Yoga and the Default Mode Network

image of the brain as gears

The practice of yoga can give us insight into our reliance on our brain’s Default Mode Network, and what that means for our well-being. What is the Default Mode Network (DMN)? Scientists like Judson Brewer and colleagues see the DMN as a pattern of certain areas of the brain being active when we are awake but not focused on specific cognitive or sensory tasks. We experience the DMN as, variously, thinking, ruminating, daydreaming, mental wandering, reviewing the past, predicting the future, or spacing out. When we are in the DMN, we not in the state of present-moment awareness. Our focus is on the self, and especially self-reference. What does this mean (to me)? I think this is nonsense. They think I am wrong. And so on. Scientist are confirming what the ancients have known for thousands of years: when we rely on the DMN – when it is our default whenever we are not otherwise occupied – we begin to live life in a state of constant tracking and monitoring of our experience, rather than living our experience directly. We contribute to our own states of anxiety and depression by amplifying uncertainty or misfortune through rumination and reviewing. 

In the Yoga Sutras, the Vrittis are discussed. Vritti is often translated as “fluctuations of the mind.” Yes, the DMN could be thought of habitually focusing on Vritti.

In yoga practice, as we join our attention to breath, movement, and interoceptive awareness, the Vritti are said to settle. We are  “stilling the mind,” but it is more accurate to say that the mind settles naturally. Traditional sitting meditation also affects the DMN. In meditation, we simply rest the attention on the breath and posture, and a shift to present-moment awareness and away from the DMN emerges. The benefits of present-moment awareness include greater well-being, empathy, connectedness, and optimism. 

As a person who has practiced yoga and meditation for 40+ years, I can make no claims to living free of habitual mental patterns. However, regular practice does reveal the essential laziness of reliance of those patterns and an understanding that the practice is what lifts the veil, if only temporarily. My current meditation practice, second to yoga, is Yoga Nidra. Regular practice of Yoga Nidra, for me, has improved my ability to rest and to sleep, to relax, and also to highlight the gradual letting go of the DMN as once moves into resting states of awareness. There is no better time – with all the books, online practices, and disruptions of “normal” that we are experiencing to immerse in these practices to lift our sense of wellbeing and connection to ourselves and by extension to others. You can find some audio Yoga Nidra practices here, and our online yoga class schedule here.