Tyrannosaurus Sex, Harmonica Yoga, and Other Odd Couplings

For many of us, unuseful fight-or-flight or desire responses distract us or disrupt our attention -- or even affect our behavior -- numerous times throughout the day, during business meetings, lunch, while we're trying to fall asleep, or talk to a friend.
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I hate to disillusion you, but the mechanics of dinosaur sex are rather less spectacular than we might want to imagine, since even the mighty T. Rex (like most reptiles, modern and ancient) almost certainly had little in the way of external sex organs. What is spectacular to me is the fact that the same brain structures and functions that controlled sexual behavior (and fear, and aggression) in our giant, scaly ancestors drive many of our own feelings and actions today. My main interest, as a student and teacher of applied cognitive science, lies in three such functions: the fight response, the flight response (these are often lumped together as "the fight-or-flight response"), and the desire response.

The hard-wired fight or flight response in our ancestors' brains is what caused the wimpy little dinosaur to run away (the flight part) from the big hungry one, and the two big macho dinos to roar and chomp at each other (the fight part). A similar built-in brain function -- the desire response -- made the male Tyrannosaur to look lustily upon his female counterpart, and vice versa.

Let's consider a different type of organ for a moment. As I've discussed in books like Neural Path Therapy: How to Change Your Brain's Response to Anger, Fear, Pain, and Desire, and The Three Minute Meditator, it's easy to be distracted by all the bells and whistles of the human brain -- the analytic ability, the creative genius, the massive memory -- and forget that our brains are like fancy, renovated houses built right onto the foundations of older (and more primitive) structures. And those primitive foundations may not always work perfectly to support our new McMansions!

So, many component parts of the current three pounds of mostly grey jelly that lurks at the top of our spinal columns are either ancient, or slightly revamped. Yes, the thinking part, the neocortex, is clearly new -- expanded and improved over early mammalian versions -- and that would be good news for a creature who prides itself on intelligence, except for one thing.

That one thing? For many of us, our high-minded mental (neocortex generated) abilities are all too often hijacked by those old reptilian fight-or-flight or desire responses, which are more likely than not to negatively impact our decision-making and our behavior. Just look at any funky university bar right before last call on a Saturday night, and you're apt to see what I mean: lots of high-powered neocortexes (loosened up by alcohol) in the act of being pre-empted by dinosaur brain behavioral patterns!

It's not just late-night bar behavior which the dinosaur brain can affect. Fight, flight and desire responses are triggered not just by actual physical situations, but by thoughts. Our newfangled neocortex can project for us a mental image -- a mere thought of a scary thing, a mere thought of something that makes us mad, or something which we crave -- and produce a flight, fight or desire response, just as though the actual situation or object were in front of us. Think of your least favorite politician or pundit right now (yes, please do it, I know it's unpleasant), and I'll bet your teeth clench ('cause your dinosaur brain parts make you want to bite him or her)!

So for many of us, unuseful fight-or-flight or desire responses distract us or disrupt our attention -- or even affect our behavior -- numerous times throughout the day, during business meetings, lunch, while we're trying to fall asleep, or talk to a friend. And this brings us to HarmonicaYoga™, our second odd couple.

Since the time of the Buddha (if not before then), it's been known that intense and mindful focus on one's breathing process can short-circuit fight-or-flight or desire responses. That's why so many of the world's yoga disciplines focus on pranayama (the control of the breath), although in the body-centered U.S., yoga is often thought to be more about the slender, flexible, sexy body than the mind.

Modern cognitive science, using functional MRIs of the brain during this process, helps to show us why breath focus can curtail unskillful thoughts and actions. Yet the "why it works" (by creating new "neural paths" that stimulate the parasympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system) is not so important as the "how to do it." Which is simple, if not always easy, and requiring practice: Just learn to focus your attention solidly onto your breathing, whenever you need to. Easy to say, not too difficult to do for a moment in a relaxed setting, but often incredibly hard to do -- or even to remember to do -- in a stressful moment.

Question: What's the most entertaining, rewarding, satisfying, way to get a group of people to focus their attention onto the breath simultaneously?

Answer: Teach them to play the harmonica, mindfully.

In addition to my study and writing and training on that mysterious and often mutinous entity known as the human mind, I've taught more than a million people to play blues, rock, folk, and country harmonica. And created a method for doing this that gets great results within a few minutes. But offering people a healthy, creative, satisfying hobby is small potatoes, and I use the harmonica as a tool to fry bigger fish, mental fish, spiritual fish.

How's that? Because playing the harmonica with my original method is based on using very specific breathing patterns (each of which will generate a specific style of music, from Chicago Blues riffs to Beethoven's Ninth). Learning, then memorizing these breathing patterns -- that is, building paths of neurons in the brain that can automatically produce that breathing pattern -- gives us an automatic way to turn our attention to the breath, and thus short-circuit an unskillful fight-or-flight or desire response.

"Tyrannosaurus Sex" is an odd but useful concept because it reminds us that old parts of our brain control much of our behavior now -- if we let them do so. It's also a useful way to grab people's attention by subconsciously stimulating the desire response -- every beer advertiser knows that! And HarmonicaYoga™, funny though it might sound, is no joke, because there's no better way to get a group to focus on and intentionally synchronize their breathing, and when we can control our breathing, we can control our lives.

From July 15 to July 20 I'll be leading a HarmonicaYoga™ workshop at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass.

To learn more about the workshop, other upcoming events, or about my work, please visit http://www.harmonicayoga.com.

For more by David Harp, click here.

For more on the mind, click here.

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