Blog Author: Emilia Wheaton
Blog Editor: Kristen Kennedy Smith
Have you ever heard of the “mind-body connection” referred to when reading or hearing about yoga? As a general definition, the mind-body connection is the relationship between your physical body and your thoughts, feelings and attitudes; it is the idea that what is going on in the mind has a direct effect on your physical well being, and vice versa. Ann Swanson, a mind-body science educator and certified yoga therapist and author of The Science of Yoga writes: “enhancing your mind-body and body-mind connection increases your ability to self-regulate and improves your resilience.” Okay, so where does yoga come in? Yoga practice engages both our mind and our body through asanas (poses or postures) and pranayama (breathwork) while being consciously mindful to be fully present in the moment.
Swanson explains the neurocognitive (or mind-body) pathway: meditation and mindfulness, two of the philosophical teachings of yoga, increases our attention and awareness. This heightened attention in turn regulates the nervous system and helps you maintain homeostasis, or general maintenance of the body’s subconscious physical needs. Basically, the practice of yoga enhances mindfulness, which benefits your nervous system and allows the body to regulate itself more efficiently and naturally.
The reverse pathway is also benefited through yoga. The body-mind (or neurophysiological) pathway is stimulated through the physical postures of yoga and offers benefits to your brain. Yoga gives you more body awareness, or interoception, which “affects your autonomic nervous system and changes your thoughts and neural pathways, building your brain and improving self-regulation” (Swanson, 189.) Yoga’s benefits work as a continuous loop through our nervous system from the brain down to our bodies, and back up again. The benefits are cyclical and build upon each other, improving your ability to self-regulate and control your reactions and stress response.
Think of the reverse, which we know to be true: stress puts us at greater risk for diseases like cancer, heart disease and stroke. What if we had a way to better manage stress? Wait...we do! You guessed it, one of the multitudes of benefits of practicing yoga is stress reduction. According to Swanson’s research, “the greatest predictor of whether or not you will suffer from these diseases is not how much stress you experience but how you deal with and think about stress. Those who have more negative emotions amid stress are more likely to experience negative health outcomes.” Reframing your mindset and becoming a careful observer of your emotions, attitudes and thoughts through the practice of mindful yoga, is a way to retrain your brain away from negative reactions toward a more positive and healthy mindset.
One beautiful aspect of our brains is it’s capacity to transform and grow throughout our lives. Swanson highlights the brain’s ability to rewire: “it is said that neurons that fire together, wire together. The more you practice an activity--or a mindset--the more networks are created.” Each time you consciously change your thoughts through awareness and practice, new neural pathways are formed or reinforced. The physical and philosophical hallmarks of yoga go hand-in-hand to assist us on a path toward improved mind-body wellbeing.
Many restorative yoga poses, such as child’s pose, legs up the wall, or supported bridge pose can help establish a strong mind-body connection. For example, child’s pose, which requires very little muscle engagement, allows for a gentle stretch and brings calmness to your body and mind. Taking time to allow the floor beneath you support your head allows your neck to take a break from the important job of holding your head upright. Allowing your neck this reprieve also allows signals to your nervous system that it is safe to rest.
Try incorporating some restorative yoga postures into your daily routine to promote nervous system health and to foster a deeper mind-body connection. When we promote physical, emotional and mental wellbeing equally, our body’s intertwined system is strengthened top to bottom and from the bottom up. Just as our body can become exhausted after a taxing physical expenditure, our brain can often require rest and rejuvenation after emotional or mental taxation. Listen to your body’s cues and begin to reinforce a strong mind-body connection to promote optimal overall health.
Swanson, A. (2019). Science of yoga. London: Dorling Kindersley.
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