What Is the Mind-Body Connection? Here’s How to Find It in Yoga and Beyond
The mind and the body are not separate; what affects one affects the other. Our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our complete biological functioning. There is, undoubtedly, a mind-body connection.
Our minds can actually affect how healthy our bodies are!
On the other hand, what we do with our physical body (such as what we eat, how much we exercise, and even our posture) can impact our mental state (either positively or negatively).
Optimum health requires the mind, physical body, and spirit to be in balance.
This results in a very complex interrelationship between our minds and our bodies.
The brain and the peripheral nervous system, the endocrine system and the immune system, all the organs of our body, and in turn, all the emotional responses we have share a common chemical language and are continually communicating with one another.
What Is the History of Mind-Body Connection?
Awareness of the mind-body connection is by no means new. Until approximately 300 years ago, virtually every system of medicine throughout the world treated the mind and body as a holistic whole.
However, during the 17th century, the Western world started to see the mind and the body as two distinct entities. In this view, the body was equivalent to a machine, complete with replaceable and independent parts, with no connection whatsoever to the mind.
This Western viewpoint had definite benefits, acting as the foundation for advances in surgery, trauma care, pharmaceuticals, and other areas of allopathic medicine.
However, it also significantly reduced scientific inquiry into humans’ emotional and spiritual life, and downplayed our innate ability to heal on our own.
In the 20th century, this view gradually started to change. Researchers began to study the mind-body connection and scientifically demonstrate complex links between the body and mind.
Extensive research has confirmed the medical as well mental benefits of meditation, mindfulness training, yoga, and other mind-body practices.
It’s important to understand that “mind” is not synonymous with the brain. Instead, the mind consists of mental states such as thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and images. The brain is the hardware that allows us to experience such mental states.
Mental states can be fully conscious or even unconscious. We can have emotional reactions to situations without being aware of why we are reacting.
Each mental state has a physiology associated with it that can be felt as a positive or negative effect in the physical body. For example, the mental state of anxiety can cause you to produce stress hormones.
Various mind-body therapies focus on becoming more conscious of mental states. Using this increased awareness, you can guide mental states into a better, less destructive direction.
Optimum health requires the mind, physical body, and spirit to be in balance.
How Do Yoga and Meditation Positively Impact the Mind-Body Connection?
Research on yoga and meditation has further explored and implied the connection between mind, body, and spirit.
Studies show that the mindful movement and breathing done in yoga activates the relaxation response (or the “rest-and-digest” response), via the vagus nerve.
The Impact of Food on Our Mood: How Does Nutrition Affect the Mind-Body Connection?
What goes into our bodies also impacts our mind and mental health. What we eat has the power to prevent or help reverse mental health challenges.
Moreover, specific nutrients have been linked to measurable positive outcomes in mental and emotional well-being.
In addition to that, the mind-body connection manifests in the communication between the brain and the gut. About 95% of serotonin, one of the primary hormones involved in mood and emotion regulation, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract.
Sometimes referred to as the “the second brain” or “belly brain,” this enteric (intestinal-related) nervous system consists of some 100 million neurons and sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the gut.
What goes into our bodies also impacts our mind and mental health.
As a result, researchers have found that people with healthy, diverse gut microbes are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Furthermore, studies demonstrate that replacing bad bacteria in the gut with good bacteria can significantly alter mood and emotional regulation.
For example, neurological pathways connect parts of the brain that process emotions with the spinal cord, muscles, cardiovascular system, and even the digestive tract. This allows major life events, stressors, or emotions to trigger physical symptoms.
You may have experienced this aspect of the mind-body connection when you felt butterflies in your stomach when you were nervous, or when your heart feels like it is pounding out of your chest when you are under intense stress.
These intersecting systems help to establish the mind-body connection that influences the maintenance of health or the development of disease.
For example, emotions like anxiety can trigger increased stress hormones, which in turn, may suppress the immune system and set the stage for infections.
One common way you may experience the interaction of belief and physical sensations is when dealing with chronic pain. In essence, pain is a combination of physical sensations you experience, emotions you tend to feel, and the meaning that pain has for you.
Emotional suffering, physical pain, and other sensations share certain similarities in their neural pathways.
For example, feelings of anger or insecurity can disrupt the regular beating of the heart and flow of the breath! This further activates the sympathetic nervous system in the same way that occurs when you are facing a threat, creating an even greater sense of uneasiness and pain.
You can see this type of physiology playing out in people with a lack of social support, who are more likely to have cardiovascular and other health problems than those with consistent and supportive relationships.
So to avoid the build-up of toxic emotions, you need to remain present and aware.
Use These 4 Mind-Body Connection Practices to Build Holistic Health:
For these practices, you may need to seek help from an experienced guide, mentor, or professional. But you can also do some mind-body connection exercises right in your own home, car, or office, even when you only have a few moments to spare.
1. Gentle Movement
Gentle movements, such as those found in yoga and tai chi, are great mind-body connection practices.
Biofeedback is a type of therapy that uses sensors attached to your body to measure key body functions. Biofeedback can help you learn more about how your body reacts to stressors.
This may help you learn how to control your breathing, your heart rate, and other functions impacted by stress.
3. Progressive Relaxation
Progressive relaxation is a technique where you concentrate on tightening and then relaxing various muscle groups.
This can be combined with other meditative practices and breathing exercises for a deep sense of physical as well as mental relaxation.
Mindfulness meditation is something you can do anytime you have a few minutes to focus.
You don’t need a guide, a yoga mat, or any other special equipment. You just need to close your eyes, pay attention to your breath, and focus on your present thoughts.
When your attention wanders, return to the present. Mindfulness can help bring you focus, tune out distractions, and find a little calm in the moment — and over time, help your mind and body feel better.
Mental or emotional problems are associated with the development of physical disease. An estimated 95% of all illnesses can be caused or aggravated by stress.
Individuals with high stress levels are far more likely to catch colds. It is never uncommon for individuals to develop hypertension or an ulcer after particularly stressful life events.
Depression has been often linked to a range of disorders, including strokes, heart disease, and diabetes. Anger-prone individuals have been found to have higher risks of heart attacks than even smokers or individuals with high blood pressure.
The right attitude and some social support can affect health in more positive ways. The old saying, “Laughter is the best medicine” is true, as it has been found to reduce pain, speed healing, and increase creativity.
Being active in a group, no matter how impactful, can actually increase one’s longevity, regardless of other health habits! Social networks also provide needed support.
Individuals with mental health or substance abuse problems have a life expectancy decades lower than the general population. Taking care of one’s physical health is a very critical part of the recovery process for those with behavioural health problems.
The Role of the Body Upon the Mind
The body achieves what the mind believes.
Research supports the role of physical activity in helping manage various mental disorders. Active people have been found to be less depressed than inactive people, and the ones with chronic depression are more likely to go into remission with regular exercise.
Due to increased levels of oxygen and endorphins, individuals who exercise regularly feel more alert, possess more energy, have better memory retention, and a greater sense of well-being.
As little as 20 to 30 minutes of vigorous physical activity daily is sufficient to achieve results.
Yoga, meditation, and other relaxation strategies have been found to ease stress, depression, and even sleep problems. There is growing evidence that the practice of meditation can even slow down cognitive decline in older adults.
Eating healthy foods in moderation can increase emotional well-being and reduce many of the physical problems that are often associated with mental illness, such as fatigue and obesity.
Getting approximately eight hours of sleep per night is a goal few adults achieve, but the benefits are worth the effort. Adequate sleep improves mood and concentration, and
decreases physical health risks.
The Takeaway on the Mind-Body Connection
As Dr. John Hagelin said, “Happier thoughts lead to essentially a happier biochemistry, [and] a happier, healthier body.”
Our minds and our bodies are inherently connected. And we can affect one by influencing the other. Look at your mind and your body from a holistic perspective and watch how everything changes.
All included information is not intended to treat or diagnose. The views expressed are those of the author and should be attributed solely to the author. For medical questions, please consult your healthcare provider.