The pineal gland is a small pine-cone shaped gland located deep in the center of the brain. According to Western medicine, its main function is to regulate melatonin, which is crucial to the body's sleep and wake cycles and also regulates cortisol, the body's stress hormone.
However, while the yoga tradition doesn't deny this basic physiology, it adds that the pineal gland represents the Third Eye, which is the center of wisdom and inner vision. So it's therefore not surprising that yoga takes some strong positions that can have a significant effect on this region of the brain.
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The Pineal Gland's Function
Melatonin is not only important to healthy cell growth, but it also affects the levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. High levels of melatonin diminishes cortisol and promote healthy sleep while insufficient melatonin causes anxiety and insomnia. The pineal gland regulates the body's response to light, too.
Meet Your Chakras
You may have heard of chakras, but what are they really? The Sanskrit word Chakra means "wheel," which is significant because the chakras are described as swirling energy wheels that serve as conduits for Prana, the life force. Unobstructed flow of the Prana through the chakras is essential for good spiritual, mental, physical and emotional health.
The chakras are where matter and consciousness come together. But the chakras also track quite precisely with the body's endocrine system, which is responsible for producing hormones that regulate all of the body's main functions. The seven major chakras begin at the base of the spine and ascend to the crown of the head right on up to crown,. The pineal gland is the sixth chakra, and as mentioned, the one associated with the Third Eye.
Yoga to Stimulate the Pineal
While there is has been little if any scientific research to prove it, yoga inversions of all types are generally invoked to stimulate the pineal gland. Generations of yogis have pretty well stood their ground on this point, and frequently on their heads. Headstands and Shoulder Stands are at the top of the list for triggering the brain's release of cosmic happy juice, yielding great benefits for mood and mental clarity which are attributed to the reversal of blood flow to the head.
In her book, "Yoga: The Practice of Myth and Sacred Geometry," Rama Jyoti Vernon asserts that shoulder stand variations are key to stimulating the pineal and opening the third eye. In particular, she advocates a variation known as Eka Pada Salamba Sarvangasana, performed with one leg lowered parallel to the floor. According to Vernon, the pose unites energy of the pituitary and pineal glands to awaken the third eye.
Inversions, however, must be approached with great caution. Headstands and Shoulder Stand can compress vertebrae in the upper spine, irritating the nerves and causing thoracic outlet syndrome which can lead to numbness and pain in the arms and hands. It's best to work up to them with restorative poses such as Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose) and a supported Setu Bandha (Bridge Pose) that will provide some of the same benefits without straining the upper spine. And if you're new to practicing yoga, by all means take your time working up to inversions.
Or Take the Easy Way
If you're not up for inversions, though, there's an easy way to stimulate the pineal and activate the Third Eye chakra. Simply close your eyes and focus your gaze on the space between your eyebrows. Press your palms together in prayer position and vigorously rub them together.