By Yogacharya Dr Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani
The current craze about “Super Brain Yoga” is quite amazing when one considers that this has been a staple aspect of Indian life for millennia. It has been both used as a method of worship (of Lord Ganesha) as well as an apparent punishment method that was actually aimed at enhancing brain function in slow learners.
The colloquial term “Thoppukaranam” comes from the root "Thorpi Karnam" with "Thorpi" meaning the hands, and "Karnam" the ears. Hence it means “holding the ears with the hands”. A similar practice is called “Uthak-Baithak” in Hindi or “Baski” in Kannada. 1
It was not only used as a form of corrective punishment but used by devotees to pray forgiveness for mistakes caused intentionally or unintentionally. Even today, it is still a very common sight in many temples of South India.
This is classically done by catching hold of the left earlobe with the right hand and the right earlobe with the left hand. The individual then performs repeated squats; breathing out as they come down into a squatting position and then breathing in as they come back up to the standing.
In Rishiculture (Gitananda) Yoga, this is done with an explosive bellows-like (Nasarga Mukha Bhastrika) forceful exhalation through the mouth (Mukha) and the inhalation done through the nose (Nasarga).2 Such forceful exhalations have been reported in studies to enhance the central neuronal processing thus speeding up reaction time of school children as well as children with special needs. 3,4,5
To understand how this may activate the brain we need to refresh our knowledge about the cortical sensory-motor homunculus. 6 This is a physical representation of the primary motor cortex, i.e., the portion of the human brain directly responsible for physical movements as well as the input of sensory information from the whole body. The resulting visual image is of a grotesquely disfigured human who has disproportionately large hands, lips, face and feet in comparison to the rest of their tiny body. This is because these areas have more fine motor functions as well as are very sensitive compared to say the trunk or legs that have fewer sensory and/or motor inputs and outputs to and from the brain. Both the motor and sensory homunculi are usually depicted artistically as small men hanging upside down over the top of pre-central and post-central gyri respectively. Well known in the field of neurology, this is also commonly called "the little man inside the brain."
The crisscrossing of the hands to the opposite earlobe enables different parts of the sensory-motor homunculus to be “connected” as the neurons associated with respective areas across both hemispheres of the brain will be firing at the same time. It is often said in neuroscience that, “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Hence we can understand that this practice could potentially help induce healthy changes in neuroplasticity.
The cortical homunculus can be understood further as a visual representation of the concept of "the body within the brain" and this enables us to understand how one's hand or face exists as much as a series of nerve structures or a "neuron concept" as it does in the physical form. This concept is related to numerous neuro-biological phenomena such as the famous "phantom limb" as well as the "body integrity identity disorder". This may even have somato-psychic correlations that extend into psychology as Freud described it as an anatomical analogy of the ego. 7
A study from the SVYASA University in Bangalore found significant improvement in all measures of attention, concentration, and state mindfulness after Thoppukaranam. 8 They also reported significant reduction in “state” anxiety after the experimental session and concluded that Thoppukaranam enhances cognitive functioning and psychological states.
Video on Thoppukaranam, the original Super Brain Yoga by the author
No wonder the ancient Indian culture realised that such simple practices could be used to enhance the individual consciousness and intelligence and applied in in an effective manner in day-to-day life. However as with so many other “treasures of our culture”, we look down upon such practices as being uncivilised, ritualistic and superstitious until someone in the West copyrights or patents it and starts making a huge profit on it.
(The author is Director CYTER and Professor Yoga Therapy, Sri Balaji Vidyapeeth, Pondicherry, India. www.sbvu.ac.in/cyter)
1. Tamils Thoppukarnam done to Ganesha becomes Super Power Yoga
2. Bhavanani AB. Yoga for a Wholistic Personality. A Guide to Concepts and Practices of Rishiculture Ashtanga Yoga as Taught by Yogamaharishi Dr Swami Gitananda Giri Guru Maharaj, Founder Ananda Ashram. Published by MDNIY, New Delhi for the National Yoga Week- Feb 2012.
3. Bhavanani AB, Madanmohan, Udupa K. Acute effect of Mukh Bhastrika (a bellows breathing) on reaction time. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol 2003; 47(3): 297-300.
4. Bhavanani AB, Ramanathan M, Harichandrakumar K T. Immediate effect of mukhabhastrika (a bellows type pranayama) on reaction time in mentally challenged adolescents. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol 2012; 56: 174–180.
5. Ramanathan M, Eswari R, Bhavanani AB, Prathima GS, Sanguida A. Yoga training enhances auditory and visual reaction time in children with autism spectrum disorder: A case - control study. J Basic Clin Appl Health Sci. 2019; 2:8-13.
8. Chandrasekeran A, Rajesh SK, Srinivasan T. Effect of repetitive yogic squats with specific hand position (Thoppukaranam) on selective attention and psychological states. Int J Yoga. 2014;7(1):76–79.
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