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Yoga Therapy and the Mind-Body Connection, Part 2

Various yogic tools take advantage of the links between mind and body, to benefit both.

By Timothy McCall, M.D.


In Part 1, we saw how the so-called mind-body connection 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. In Part 2, we'll look at practical ways help your clients use that connection to achieve positive results.

Using 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 ayurveda">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.

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.

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Reader Comments

Suzanne McGrath

I found this articlle on backbends to be very helpful in terms of allowing the yoga expereince to wash over you as the breath maintains the still point. The inner self becomes clear in this process

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