So, what is with all this talk about the “mind-body connection”? It pops up in arenas all over the internet, within communities such as alternative medicine, among health enthusiasts, and even amongst scholars such as psychologists and neuroscientists.
Walk into any local health food-store and take a look at the bulletin board of ads, and you will most undoubtedly come across ads for mind-body therapies and practitioners. Browse through some of their publications and notice this same phrase sprinkled throughout and highlighted as subject matter amongst the articles.
Living on the Gulf Coast of Florida, I’ve also noticed a growing trend of more and more yoga mats on the beach in the mornings and an influx of new studios popping up around town. On the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s (NCCAM) website, Yoga is defined as “a mind and body practice with origins in ancient Indian philosophy.”
Considering the definition of yoga mentioned above, what goes on in the interplay of mind-body? And more specifically, how does the body, by way of sensations and movements practiced in yoga, contribute to the workings of the mind?
One way to talk about the workings of the mind is through a focus on cognition, defined as “the mental processes associated with attention, perception, thinking, learning and memory” by the INS Dictionary of Neuropsychology, (Koizol, Budding and Chidekel 2012, 506). Embodied cognition goes a step further, and recognizes that cognition is often based on the experiences, movements, and structures of the body.
Movements and sensations by way of practiced postures and breath control in yoga are a means of embodied experience. I will first describe the philosophy and physical practice of yoga in this post as a way to understand how the body can cultivate the mind. Then I will turn to embodied cognition and its attention to perception-action systems of the body, and develop the argument that sensorimotor experience in yoga creates and alters cognition.
Yoga cultivates the connection of body and mind
As a graduate of a 200-hour yoga teacher-training course, I can expand upon the mind and body practice of yoga. By beginning to practice yoga, I began to notice a heightened sense of my bodily awareness. In particular, I began to notice my emotions and states of mind also correlated with bodily postures. For example, when I felt bogged down by stress from work, I noticed that my shoulders and neck would become very stiff and tight. When I was sad, I would assume a position of folded arms and downcast face.
There are plenty of common associations we know of that connect mind states of emotions to bodily movements postures. Being happy, one may find a “spring in their step” or even become motivated to do a little dance. Also, being proud is sometimes associated with “standing tall”, and being anxious may lead someone to tap their foot or bite their nails. “Power posing” even leads to neuroendocrine changes in the body.
It is widely known and taught in the practice of yoga that not only can the mind influence the body as seen in the examples above, but the body may well influence the mind, as work by Felicitas Goodman on body postures and trance has shown. The postures and movements taught in yoga practice can help shape the mind and its mental processes in cognition, specifically by directing attention inward.
Teachers of physical yoga practices encourage students to pay attention to the breath, linking breath to movement, and using this focus to observe oneself and the workings of the mind, such as reactions one may have to a difficult pose. Becoming more aware of the body and mind in practice can help one become more aware of the body and mind in everyday life, which in turn influences our perceptions, experience and overall cognition. Cultivating this inner-attention in the physical practice then extends to inner-awareness in meditation, which directly influences our brain’s cognition. Research has linked breathing, meditation, and health together, showing how this impact on mind can then affect the body. Continue reading >>