While teaching a workshop recently, I tried something I had never done before: I demonstrated a sequence without speaking a word. In the hushed movement of our shared breath, the participants observed my modified sun salutation and organized themselves into pairs to take turns witnessing one another. I was hoping to engage a recently identified capacity of the brain that we use all the time, called the mirror neuron system. Discovered by accident when researchers noticed that the same neurons in a macaque monkeys’ brain fired when the monkey reached for food, as when the monkey saw a researcher reach for food, mirror neurons have since been the subject of much study and speculation. Whether we’re considering the brains of macaques or humans, certain brain cells fire as if we were performing the same movements we see in others – even when we are completely still.

The breakthrough technology of functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) – which allows us to track the areas of the brain that are active, while actually engaged in tasks or activities, has found a more complex mirror neuron system in human beings, as compared to the simple mirror neurons in the macaque example. The application of mirror neurons in rehabilitating injuries is being studied, since a person could watch someone else performing a physical task and engage the brain function. There may also be profound spiritual implications. In my workshop exercise, I wanted to facilitate a shift out of the realm of verbal instruction and into this more immediate transmission of mind-body information; this wasn’t just monkey-see, monkey-do – I had an additional, deeper intention.

It turns out that some theorists (amongst them Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal) believe the mirror neuron system may be involved in how we feel empathy, which is the capacity to intuit someone else’s feelings and imagine them as our own. It is the case that there are mirror neurons for emotions as well as for movement. Studies by Christian Keysers at the Social Brain Lab in the Netherlands show a correlation between experiencing more emotional empathy and having a high degree of activity in the movement mirror neurons. This suggests that the two systems may be linked.

Before I demonstrated the Yoga sequence, the group was practicing Buddhist metta or loving-kindness meditation. We focused first on self-compassion and then on feeling loving-kindness for a beloved. Next, in pairs, the meditators meditated on compassion for each other. After they observed my movements, they took turns witnessing each other flow through the initial sequence I had demonstrated. At the end of each round, the instruction was for the active partner to stand with their eyes closed and imagine breathing one of a sequence of specific feeling states throughout their own body. We worked with courage, compassion, gratitude and forgiveness as our states. The witnessing partner was to be receptive to what they saw and felt.

As the facilitator, it was inspiring to witness the intimate and generous sharing of energy and attention in the room. Several people shed smiling tears of recognition in response to my asking if their connection to one of the feeling qualities had deepened or been enhanced through this process.

I also had a personal revelation with regard to teaching Yoga. After teaching for several years, I found that I was walking around the room and giving verbal instruction much more than I was demonstrating the postures. Including this new brain research in my workshop has influenced my return to regularly demonstrating more of the postures. I have been enjoying mirroring the class physically for certain standing pose sequences. They can see me move into the pose as I describe it and follow me there using both visual and verbal cues. By linking the process of seeing me in the pose, the felt experience of this in the body while cultivating compassionate awareness and positive feeling states, a complete sense of integration in the practice came about.