How to Use the Body Affect the Mind


By Timothy McCall, M.D.  |  

In Understanding the Mind-Body Connection, we saw how it includes not only the mind’s ability to affect the body—for better and worse—but the body’s ability to affect the mind as well. Here, we’ll look at practical ways help your clients use that connection to achieve positive results.

How to Use the Body to Affect the Mind

In understanding the effects on the mind of various yogic practices, it helps to know the three gunas that both ancient yogis and Ayurvedic masters used to characterize mental states: tamas, rajas, and sattva. In the modern world, most people’s mental condition is either marked by lethargy and inertia (tamas), or by constant motion and distractibility (rajas), and sometimes by alternating periods of tamas and rajas. Most people only experience sattva—the calm, balanced, mindful state—for brief intervals every now and then, if at all.

The idea behind the sequencing you commonly see in yoga classes is to get the students, after gently warming up, to exert themselves physically to overcome tamas (or, in cases where it’s necessary, to burn off excessive rajas). That’s why activating practices like Kapalabhati (Skull-Shining Breath) and Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations) usually are done early in a session. After a period of exertion, it’s common to then use gentler practices such as twists, forward bends, and inversions to progressively bring a rajasic mental state to a more balanced, calm, and peaceful (sattvic) one, in time for Savasana (Corpse Pose). If the student remains either tamasic or rajasic, this final resting pose is unlikely to be very therapeutic or satisfying.

How to Use Yoga Poses for Desired Energetic Effects

One of the lessons of yoga is that it’s not just the poses you do but how you do them that affects the mind. For example, you might worry that backbends would be too stimulating for a rajasic student who suffers from anxiety or insomnia. But if you can get the student to resist the temptation to overexert, the resulting backbends are likely to have a much more sattvic effect (and, interestingly, from the perspective of the mind-body connection, alignment may also improve). Sattvic backbends will still increase energy levels but are less likely to lead to restlessness or agitation. In a student who is more tamasic, however, you may want to push them harder in backbends, assuming they are physically able, in order to break through their mental lethargy.

Similarly, when you prescribe practices such as forward bends or breathing practices for their pacifying effects, be on guard that the students are not trying too hard to achieve a specific result. Many students, for example, tend to use their arms as levers to crank themselves more deeply into poses like Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), even when their bodies aren’t ready for it. Others, whom you teach to use short breath retentions or to lengthen their exhalation relative to the inhalation, may be pushing the limits of their breath capacity more than is comfortable. In either case, the result is likely to undermine the mental calming you were shooting for. Since the breath is intimately tied to one’s mental state, you’ll usually be able to spot telltale signs such as gasping or a lack of smoothness in their breathing as you monitor their practice.

How to Cultivate Sattva and Relaxation

Thus we can use our minds to calm (or stress) our bodies and our bodies to calm (or energize) our minds. Of course, when you use your body to energize then calm your mind, as we are often doing in yoga practice, the resulting sattva in turn causes numerous beneficial changes in the body, which may in turn facilitate dropping more deeply into relaxation.

Perhaps a better term than “mind-body” to reflect the back-and-forth nature of the interconnections between mental and physical health would be “body-mind-body.” It’s my belief, supported by some scientific evidence, that combining practices that target the mind with others that address the body is likely to yield greater benefits than single-pronged approaches.

Where to Start—Mind or Body?

A good example of body-mind-body medicine is the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of the bestsellers Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are. His Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) approach, which combines gentle hatha yoga with mindfulness meditation, has garnered impressive results in scientific studies and is now taught at hundreds of hospitals and clinics worldwide.

In his work with patients with a wide variety of medical conditions, including chronic pain, cancer, arthritis, anxiety, and depression, Kabat-Zinn has observed that particular patients seem to respond better to some elements of the MBSR program. He has found that those with primarily physical complaints, such as joint pain, often do best when they use meditation to go through what he calls the “mind door.” Others, particularly those with mental problems such as anxiety or panic attacks, may do better with “body door” approaches like asana.

Of course, not all patients will fit this rule of thumb, which is why it’s good to have yoga’s vast toolbox so you can choose among those practices or combinations of practices that seem to bring your students the best results. Yoga also allows you to use both the body and mind doors, either sequentially or in combination, as when you have students practice Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breathing) during their asana practice or chant a mantra as they move into a twist or forward bend.

Ultimately, yoga is about union, the underlying unity of things that, on their surface, appear to be separate. So while it can be useful to speak of the body and the mind and the mind-body connection, through our yoga practice we come to understand that the mind and the body are not just connected. They are two manifestations of the same thing.

Dr. Timothy McCall is a board-certified specialist in internal medicine, Yoga Journal’s Medical Editor, and the author of book Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing (Bantam). He can be found on the Web at www.DrMcCall.com.