For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that I don’t like the terms “mind-body connection” and “mind-body medicine” too much. From what I’ve seen, most people who use the phrase “mind-body” seem to mean the way your mind, primarily your thoughts, can influence the functioning of the body. While that notion may have once seemed radical, to the yogi it’s pretty obvious. In yoga, however, we learn that this aspect of the mind-body connection is really only part of the story.
The Mind-Body Connection: How Your Mind Affects Your Body
I’ve heard yoga teachers describe the mind-body connection as something elusive, a link we hope to forge with our yoga practice. In reality, the mind-body connection is present all the time—for better and worse—whether we or our students are aware of it or not. Consider a few examples.
If your mouth waters at the thought of a dish you love, you’re experiencing the mind-body connection. If you’ve ever felt the butterflies in the pit of your stomach as you prepared to make a presentation, you’ve felt how your thoughts affect the functioning of your intestines. An athlete who “chokes” at a big moment in a competition, performing worse than usual, is similarly seeing the results of a fearful state of mind on his or her ability to coordinate muscular actions.
What we are doing when we teach our students techniques like pratyahara (the turning of the senses inward) and dhyana (meditation) is getting their minds out of the way. Without the interference of their usual anxious or angry thoughts, the stress response system relaxes and the body can do a better job of healing itself. You could say, in a sense, that mind-body medicine works by severing the mind-body connection, at least for a little while.
At Harvard Medical School’s Mind-Body Medical Institute, Dr. Herbert Benson and colleagues teach a technique they call the Relaxation Response, which is a demystified system of meditation, modeled directly on Transcendental Meditation (TM), a type of yogic mantra meditation. Numerous studies have shown that when you quiet the mind with these techniques, a variety beneficial physiological responses—including reduced heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and levels of stress hormones—result, benefiting conditions from migraines to high blood pressure to infertility.
Although most yogic practices have not been studied as much as TM and the Relaxation Response, it makes sense that wide variety of yogic tools, from chanting to Pranayama practices like Ujjayi (Victorious Breath) and Bhramari (Buzzing Bee Breath) to other meditation techniques, all of which cultivate pratyahara and quiet the mind, would have similar health benefits. And many yogis believe that there are additive benefits from combining different practices—for example, by doing pranayama as a prelude to meditation.
The Body-Mind Connection: How Your Body Affects Your Mind
The piece that I sometimes find missing in discussions of mind-body medicine, however, is the way that your body can influence the state of your mind. This again comes as no surprise to the yogi, nor to anyone else who is paying attention.
Most people have discovered that exercising, whether it’s going for a walk or doing a vigorous yoga class, can lift their mood. A massage or a hot bath can relieve stress. It works the other way too: Regular exercisers may notice themselves feeling grumpy if they are denied their usual physical outlet several days in a row.
Physical illness can also have direct effects on your mental outlook. On several occasions over the years, I have found myself feeling depressed for no reason I could apprehend. Only the next morning, when a sore throat, nasal congestion, and other flu symptoms had appeared, did I realize that my sour mood had been the way my mind was reacting to the impending illness (and my body’s response to it), even though I had no conscious awareness of it. You might call this piece of the puzzle the body-mind connection.
“Take a deep breath,” the simple injunction commonly given when someone is angry or stressed out, is an acknowledgement of the body-mind connection. And this is, of course, the principle that we are taking advantage of in asana practice in particular. Yogis have discovered that certain poses, like backbends and side stretches, tend to be stimulating to the mind, while others, like forward bends and inversions, tend to promote a quieter, more introspective state.
Various yogic tools take advantage of the links between mind and body, to benefit both.
In Understanding the Mind-Body Connection, we saw how it includes not only the mind’s ability to affect the body—for better and worse—but the body’s ability to affect the mind as well. Here, we’ll look at practical ways help your clients use that connection to achieve positive results.
How to Use the Body to Affect the Mind
In understanding the effects on the mind of various yogic practices, it helps to know the three gunas that both ancient yogis and Ayurvedic masters used to characterize mental states: tamas, rajas, and sattva. In the modern world, most people’s mental condition is either marked by lethargy and inertia (tamas), or by constant motion and distractibility (rajas), and sometimes by alternating periods of tamas and rajas. Most people only experience sattva—the calm, balanced, mindful state—for brief intervals every now and then, if at all.
The idea behind the sequencing you commonly see in yoga classes is to get the students, after gently warming up, to exert themselves physically to overcome tamas (or, in cases where it’s necessary, to burn off excessive rajas). That’s why activating practices like Kapalabhati (Skull-Shining Breath) and Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations) usually are done early in a session. After a period of exertion, it’s common to then use gentler practices such as twists, forward bends, and inversions to progressively bring a rajasic mental state to a more balanced, calm, and peaceful (sattvic) one, in time for Savasana (Corpse Pose). If the student remains either tamasic or rajasic, this final resting pose is unlikely to be very therapeutic or satisfying.
How to Use Yoga Poses for Desired Energetic Effects
One of the lessons of yoga is that it’s not just the poses you do but how you do them that affects the mind. For example, you might worry that backbends would be too stimulating for a rajasic student who suffers from anxiety or insomnia. But if you can get the student to resist the temptation to overexert, the resulting backbends are likely to have a much more sattvic effect (and, interestingly, from the perspective of the mind-body connection, alignment may also improve). Sattvic backbends will still increase energy levels but are less likely to lead to restlessness or agitation. In a student who is more tamasic, however, you may want to push them harder in backbends, assuming they are physically able, in order to break through their mental lethargy.
Similarly, when you prescribe practices such as forward bends or breathing practices for their pacifying effects, be on guard that the students are not trying too hard to achieve a specific result. Many students, for example, tend to use their arms as levers to crank themselves more deeply into poses like Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), even when their bodies aren’t ready for it. Others, whom you teach to use short breath retentions or to lengthen their exhalation relative to the inhalation, may be pushing the limits of their breath capacity more than is comfortable. In either case, the result is likely to undermine the mental calming you were shooting for. Since the breath is intimately tied to one’s mental state, you’ll usually be able to spot telltale signs such as gasping or a lack of smoothness in their breathing as you monitor their practice.
How to Cultivate Sattva and Relaxation
Thus we can use our minds to calm (or stress) our bodies and our bodies to calm (or energize) our minds. Of course, when you use your body to energize then calm your mind, as we are often doing in yoga practice, the resulting sattva in turn causes numerous beneficial changes in the body, which may in turn facilitate dropping more deeply into relaxation.
Perhaps a better term than “mind-body” to reflect the back-and-forth nature of the interconnections between mental and physical health would be “body-mind-body.” It’s my belief, supported by some scientific evidence, that combining practices that target the mind with others that address the body is likely to yield greater benefits than single-pronged approaches.
Where to Start—Mind or Body?
A good example of body-mind-body medicine is the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of the bestsellers Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are. His Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) approach, which combines gentle hatha yoga with mindfulness meditation, has garnered impressive results in scientific studies and is now taught at hundreds of hospitals and clinics worldwide.
In his work with patients with a wide variety of medical conditions, including chronic pain, cancer, arthritis, anxiety, and depression, Kabat-Zinn has observed that particular patients seem to respond better to some elements of the MBSR program. He has found that those with primarily physical complaints, such as joint pain, often do best when they use meditation to go through what he calls the “mind door.” Others, particularly those with mental problems such as anxiety or panic attacks, may do better with “body door” approaches like asana.
Of course, not all patients will fit this rule of thumb, which is why it’s good to have yoga’s vast toolbox so you can choose among those practices or combinations of practices that seem to bring your students the best results. Yoga also allows you to use both the body and mind doors, either sequentially or in combination, as when you have students practice Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breathing) during their asana practice or chant a mantra as they move into a twist or forward bend.
Ultimately, yoga is about union, the underlying unity of things that, on their surface, appear to be separate. So while it can be useful to speak of the body and the mind and the mind-body connection, through our yoga practice we come to understand that the mind and the body are not just connected. They are two manifestations of the same thing.