Article written by Heather Mason, director of Yoga for the Mind
The body and the mind are connected. If you are a human being it is unlikely that this is novel concept, further if you happen to be a yoga practitioner my little proclamation sounds cliché. Yet as a yoga teacher, who works with mental health, I am intrigued as to how asana practice, i.e. the stretching and flexing of the body expands and relaxes the mind.
According to the yoga tradition the human being is composed of various bodies or sheaths knows as koshas, the physical body being just one of five. The others include the energy body, the mind body, the wisdom body, and the bliss body. When you release tension in one of these bodies all of the others are affected.
Explaining this connection in an equally intriguing and possibly less esoteric way cognitive neuroscience sheds light on how physical yoga practice impacts mental health through a brain perspective . The anterior insula cortex is associated with bodily awareness, perception, and emotional and physical pain. Current research posits that this part of the brain acts as an interface between mental and physical states, indicating that working with the mind influences the body and vice versa. Accordingly, if we develop greater mindfulness of our body, which naturally occurs during yoga practice, we are indirectly enhancing awareness of mind. Moreover, as we become more comfortable with previously uncomfortable postures, such as enjoying a long-hold in seated forward bend, which we once found grueling, we also boost our ability to be present with unpleasant mental states in a more pleasant manner.
If we are working with our mental health and really struggling with our minds this is extremely good news, because it means we can stretch our muscles and attend to our body improving our emotional experience even if we are not ready to face the suffering present in our mind. It also means that when are ready to open to our internal difficulties that we have a foundation of mindfulness to guide our understanding of our own mental process that lead to suffering.
Additionally, the act of stretching translates from the body to the mind; hence, physical flexibility supports mental flexibility. Our muscles are connected to sensory neurons. These are neurons that send information from the body to the brain. If a muscle is stretched for more than 20 seconds in a non-aggression fashion a message is sent to the brain indicating the body is safe triggering a relaxation response in the nervous system. As part of this process the brain transmits a signal back down to the body through a motor neuron inspiring the muscle fibres to expand releasing physical tension. So basically through a network of neurons our body and our brain link, reciprocally affecting each other, with the potential to engender increasing mental and physical well-being.
As we begin to uncover the underlying mechanisms that elucidate the mind-body connection, what appeared to become trite once again take on a profound meaning empowering us with the capacity to transform our experience through the union of the mind-body. It is, therefore, no wonder that yoga actually means union!