Exploring The Mind Body Connection Through Yoga

Whilst the term “mind-body connection” may seem like it’s thrown around to give your yoga class a more philosophical edge, I assure you it has strong scientific backing. In fact, clinical research into mind-body medicine is finding that 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 vice versa, what we do with our physical body can impact our mental state.

This results in a complex interrelationship between our mind and bodies.

“The mind and body are like parallel universes. Anything that happens in the mental universe must leave tracks in the physical one.” ~ Deepak Chopra

Science has begun to recognise the powerful connections through which emotional, spiritual and behavioural factors can directly affect the way our body functions. This means that our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our biological functioning. Not only that, but mind-body therapies like hypnosis, visual imagery, meditation, yoga and biofeedback are being used to re-establish balance and promote wellness.

“The brain and peripheral nervous system, the endocrine and immune systems, and indeed, all the organs of the body and all the emotional responses we have, share a common chemical language and are constantly communicating with one another.” ~ Dr James Gordon (founder of the Centre for Mind-Body Medicine)

Given that the scope of this connection is huge, let’s just delve into one particularly important aspect – the role of your Autonomic Nervous System and the powerful mind-gut connection.

Our body’s are very clever in the way they are designed, with an ability to react quickly to situations without us having to consciously decide on a course of action. For example, in the event of danger, our body will respond by quickly producing adrenalin to allow us to move and react efficiently – ie, to remove ourselves from or fight the danger. Subsequently, we can also trigger our body to relax, releasing oxytocin to allow us to slow down. Both are as important as each other, but it is the imbalance of these two states of the body that can cause health issues.

Let’s break it down – your autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts. The sympathetic nerves work in combination with the stress hormones to deliver the fight or flight response. This triggers an increase in rate and force of your heart beat and slows the bodies processes that aren’t important during an emergency, like digestion and immune function.  This sympathetic nervous system also carries some of the messages that contribute to chronic pain, which is why stress and pain are so closely related.

The parasympathetic nerves are activated during times of rest, when you’re more relaxed, allowing for the heart rate to slow, decreasing your blood pressure and stimulating your gastrointestinal tract to encourage digestion – this is known as the ‘rest & digest’ phase.

It’s important to recognise that these two systems work in direct opposition to each other with the function of regulating the body’s response to stress.  Both are important however, to ensure a balance in the body.

An appropriate analogy would be to see your sympathetic system as an accelerator increasing stress in your body, while the parasympathetic system acts as a brake, decreasing stress.

Whilst there is a level of involuntary action related to these systems of the body, we are also able to influence and trigger certain responses in the body. Our breath, the way we move or don’t move the body, plus our thoughts and mental state can impact our nervous system in a powerful way.

“Breathing is the bridge between mind and body, the connection between consciousness and unconsciousness, the movement of spirit in matter.” ~ Dr. Andrew Weil

Our breath is an important factor in our ability to positively or negatively influence our nervous system. The way you breath has the power to trigger certain responses in the body, for eg, breathing in the chest in quick succession sends a message to your brain that you are in a state of stress.  Breathing into the belly however, stimulates the vagus nerve (which stretches from the brain all the way down the torso, connecting with key organs such as the heart & stomach) sending messages to your brain that you are in a state of calm. Consider then the way you breath and the consequent messages that are being sent to your brain – if we tell it we are in a state of stress, it will quicken our heart rate and slow down our digestive system. It’s easy to then see the direct correlation between our times of stress and affect on our digestion – ie, you’re nervous about a speech and you can’t eat, or you get stressed about flying and therefore your bowel movements change. Can you imagine then the effect diaphragmatic breathing during times of stress might help to counteract these triggers and responses from the body?

The enteric nervous system is the separate yet interconnected nervous system located in your digestive organs. It contains at lease as many nerve cells as there are in the spinal cord. The implication is that there’s a ton of intelligence in your gut, giving credibility to the idea of your “gut instincts”.

Our thoughts have an incredible influence on our nervous system and subsequently our bodily functions. Research has demonstrated again and again that 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. If we’re stressed or negative then the body interprets this as being in a state of danger. Whilst nearing the deadline for an assignment can be stressful, it’s not dangerous. Unfortunately we too often allow our bodies to enter this state, perpetuating the production of stress hormones, and often remain here for extended, if not continuous periods. Ironically long term stress can eventually be dangerous for the body. Encouraging our body, through positive thoughts and attitudes, into a state of calm allows us to ‘react’ less abruptly to our situations and cope more effectively.

“Every cell in your body is eavesdropping on your thoughts.” ~ Deepak Chopra

Our movement and the way we treat and connect with our body can have a reciprocal effect on our mental state and therefore our nervous system. If we stress our body with lack of movement or the wrong type of movement we create tension – tension is communicated to the brain as stress. What we do with our physical body (what we eat, how much we exercise, even our posture) can impact our mental state, both positively or negatively. This again reiterates that complex interrelationship between our minds and bodies and the importance of a balanced practice for both our body & mind.

How can yoga help?

The underlying principle of yoga IS the interrelationship between our body, mind & breath. Nothing we do in the practice of yoga is without consideration of the body, mind and the way we are breathing – hence the translation of yoga to mean ‘union’.

We are encouraged to breath correctly which helps to counteract some of the stresses that daily life can place on our body. We explore maintaining this correct use of breath whilst moving, fostering the idea that effective breathing should become an automatic function of the body, not just when we are concentrating on it. It is also what we mean when we say “take your practice off the mat” – the more regular we are with our practice of these techniques, the more likely we are to continue to breath and move effectively when we are not on the mat.

Through a regular practice of yoga we explore how we can influence our body’s response through breath and focus. The way we breath can allow us to move a certain way or release further in a particular pose. The opposing but complementary practices of Yin and Yang styles of yoga are a powerful way to explore the influence of our breath and types of movement on our body and mind. Think about the way you feel following a particular class compared to when you first stepped on the mat – imagine being able to tap into these feelings at any time of the day, particularly during times of stress or when you are feeling unmotivated.

Meditation is one of the most effective ways of bringing awareness, mindfulness and calm to the mind. Promoting positive thought or even just the ability to be aware of negative chatter in the mind – sometimes it’s so engrained in us we don’t even know we’re doing it. Stressful or negative thoughts perpetuate the production of stress hormones making it difficult to allow our body to move out of the sympathetic phase. This creates a closed loop system between our thoughts, your brain and your body – each negative element influencing the next. Adopting positive thought can have a similar effect, creating a different and healthier system of wellness.

Step onto the mat with us and explore how the practice of yoga can positively influence your body & mind, creating a deeper connection and giving you the power to influence your overall health & wellness.

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About the author: Andy Broadbear is a qualified Yoga Therapist & Teacher with particular interest in pre/postnatal + women’s health. She coordinates the social media marketing & comms at Kula Yoga, as well as running her own small Yoga Therapy business. Andy is co-founder of YogaMamas, on online yoga community for mums, as well as health & wellness blogger, hobby photographer and mama of 3!
Photo credit: Andybbear Photography

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