How many times have you heard people talk about their mind as if it were a separate entity from their body? When they say things like ‘I don’t know where my head is today’, ‘my mind is wandering’, or ‘it’s in all in your head’, they are portraying the mind as something that bubbles away in its own space, hived off from the body.
And often indeed it feels that way. So much that goes on in our mind seems unrelated to our body—our thoughts, emotions, decisions, dreams, conscience, sense of the divine, for instance—and vice versa; we don’t think of the many things that go on in our body as being related to our mind, say when we walk or lift an object or put our hands on our hips for camel. The mind and body can appear to be functioning independently of each other.
The truth is, our minds and bodies are completely interconnected. Not just more connected that is popularly believed, but completely and utterly interconnected. Our bodies cannot perform a single action without the mind being involved, and what we think, feel and carry in our subconscious totally affects and shows in our physical self.
Our mind resides in our body—in our brain, in our nerves, in our spinal cord and, some will say, also in our muscles, tissues and organs. We speak of the terms ‘muscle memory’ and ‘cellular memory’, implying that these units of our physical bodies can ‘learn’ and ‘be taught’, that they have mini-minds stored inside them.
The parts of the brain that control and produce different mental and bodily functions are clearly defined. We all know the left brain–right brain divide: the left brain is involved in logic, language and analytical thought, while the right brain’s functions include creativity, intuition and holistic thought, as so beautifully described in a TED Talk ‘My Stroke of Insight’ by neuroscientist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor, who lost her right brain function in a stroke.
Depression, which is traditionally thought of as ‘feeling down’, is now accepted as a physical condition involving chemical imbalances in the brain and body, as Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky shows in a lecture where he explains why this is the most damaging disease one can experience.
Stress is a complex mental and physical state, an amalgamation of symptoms like the fight-or-flight syndrome, worry, fear, change in appetite, difficulty sleeping, headaches, and the list goes on. Too much stress can make you physically ill. On the flip side, believing that you can deal with stress and rise to the challenge builds courage, resilience and, according to psychologist Kelly McGonigal in her TED Talk ‘How to Make Stress Your Friend’, can even increase your likelihood of living.
So if our minds and bodies are so intrinsically connected, how did the perception that they are separate arise in the first place and persist for so long? Who’s to blame?
Well, to put it simply, a number of philosophers, dating back to Plato, but mainly Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Best known for his defining statement ‘I think therefore I am,’ Descartes is closely associated with dualism—the concept that mind and body are not related—which formed the basic paradigm for centuries of similar thinking thereafter.
Being Conscious of Our Coherence
Enter yoga. This ancient practice, which is believed to have originated in India thousands of years ago but which evidence shows may also have existed in other civilizations like Eygpt, is most commonly defined as union of mind and body. Union can also mean integration and a removal of barriers, so that there is no clear differentiation between mind and body, the two are one and the same. I wish the English language had a word that encompassed this, but I can think of none that is satisfactory. The language of Buddhism, Sanskrit, is more helpful here—there is no word for ‘God’, for instance, instead there is ‘consciousness’, saying that ‘God’ is not an external being, not a man with a white beard and flowing robes who sits in the sky, but a force within our being, in our very bodies, the divine within you and me.
When we refer to yoga, we are talking mainly about asana practice of raja or ashtanga (eight-limb) yoga—which is the popular understanding of yoga in the Westernized world today, more than other aspects of raja yoga (nama, niyama etc.) or other branches of yoga (karma, bakti, jnana, tantric etc.) that include study, observances, diet, spirituality and many other things. The other limbs do come into play in asana practice though, in particular pranayama, concentration and meditation.
From India yoga made its way to the West, mainly from the 20th century but a little before too, through various teachers, most notably T Krishnamacharya, TKV Desikachar, BKS Iyengar, Sri Pattabhi Jois and more recently Bikram Choudury, each of whom brought with them their own approach to yoga and who have spawned other teachers that have become big names in their own right and continue to develop yoga in the modern world, such as John Friend, Barron Baptiste and Jimmy Barkan, to name a few.
What yoga does is give us a greater awareness of the integrity of our whole being, our minds and bodies being one. Every asana we do, from the simplest to the most advanced, puts this into practice through and through. In standing head to knee, for example, which is a challenging asana, we need to focus the mind and body to lock the standing knee while kicking out with the other leg. We need to maintain our balance in this stance while dropping our gaze from the front mirror and turning it to our stomach, rounding our spine and touching our forehead to our knee.
Even in easier poses like half tortoise pose, we need this mind-body connectedness. To get into the pose we consciously engage our core so that we go down with a flat back and remember to touch our forehead to the floor first, and not let our hands go crashing down. Then we need to keep stretching our arms forward, keeping only our baby fingers lightly touching the floor and our hips glued to our heels. And through it all we need to keep breathing, a steady, calm breath. There’s a lot going on, even in this simple pose.
Yoga brings our attention to parts of our body that we might not think of in the course of our daily lives, such as our sacrum, our scapula, our hip joints or our feet. It makes us mindful of bodily alignment—keeping our spine straight or not letting the hips turn our of line or keeping the chest lifted; movement—such as bending your body to the right in an absolutely straight line, or using your whole spine to bend backwards, from your tailbone to your neck, not collapsing in the chest or lumbar; and weight distribution—making sure it is even over a standing foot, or over both hands on the floor, or that there is no weight on our fingertips.
Through yoga we become aware of our muscles. We learn about the core muscles and how to engage them, we learn how to contract our thigh muscles and lift our kneecaps up to the ceiling, we learn what it means to pull and stretch at the same time, and how to isolate our back muscles during cobra pose. And we learn how to harness our strength, which incidentally, is not about muscles but about alignment, weight bearing and resistance. When those things are in place, strength is found, and power and energy flow in the right direction and are uplifting, which can make even complex, strength-based asanas feel light and free.
We become very aware of the energy flow in our bodies. Is it shooting out of our limbs like in standing bow pulling pose or triangle, mainly gravitating inwards like in many janu sirasansa poses (compression, forehead-to-knee poses) or both cocooning us and opening out at the same time like in certain bound poses or spine twists?
To do all this, yoga involves our entire nervous system. We are training our nerves to tell our muscles to go further, do more; we are re-educating our nervous system to send new messages to our muscles that say ‘get your hips down into the chair’, ‘get your chest off the floor’ or do a compound action like ‘lock your knee and kick your leg out at the same time’, which contracts your thigh muscles towards your hip but propels your leg away from your hip, and learning the sensations that come with those movements and positions.
Through yoga become aware of our character and emotions. When we struggle to hold a posture, we recognize our comfort zone and learn to go beyond it; we build focus and concentration, determination and courage. We believe in ourselves more and realize the potential that lies within.
Yoga awakens our awareness of our mind and body connection. It makes us experience our mind and body as they have always been—one being all the time; and teaches us that with increased awareness of this we become stronger, healthier and better functioning people.
So the next time you hear the phrase ‘have you lost your mind?’; just think ‘no, it’s been right here, in my body, all the time.’ Just do some yoga, and you’ll see.
Have You Lost
Reawakening the mind-body connection with yoga