At the core of Yoga is the belief that mind, and body are intrinsically interwoven. We work the body to quiet the mind. We work the mind, to free the body.
Our emotions and thought patterns can contribute to imbalances in the body, directly affecting health outcomes. Our mind can influence, if not change our body’s physiology, and what we do with our physical body can impact our mental state. This results in a complex interrelationship between our minds and bodies.
Until approximately 300 years ago, virtually every system of medicine throughout the world treated the mind and body as a whole. But during the 17th century, the Western world started to see the mind and body as two distinct entities. In this view, the body was kind of like a machine, complete with replaceable, independent parts, with no connection to the mind.
This viewpoint had benefits, acting as the foundation for advances in surgery, and pharmaceuticals. However, it also greatly reduced scientific inquiry into human beings’ emotional and spiritual life and downplayed their innate ability to heal. In recent years, the focus has started to shift back to a holistic approach.
Mind to Body
Mind is not synonymous with brain. Instead, it consists of mental states such as thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and images. The brain is the hardware that allows us to experience these mental states.
Mental states can be fully conscious or unconscious. We can have emotional reactions to situations without being aware of why we are reacting.
Our thoughts influence our nervous system and subsequently our bodily functions. Thoughts affect neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that allow the brain to communicate with different parts of itself and the nervous system. Neurotransmitters control virtually all of the body’s functions, from feeling happy to regulating hormones to dealing with stress. Therefore, our thoughts influence our bodies directly because the body interprets the messages coming from the brain to prepare us for whatever is expected.
Each mental state has a physiology associated with it—a physical effect felt in the body. For example, the mental state of anxiety causes you to produce stress hormones. Feelings of love cause you to produce oxytocin. A mind full of worries will disrupt sleep. Being nervous about an exam impacts the digestive system.
Equally our beliefs can impact our health. If we feel worthless or depressed, we might slump forward or hang our head. This comes with a variety of bodily impacts from posture, to breathing, to digestive health. If we believe the World is a fearful place, we are more likely to activate the Sympathetic Nervous System regularly, with all the physical effects that brings.
Body to Mind
What we eat, how well we sleep, our posture, how often the exercise…. All of these can impact the mind. Dysfunctional breathing can create anxiety in the mind. Tension in the tissues is interpreted by the mind as danger, as is an elevated heart rate, or “knots” in the digestive system.
Yoga and the Mind-Body Connection
Below are some examples of how Yoga harnesses the mind – body connection, working in both directions.
1/ Yoga strengthens our awareness of the Mind Body Connection
In our fast-paced lives, very often we ignore the signals from the body. If we feel tired, we drink coffee, rather than sleep. When we feel agitated, our first thought might be that it’s a result of a mental state, rather than lack of exercise or our posture. If we’re in pain, or unhappy, we numb up with booze and media, rather than exploring body-based explanations like nutrition or an imbalanced nervous system.
Yoga teaches us to take our awareness into the body and understand how the body affects the mind and vice versa. It reconnects neural pathways; bringing sensation back to parts of the body we have ignored. We learn to listen to the signals from the body and begin to understand how our thoughts change our physicality.
Meditation, especially visualisation, creates a powerful biofeedback loop between mind and body and vice versa.
2/ We gain more control over our mind
Yoga makes us focus on becoming more conscious of our mental states and then using this increased awareness to guide our mental states in a better, less destructive direction. In this way, we manage the mind to improve the health and well-being of the body.
Meditation raises our awareness of vrittis in our citta (disturbances in our consciousness) be that physical or mental. We become aware, for example, of the chatter in the mind, sometimes so engrained we’re not even aware it’s happening. Stressful or destructive thoughts perpetuate the production of stress hormones making it difficult to allow our body to move out of the sympathetic stress response. This creates a closed loop system between our thoughts, brain and body.
3/ Breath is the interface
Pranayama is the obvious interface between mind and body. When we have fearful thoughts our breath changes and impacts the body. When we over-eat or exercise our breath changes and impacts the mind.
Our breathing is mostly unconscious, however through Pranayama we make it conscious. In understanding our breathing patterns, we learn to read both our physical and mental states and bring body and mind into balance.
4/ Tension and Posture as therapy
Our stories, memories, trauma, and stress are held in the tissues of the body. Through asana, over time, we change shape, and as we release tension from the body, and restore balance, this changes our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.
5/ Nervous System
Our nervous system runs both ways – from body to mind and vice versa. In Yoga we employ both a Top-Down approach (changing our thoughts to influence the body), and a Bottom-Up approach (using the body to alter our thoughts and emotions).
Breath, stretching, movement, and mudras (hand positions), impact the nervous system in a bottom-up approach, and regulate the stress response, reducing stress hormones, altering breath patterns, regulating blood pressure and ultimately breaking the habit of fearful emotions & thoughts. Meditation can impact the nervous system in a top-down manner. Pranayama balances the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, establishes heart rate variability and boosts Heart Coherence for feelings of bliss and harmony.
Yoga promotes feel good hormones that impact physical and mental health and decreases the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
The endocrine system links mind and body, and yoga is an effective regulator of it. Fostering and amplifying feelings of gratitude in a heart-centred meditation can boost the release of oxytocin. Holding the arms in the air for 5 minutes is likely to result in stress hormones. As we move the body to its natural state, glandular secretions normalise.
7/ Pain Management
Yoga, especially meditation practices, by down-regulating Sympathetic Nervous System activation, helps manage our pain response, another obvious interface between mind and body.