses, control of the mind, mantra, and devotion. By cultivating proper nutrition for our individual constitutions, ensuring that we get the right amount of physical activity, making good choices about what we feed our senses (and how often we relax them), practicing deep relaxation and meditation, and cultivating love, we naturally begin to savor the positive in our lives.
During the event, Richardson quoted a recent study that concluded that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Researchers found that “when people are really focused on what they’re doing, and their minds are not wandering, they actually feel better about themselves.”
Both ayurveda and yoga promote the practice of meditation, which improves our ability to be present.
In the practice of mantra meditation, we train the mind to come back to the mantra, rather than getting caught up in the shifting thoughts. When we strengthen our ability to collect and direct our attention, over time and with consistent practice we start to gain the same ability off the meditation cushion.
In addition to meditation, the practice of ayurveda invites us to use our senses skillfully. Overuse, underuse, and misuse of the senses can lead to dis-ease. Proper use of sensory impressions is part of keeping the doshas of vata, pitta, and kapha balanced. Additionally, meditation is part of the daily routine of ayurveda, and when our senses are constantly overstimulated, we generally find it harder to sit in meditation. The daily routine is meant to help us start the day on the right foot, with practices that cleanse the body (like tongue scraping, neti and nasya, proper elimination, and asana), collect vital energy, or prana (pranayama, or breathing practices), and bring clarity to the mind (meditation).
By being generous to others, both you and the person you’re helping receive benefit.
Research shows that caring for others activates centers in the brain that are associated with well-being. From a neuroscience perspective, acts of service and generosity toward others are the fourth constituent of well-being. Davidson has called generosity a “positive double whammy”—because by being generous to others, both you and the person you’re helping receive benefit.
One of the four forms of yoga is karma yoga, which is selfless service. (The others are bhakti, the yoga of devotion; raja, the “royal path”; and jnana, the yoga of knowledge.) In karma yoga, all actions are offered up to the Divine without regard for obtaining the fruits of those actions. In many yoga traditions, seva, or service, is work that contributes to the community, and it is considered an essential part of practice.
The Ashtanga Hrdayam, one of the main texts of ayurveda, links generosity to health: “That person who always eats wholesome food, enjoys a regular lifestyle, remains unattached to the objects of the senses, gives and forgives, loves truth, and serves others is without disease.”
The sages who shared the teachings of yoga and ayurveda had direct experience of techniques that lead to self-realization and self-healing. As a teacher and student of both of these traditions, it is a joy to see these time-tested practices reinforced by neuroscience.
The learned behaviors that result in a sense of well-being are available to us all. We each have the same innate fire, which, when tended, allows us to enjoy life more fully. Each of us reflects the light of pure consciousness. Even if we were born into circumstances that would have us believe otherwise, and even if we experienced significant traumas, we each can use the techniques of yoga and ayurveda each day to touch that part of us that remains untouched by suffering—the light of our soul, our inner divinity, and our innate luminosity.