Today we are delighted to share with you an article from Peg Oliveira, founder and director of 108 Monkeys.

“It is only when we leave the law that civil rights suddenly stops being about particular groups and starts to become a project of human flourishing in which we all have a stake.”

Kenji Yoshino in Covering: The Hidden Assault on American Civil Rights

Some 2,000 juvenile offenders serving life sentences without parole were recently given hope of eventual release by the Supreme Court. [source] The Court ruled that laws requiring youths convicted of murder to be sentenced to die in prison violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (  In other words, the Supreme Court calls it unconstitutionally cruel to abolish hope.

One line of evidence the court based this decision on was research on neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to continue to grow and change.  The modern understanding of the brain is that rather than being a done deal (diminished with every beer, or so I was told in college), this organ is alive and kicking and constantly changing.

Importantly, the Court recognized the even greater malleability of the young brain.  It accepted the view of the American Psychological Association, that neuroscientists have now proven the basis for our intuitive understanding that young offenders have greater potential for rehabilitation [source].

No kid is hopeless.

Repeated thoughts and actions can rewire your brain. The more you do something, the stronger those new neural networks become; the more neural real estate the thoughts or behaviors take up. In yoga we call the brain’s wiring samskaras.  Samskaras are the habits of action and thought.

Samskaras are like the path worn across the grass, from your door to your car.

The more you take that same path, the more pronounced the path and the more automatic the act of taking the path becomes.  Every time we do or think something, we increase the likelihood that we will do it or think it again.

Yoga proposes that samskaras can be consciously altered.

The brain can be re-wired and that yoga improves the brains ability to rewire; to delete old and create new samskaras.  Such that if one day you decide to forge a new path, and commit to using that new path, the old one will quickly grow green with grass and the new one deep with wear.

How does it work?  Yoga has been shown to trigger brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a marker for neuroplasticity. BDNF is essential to helping our brains find a role for new brain cells—instead of automatically sending them down the same old paths. In other words, BDNF appears to be the key to actually learning and growing from new experiences.  The very newest research that yoga’s movement-based practices improve our brains’ neuroplasticity, at any age.

What this means is that no matter how long we’ve been who we are, we can change if we put our minds to it.  An individual’s history need not repeat itself. But consciously trying to overcome strong impulses to take the same old numbing path of addiction or self-destruction is tough work. A yoga practice can make it more possible to get in a new groove of thought and action.

Peg Oliveira is a yoga teacher in New Haven (, a PhD in Developmental Psychology, and the founder of 108 Monkeys, a nonprofit yoga outreach organization changing what people mean when they say “I Practice Yoga” ( Peg’s essay “Mind over multitasking: What would Buddha do?” was published in The Culture of Efficiency.

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