What Are Brainwaves?
Brainwaves, or neural oscillations, are rhythmic patterns of activity in our central nervous systems.
At different phases of your day, the interaction between your neurons changes, and brainwaves are a measurement of the wavelike patterns of activity in your mind.
There are five distinct kinds of brainwaves: Gamma, Beta, Alpha, Theta, and Delta. The types range from a very fast bumpy pattern to a slow rolling wave—and each type is associated with different states of consciousness and cognitive functioning.
The Five Types of Brainwaves
The highest frequency brainwaves—measuring 31 to 100 hertz, or cycles per second—are gamma waves, which are typically associated with insight, expanded consciousness, and peak performance.
When you feel like you’re a state of hyperfocus, you’re likely producing gamma waves.
When you’re alert and focused on something like reading, writing, or speaking, you’re probably producing beta waves, which measure 16 to 30 cycles per second. Executive functioning and focused learning happen in this state, so in our hectic lives, we probably spend a lot of time producing beta waves.
When you’re in a state of rest, relaxation, and reflection your brain produces alpha waves, which measure between 8 and 12 hertz.
In this state, you’re still awake, but you feel calm. You’re not asking your brain to process a ton of information, solve a problem, or focus on work. Some experts call this a “wakeful rest” state.
During a yoga class, you typically move from a beta brainwave state into an alpha one. You might feel like you’ve just had a burst of dopamine and serotonin to your brain. In a gently relaxed alpha state, you have more access to visualization, imagination, and creativity.
On the flip side, that “yoga high” from alpha brainwaves might make you feel a little forgetful or spacey – which is why you’re more likely to forget your keys, water bottle, or jacket when you pack up to leave your studio.
In deep meditation or relaxation, your brain produces theta waves, measuring between 4 and 7 hz. This is where we hold our memory and intuition. If you read a book before going to bed, you might be in this state just before you flip off the light and go to sleep.
The slowest brainwaves are Delta waves, measuring only .1 to 3 hertz. This is a state of detached awareness or deep, dreamless sleep where a lot of healing occurs.
Studies have shown that some Buddhist and Tibetan meditators, many of whom have meditated for decades, can stay in a living awareness in the Delta state. But most of us tap into Delta brainwaves when we are sleeping.
Meditation and Your Brain
So what do these different brainwave types mean for you?
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an instructional yoga text that dates back to at least 300 A.D., the author says, “Yoga is the cessation of fluctuations of the mind.”
Picture brainwaves like these fluctuations of the mind. Meditation actually enables us to move from high frequency brainwaves to lower frequency ones, helping us calm our minds and giving us more space between our thoughts.
By slowing down our brainwaves and accessing deeper states of rest, healing, and intuition, we can make room for true consciousness to bubble up to the surface, so we’re less driven by the addictive negative biases in our mind.
You already know that the quality of our minds depends on the quality of our thoughts, and our happiness depends on how masterfully and skillfully we can master our own minds.
Moving from high frequency to lower frequency brainwaves gives us opportunities to carefully choose the thoughts we invest in, rather than being at the mercy of old, ingrained habits and thought patterns.
Managing your own mind with your meditation practice gives you tools to avoid mind traps like:
- Getting caught in the “should”s (I should do this, I should do that)
- Emphasizing the negative
- Discounting the positive
- Negative self-talk
- Catastrophizing (assuming the worst is going to happen)
Understanding brainwaves can not only deepen your practice, but it can also help you be a better yoga teacher or wellness practitioner by teaching your students or clients how to optimize their brainwaves for greater peace and wellbeing.