Connecting Mind and Body
Conventional thinking teaches us mind over matter, head over body, mental health separable from physical health. The nature of the connection between mind and body is left to personal faith: some of us believe, some of us are skeptics. And just like politics and religion, we tend to keep close company with those who already share our views, solidifying our unchallenged beliefs. It takes a deep shake or a long and sometimes-bumpy road to shift from the western-default dualistic perspective (mind over body) to a holistic, eastern-traditional perspective (mind is body).
Ultimately, each of us will come to a unique understanding of our own inner connection, whether influenced by data-demonstrated phenomena like the placebo effect (mind heals body), or unmeasured and unmeasurable intuitions, perspective-altering experiences, and mind-body journeys.
The difference between conventional/alternative is also the difference in how we consider the invisible. Science celebrates the observable, the measurable, the mechanisms underlying visible phenomena. It supports the doctor as a mechanic, diagnosing quantifiable qualities of both mind and body, proceeding to fix anything definitively dysfunctional, leaving untouched the vague, mysterious, mystical.
The vague, the mysterious, the mystical is the playground for ancient, traditional approaches to the body-mind. Emphasizing process over mechanics, yoga, Ayurveda, martial arts, and other Eastern disciplines teach the seeker how to harness without necessarily understanding the nature of the body-mind. The invisible, the unknown, did not need to be reduced to measurable parts of an infinite whole.
As our world becomes increasingly globalized, the differences between East and West diminish, and we can draw on both conventional and alternative perspectives to understand our own body-mind.
In studying the mind today, we look to neuroscience, which has used the advent of new technology (fMRI, EEG, PET, etc) to replace the once-revolutionary psychology theories stemming the behaviorist experiments of Skinner, the introspective analyses of Freud, and biological theories of Darwin. In all of these Western waves of discovery, the common ground is always: mind over matter, head over body, and now, with a more data-oriented lens: brain over body.
The brain is today’s trendiest organ. Our current work focuses on the most recently evolved aspected of the neo cortex and limbic structures that sit within the cranium. The brain itself stems down into the body through the spinal cord, housed in vertebra that form the conduit of head to the rest of the body. Our central nervous system functions on electricity, nerve impulses communicating through energy pathways that form hubs, plexi, along the spine in key areas like the solar plexus and lumbar plexus. These “hot spots” of the autonomic nervous system correspond beautifully with the chakras of traditional yogic teachings on the energetics the human mind-body.
The chakra system correlates the physique with the psyche, showing connection between the nerve plexus and a psychological “knot” that can be cleansed, and empowered, through the practice of traditional techniques that integrate the focused awareness of mind with skillful/strategic movement of body. The healing techniques are designed to treat not just mental illness and physical sicknesses but to also elevate an asymptomatic (what western medicine considers “healthy”) to a higher level of vibrancy that can be better described in terms of experience and energy than mechanisms and mechanics.
Functionality is the emphasis of the modern medical approach to both mind and body, with disorders defined by symptoms preventing normal functioning in society. “Barely getting by”, “manegable pain”, and reliance on legal drugs (everything from caffeine to prescription pain killers and mood alterers) form a tenuous baseline that is functional and normalized.
At this point, when we realize that there are vague feelings of “something wrong” or “something missing”, we naturally lean into alternative health practices and discover an ever expanding universe of mind-body knowledge.
The key difference is in perspective: the missing element in western conceptualization is unity, or connectivity. With our individualist, part over whole, head over body perspective, we miss the traditional view of people, communities, planet and cosmos as analogical— all systems of systems, nested microcosms, Russian dolls made of dazzling clockwork.
When we see the human being as a system of systems, it becomes irrational to reduce the whole into parts, separating electrical impulses from thee chemical cascades they signal, which in turn create the visible actions we see as movement; and the reverse flow of internal information that turns mechanical input from the outside world into our perceptions. Taking the broader, unified view permits the individual to see beyond the details, feel whole, and move beyond understanding the systems to mastery of both movement and receptivity of incoming sensations. This is the aim of many Eastern disciplines, including martial arts, and especially yoga. Rather than a standardized health defined by absence of symptoms, traditional artistic disciplines prescribe a path along which each individual begins and ends a unique journey depending on a confluence of aptitude, will power, and opportunity/inspiration.
We rarely attend to difficult disciplines when we feel we are already well, or well-enough. The human mind evolved to see and solve problems, to travel in time, learning from the past and predicting the future as well as analyzing the infinite complexities of our increasingly connected social networks. Only when we become sensitive to decreased functionality in our physical life (this is our modern/western symptom-based perspective), do we increase our attention to the practices that support our mind-body health: yoga, meditation, conscious awareness of our sleep, nutrition, and daily habits. The individuals who are open to increasing sensitivity, increasing power of intention, and maintaining focus will progress to higher levels of health than can be properly described by modern medicine but still feel like functionality.
The mind body connections seems unclear, it is often b because the link itself is unclear, clouded by the energy of emotion or inner imbalance: logic overpowering intuition; habit overpowering sensitivity; etc. This is why the chakra system of yoga emphases the personal development marks at nerve plexi, equating the physique with the psyche at hubs of energetic exchange. The mind-body connection can be seen through modern medicine in common phenomenon like the increased effectivity of psychotherapy when paired with exercise or conscious changes in action, as in cognitive behavioral therapy. With time, hopefully modern medicine will catch up to the sensitivity seen in holistic approaches to the mind-body connection.
Another physical realm where mind meets body meets emotional energy is the psoas. The most powerful (and very tangible) connection between upper and lower body, the psoas are intimately involved in breathing, digestion, and movement. Adversely affected by stress, sedentary liifestyle, and the over-emphasis of abdominal work in modern fitness, the psoas are a litmus test for holistic health. Releasing tension in, and strengthening of, the psoas is a primary benefit of yoga, where breath work and conscious movement draw together mind and body. The process works even when the yogi is unaware of the psoas; the mechanisms can be unstudied but still yield powerful, appreciable results in mind-body health.
Disorganized or distracted thinking, slow or sluggish responses to changes in our environment, lingering doubts and rumination on regrets: these are all symptoms according to yoga/Ayurveda, just as much as any physical aches. The common root to mind-body ailment is emotion. When feelings are unexamined and unexpressed, or suppressed, the mind and body store these tensions that surface, later, in surprising and usually unhealthy ways, like flares of anger, anxiety, depression, as well as ongoing attachments to people and possessions. These often painful experiences are windows into the body-mind, and can be healed through introspective practices. Not only does alternative, holistic self-care alleviate the burden on our standard health care system, it also empowers the practitioner to elevate her own health and share the positive effects with those close to her. The key is to maintain the discipline of practice even when feeling vibrantly healthy, so that when difficulties arise, the mind and body are already at peak resiliency.
Take a full breath now to expand your body-mind consciousness. What are you still curious about? Leave a comment, share your thoughts.
Our next post will explore ways to think and play with mind-body energy. In the mean time, further reading: The Body Keeps Score, for an in depth, open minded medical perspective on the body healing from emotional trauma; and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras for exploring the classic yogic philosophical writings on mind, body, behavior, and emotion.