TEDx Talk: Cognitive Impact of Yoga In this TEDx talk, Shri. Adinarayanan narrates the cognitive capabilities of Bhishma and how Yoga when practiced by us can enhance not just our physical and emotional capabilities but can immensely benefit our cognition.

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Ellarkum Vanakkam!

One thing after another

All of us want to be successful, and want to become great persons. The new age definition of greatness is in terms of being capable of handling cognitive load, with a heart. It so happens that, during our 10th standard, we are told,”Do your 10th standard well.” And that life will be good. Right? You work hard…that seems to be a little challenging cognitively, you do well or otherwise, and then we go on to the level in 12th standard and we are told,”Do your 12th standard well. That’s it. Get into a good college. Life is set.” Now 11th standard also becomes important. You do your 12th standard and you come to college. What happens? Now…”Do your college well. Get into a good job. Then who’s going to bother you? You are financially free.” Nobody is going to bother you, or so everyone says. You know what happens. This goes on. This at each stage of life, there is something called cognitive load. We face challenges. We want to be successful in what we take up, but that means you also need to learn how to face those challenges, handle the cognitive load. Especially at the end of your college life, it so happens you will multiple career paths, wide open before you. You could choose let’s say a regular job. You could choose Master’s in engineering, take up GRE and so on, you could choose management education, you could choose civil services… there are so many options. If you explore even one such option you would see that, preparation for that seems very challenging. On top of your regular work. You prepare for CAT or GRE, or GATE, or civil services. Let’s say you choose to prepare for civil services. What happens? You put in a lot of effort. It is like a gruelling schedule. And there is no guarantee as to your result. You don’t know if you will succeed. But you definitely want to succeed. Because you also aspire to be a great person, through that. And hence you put in lot of effort towards that, with no guarantee of success. Let’s say you succeed. What happens? You get into the civil services, training, which is much more gruelling, than your studies, your preparation for civil services is not so gruelling than that. And they post you. Is that the end of the story? No definitely not, only then it has begun. You get posted as a collector or a foreign service official or a revenue official, anything, even a police official. So these are the leaders of society that we see. We also look at leaders, business leaders, top leaders that we hear of – Tata, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs – all of those leaders have become very famous because they have been able to process the cognitive load, without complaining, and with a heart.

Uncertainty and Complexity

Today we will be looking at the principles of how to systematically approach this. So that our aspiration of success, as well as, towards greatness is not an empty aspiration. There are principles that govern the path. It is not a random thing, that someone is born a genius, or someone is born lucky, it is not that. And there, we use the path of yoga. Yoga as a systematic science through which we can build in us the capability and strength to handle cognitive load. Cognitive challenges.The future actually belongs to leaders who develop these exceptional cognitive capabilities, and we have been looking through the day, and also in our lives, we have been looking at 2 important aspects – one is uncertainty and another is complexity. Even in our lives, the decisions that we need to take, there is so much uncertainty, and hence uncertainty and complexity have become a part and parcel of day to day living. Now, how we approach that actually determines whether we are a leader, whether we are successful at what we do, and success is not static. Once you are successful, forever you need to apply principles that you have got to be successful. Otherwise, it is not a one-time affair, a one-time thing. This is not new. This is in fact, a very ancient principle. We have been talking of big history And that human beings have an advantage over other species, in terms of collective learning. And how this learning is passed on from generation to generation.

Bheeshma’s Capability

We, in India, have a rich tradition of the oral history being transmitted down the generations. For example, in every family, earlier, there used to be this concept of kula purana. Kula purana, means the family history would be taught to the new child coming into the family. Now we have lost that. Now that’s where our ancient history becomes very very important, for us to be able to take forward this collective learning.

So there, I will just give a tidbit, of one episode in the Mahabharata. Bheeshma is the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. There are 11 akshauhinis that are on the side of the Kauravas, and 7 akshauhinis on the side of the Pandavas, and it is huge calamitous war. It is such a tragic war, a world war, that the current world has not seen. The current world wars that we have seen amount to millions of people dying. But this is much bigger than that and hence it is in our collective learning, collective memory, we remember, that such a thing should not happen. And hence, what are the principles by which we can have peace? That is the whole idea of these processes, these histories. So there is Bheeshma, who is the commander-in-chief of the 11 akshauhinis. And it is a complex war formation. There is cavalry, there is infantry, there is elephantry and there are charioteers. Chariots. He has promised Duryodhana, who is the king, the son of Dhritarashtra, he has promised that everyday, he would eliminate 10,000 ratis. That is 10,000 chariot-warriors. And these chariots are not what you have seen in serials and movies. These are awesome machines of destruction. Hugely well-equipped. Now, Bheeshma’s role as commander-in-chief, is quite complex. If you look at the cognitive load, he has to first protect his own life, he has to protect the life of his charioteer, his horses, he has to protect the flanks plus it is not a flat ground, where it is just static. These are powerful machines which are moving, and constantly in dynamic motion, it is undulating surface, it is not flat ground, you are moving, you need to focus, hit and 10,000 warriors in 10 hours and that comes to 1000 in a hour, and that comes to every 3 or 4 seconds, roughly being eliminated, all the time protecting yourselves and all of them around you. So you can imagine the kind of physical capability, the kind of emotional balance and the kind of cognitive load that Bheeshma would be crunching all through the war – immense noise all around, and complex decisions to take and on top of that he is also the commander-in-chief. That means the entire army looks up to Bheeshma for command, for decisions, very important decisions that need to be taken on the fly and executed properly.

Cognitive Load

This, what we are talking of, is exactly cognitive load, being able to handle it. And there umpteen instances, umpteen heroes, who have displayed such cognitive capability. So we are not talking of just current CEOs, business leaders or industry leaders, or even you and I. Not just that, but these principles are embedded in our history, as to how we can learn to manage cognitive load. Towards that, we look at three aspects:

Physical Body

One is body. In yoga, this is looked at as an instrument. The outer instrument. The capability to handle this instrument is considered very important. Otherwise you cannot do what you want to do. For example, today I am leaving for the Himalayas. I am taking a group of 20 people, on a trek of about 60 kms in 4 days time at 30,000 ft above sea level. So you can imagine, it is cold, it is a trek, how many of you have trekked up this hill? Okay a few hands. How many of you have from here to the city, which is just about 15 kms? You would think of it as a challenge. So you can imagine the heights, Himalayan heights, 60 kms in 4 days, and the oxygen might also be a little lesser than the plains. So it is a challenge. So the challenge, it helps us assess our own capabilities, our own strengths. And with every challenge that we face, our learning grows and we become more and more capable. That becomes very critical, for success and greatness. So the physical aspect that we push, you will see, initially it behaves a certain way, then the body also learns. It has a very good intelligence that is built in, and with every challenge that you take up, it learns. For example, a very simple challenge, right now, that I can show you is this is called padmasana. How many of us would be capable of performing this? Okay, a few hands go up. How many of you will be capable of performing this in a month’s time? How many of you think you will be capable of performing it, if not now, in a month’s time, how many of you would be able to perform? Actually all of us. How many of us would be able to trek up the Himalayas? Actually all of us, given sufficient systematic preparation. So it is not that, right now, and you need to do it or not, that is not. It is about how we approach it systematically. Towards that, in yoga we look at the outer instrument. Making this super capable. What is capability? Being able to handle any stress that comes to this physicality. Without this losing its balance. That is capability. Physical capability.


The second step that we look at, is the emotions. How we handle our emotions, under normal circumstances, is on one side. How we handle our emotions under stressful circumstances, becomes the touchstone of true greatness. All great leaders have demonstrated this capability of being balanced emotionally no matter what stressful circumstances they face. Because that becomes a very important capability, at the same time, retaining your heart, because you are not alone, you have people and other life all around us, that compassion, maintaining that becomes very very important. Otherwise, you are not human. That requires us to learn the principles of how to maintain this emotional balance, no matter in what conditions we are in. All of us as we aspire for success and greatness, we go through stressful circumstances, which make us lose our balance of mind, balance of emotions. That is the second aspect that we look at in yoga.


And the most important aspect that we look at, as part of the yogic practice is cognition. Not just the physical, not just the emotions, but also the cognitive aspect. See that, we look at 4 components of cognition. These are called the inner instruments. The manas, chitta, buddhi, ahamkara. So in terms of the ahamkara, it is considered an instrument. How many of us have this false belief that ego is bad? Ego is not a problem….we look at it as “Ahamkara” means “I am the doer” Aham + kara = I am the doer. It is a doership principle. Now what manas does is, you receive input through the outer instrument, through the senses, manas does the first level of processing, of this data. We see, we hear, we process it, the manas does the first level of processing. For example, simple thing, I am trained as a computer engineer. We do something called image segmentation, you know, in image processing and computer processing. Image segmentation is seeing this image (points to his body) as separate from this (not his body; points to table). What are the boundaries? Even such simple aspects are processed by the manas. We have learnt over a long period of evolution and we are constantly learning and feeding it back, for the species evolution, for the collective evolution. Chitta is the storage space, this is like memory. And memory is not just to do with the brain. It is there even in your body. Your body remembers. You are hit, it will retain that memory for some period of time. When you try, you just tap (on the table), you will feel that sensation for some period of time.

Preferential Memory

And we also store something called preferential memory. “I like this” “I don’t like this” “I hate this” “I love this” – all of this is stored in chittha. Buddhi, is the component that makes decisions. It helps us in decision making. Looking at all of this content, and deciding what is right, what is not. There our focus becomes very useful. We decide, given all our background, what do we choose? Should I go for higher studies, or should I go to a job? This can become a very very frustrating experience, if you do not understand the right principles. And to all of these processes, we give a stamp saying, “I did it” That is the doership principle. And hence, training all of these systematically, is the process of yoga. Which through such training, we are completely connected with everything around us. Otherwise we build boundary walls, not because we want to. We all want peace, we all want to be loving and caring, but we build boundary walls, simple because of incapability. Incapability to handle uncertainty and complexity. When things become uncertain, we all become nervous, tensed and we start shouting. It is a very normal phenomenon. That is where, systematic training, that the yogic sciences offer, become very helpful. So I thank you all for the opportunity.


Anaadi Foundation is a socio-spiritual organization dedicated to self-unfoldment of individuals