Yoga is to still the fluctuations of the mind.
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, chapter 1, sutra 2
My hope is that the following discussion about brain waves can help us on that quest by giving us two things: (1) a better understanding of what is going on as we progress through various meditative states and (2) words with which to label our experiences. Because, as it turns out, the practices of Yoga such as pranayama, asana, and meditation have a profound effect on the frequency of brain activity, in every sense of the term.
Brain Waves 101
While different wave patterns are distinct, the brain very rarely has only one type of wave going on at a time. Various parts of the brain can function at different frequencies simultaneously. Therefore, it’s more accurate to refer to certain wave types being dominant.
Also, there isn’t one type of brain wave that’s better than another; the goal for healthy functioning is to find the best, most functional balance for ourselves, individually.
First we’ll look at each of the wave types and when they occur, then we’ll find out how Yoga can help us better balance our brain waves.
Delta – Delta waves are the deepest, slowest waves. They occur during deep sleep and are more common in infants and children than in adults. Delta waves are associated with deep healing and regeneration. They can also occur during all-consuming states of meditation when awareness is completely detached.
Theta – Theta waves are slightly faster than delta waves and also found in sleep and deep meditation when our senses are withdrawn. Theta waves are associated with dreaming, deep relaxation, visualization, hypnosis, light sleep, and the hypnogogic state between sleep and wakefulness. Theta waves are important to learning and memory consolidation. In this state we can experience unconscious memories and very strong emotions.
Alpha – Now we are awake. Alpha waves coincide with quietly flowing thoughts. When alpha waves are dominant we are calm and alert, in the now. This frequency facilitates mental coordination and mind-body integration. Alpha waves are characterized by a relaxed presence, stable mood, and access to our creative and intuitive ideas. People who learn and think well spend a lot of time in alpha.
Beta – The fast waves of beta are associated with conscious thought. This is the realm of focused attention, problem solving, and social interaction. The beta range has been divided into two categories: low and high. In the higher bands of beta waves, highly complex thought occurs, new experiences are processed, and we experience excitement and anxiety.
Gamma – The fastest waves are gamma waves. At this super high frequency, several areas of the brain are working simultaneously and there is rapid information processing. This is the “Aha!” state, where we experience bursts of insight. Gamma waves also dominate in states of expanded consciousness such as universal love and spiritual emergence.
When beta waves become our only normal state, we can even stop producing alpha waves altogether. When this happens, as it does for people living with generalized anxiety, we go straight from spending all day dominated by high frequency beta waves to shallow sleep dominated by theta waves and right back to beta upon waking up. No alpha and no delta.
The benefits of Yoga and meditation for our brain wave balance
In Meditation and the Brain, Benjamin Kramer tells us that in one study “after only an eight week mindfulness meditation program, regulation of alpha rhythms helped the brain ‘turn down the volume’ of distractions in the surrounding environment. Researchers noted that mindfulness meditators had more ability to adjust brain waves and exceptional ability to rapidly remember and process new facts.” (Emphasis added.)
He goes on to relate that mantra meditation has been found to produce predominantly alpha waves, while open monitoring systems of meditation, such as mindfulness and zazen, produce theta waves. The practice of yoga nidra, a deeply relaxing form of meditation, produces both alpha and theta waves.
On the other end of the spectrum, as Rick Hanson points out in Buddha’s Brain, “when experienced Tibetan practitioners go deep into meditation, they produce uncommonly powerful and pervasive gamma brainwaves of electrical activity, in which unusually large regions of neural real estate pulse in synchrony 30-80 times a second. . . , integrating and unifying large territories of the mind.”
While there are some theories, nobody knows exactly how or why this leap happens from the slow, low rhythms of meditation to the super fast frequency of transcendence.
What we do know is that the chatter of our everyday consciousness is the voice of beta waves. And through the practices of Yoga we begin to quiet the mind. We slow down to listen to the voice of alpha waves, the voice of intuition. We can even sink beyond that into the silence of theta.
And then, as with any spiritual transformation, a miracle happens. Or at least something we can’t explain yet. The concepts of grace and humility become relevant here, as we realize our limited control over the process.
All we can do is practice, prepare, and be open to gamma waves and the higher states of consciousness that come with them.