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An exciting study published in Biological Psychiatry and profiled in The New York Times demonstrates, for the first time, a link between mindfulness meditation, brain connectivity in two important areas related to emotional well-being, and a reduction in unhealthy markers of inflammation. Remarkably, these benefits were absent in a control group that practiced relaxation without mindfulness. Dr. J. David Creswell, who led the study, believes that the positive brain changes led to the reduction in inflammation.
Like yoga, mindfulness is a several thousand-year-old tradition. Being mindful means that we purposefully pay attention, without judgment, to what’s happening in the present moment. It isn’t something you only do with your mind, however; in fact, mindfulness starts with the body.
Emerging research in neuroscience has focused on interoception: the art of paying attention to momentary fluctuations in bodily sensations—purposefully, non-judgmentally, and without needing to change or fix anything. Think of interoception as mindfulness in the body.
Amazingly, interoception has a positive impact on our physical health, benefitting our immune system, gut microbiome, and connective tissue matrix. Interoception also helps with emotional resilience: among many things, it turns down the volume on the negative self-referential thinking characteristic of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, addictions, and other “diseases of disembodiment.” And as Creswell’s new study indicates, practicing mindfulness meditation may also increase functional connectivity, or communication, between this ruminating and negative part of the brain, and the part responsible for executive control.
When it comes to neuroplasticity, or positive change, the frequency of our practice is more important than its duration. Think for a moment of anxiety: doing a quick body scan several times throughout the day helps us notice when anxiety levels are escalating; we can then practice one of the embodied tools below to reset our nervous system. Do this often enough, and we create a new neural baseline or set-point. By integrating simple, two-minute embodiment tools several times daily, you’ll see profound changes in your health and wellbeing.
The following practices might not seem like “real yoga,” but they’re rooted in mindfulness and embodiment. Practice them several times daily to become more embodied, rewire your nervous system, develop emotional resilience, boost your immune system, and access your sensory intelligence and intuition.
To improve your overall health and reap the benefits of mindfulness, try these five exercises in addition to your practice.
Supported Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) with Nasal Breath
Tip: Use an eye pillow and incorporate longer exhales.
This exercise combines breath-centered awareness, light abdominal touch, nasal breath, and an eye pillow. Together, these tools stimulate the vagus nerve, our primary output nerve to the parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest, branch of the autonomic nervous system.
Lie down with your knees bent and the soles of your feet flat on your mat. You can choose to add a block positioned wide underneath your sacrum for Supported Bridge. Place an eye pillow over your eyes. Bring one hand to your abdomen, and the other to your heart. Bring your awareness to the point of contact between your palms and your body; use this point as a gateway to draw your awareness further inward. Breathe through your nose, inhaling and exhaling as slowly as possible. Direct your breath to where your hands are. If you can do so comfortably, lengthen your exhale so that it’s longer than your inhale. Continue for several minutes, directing your breath to your hands or further into your body. If it’s helpful to have an additional “anchor” for your thoughts, try this: as you inhale, say “Breathing in.” As you exhale, say “Breathing out.”
Embodied Belly Meditation
Sit on a bolster with your legs crossed; add blocks under your thighs to minimize muscular contraction. Place your hands on your abdomen, palms slightly overlapping. Breathe slowly through your nose. Direct your awareness to the point of contact between your hands and your belly, and then draw your breath there as well. Use this point of contact as a gateway into the inner world of your body. You can remain here or begin to notice the subtle changes in your abdomen as you breathe. On each inhale (when your diaphragm drops toward the pelvic floor), feel the “density” in your belly increase. As you exhale (when your abdomen rises upward), feel that density lighten. Continue for several minutes. Before emerging from the pose, notice the difference in the speed of your thoughts, the wiring of your nervous system, the depth of your breath, and how present you feel in your body.
Try this self-compassion practice, adapted especially for yogis, in your pre-practice meditation, in Savasana, or any time you need it.
A growing body of research emphasizes the value of self-compassion as an extension of a mindfulness-based practice. This is your brain on self-criticism: greater depression, a pervasive sense of shame, reduced capacity for attention (yes, decreased mindfulness!) and a vulnerability to addictive behavior—think social media obsession, shopping, or substance use. This is your brain on self-compassion: in a meta-analysis of over 25 studies, researchers found that self-compassion lowers anxiety and depression, reduces cortisol (our stress hormone), increases heart-rate variability (a measure of emotional resilience and self-control), and provides greater resilience than self-esteem.
In Supported Relaxation Pose or any other restorative pose you like, bring to mind a difficult situation in your life right now. Acknowledge to yourself, “This is a moment of suffering” (or challenge, or difficulty). Say this a few times in your mind. When it feels complete, say to yourself, “All people feel these moments of suffering” (or challenge, or difficulty. Repeat until this feels internalized. Then ask yourself what part or parts of your body are incubating that suffering or discomfort in this moment. If accessible, bring your hands there. Draw your awareness to the point of contact between your hands and your body. Nourish that space with your breath for as long as you like. Take a few moments here to really feel the difference.
Connective Tissue Work
Try the following exercise for a triple dose of mindfulness in the body, balance in the nervous system, and an unexpected opening in the hips.
Interoception has many surprising connections, among them a strong link to connective tissue work. Research indicates that “self-bodywork” AR: a link to research please with mindful awareness reduces tension and stiffness in our connective tissue and muscles. This “football” exercise calms the nervous system, increases embodiment, and boosts immunity.
Stand close to a wall for easy balance. Place a tennis ball (or a therapy ball— like the ones at Yoga Tuneup under your right foot. Aim for the thick bed of tissue where your heel merges with your arch. Lightly place your weight onto your foot and apply pressure, beginning with the inside edge of the heel-arch juncture. As you breathe, move slowly through the center of this tissue bed toward the outer edge of the foot, and inhale as you release. Gradually move the stimulation to your inner, middle, and outer arch, to add more tissue pumping here. Then, take the tennis or therapy ball to the next thick band of fascia: the juncture where the arch meets the ball of your foot. Move as before, from inner to middle to outer edge, and finish with some light pumping. Pick up the ball in your hand. Before moving to the other side, take a minute or two to feel the difference between sides. Walk around a bit: feel the difference in stride length, hip ease, hip mobility (you can do some knee lifts and knee circles in the air.) Amazingly, this difference comes not from classic stretching, but from enhanced hydration and communication in your tissue. When you’ve assimilated the difference, repeat on your other side.
Mindful Sun Salutations
Research shows that slow movement has lasting benefits to the immune and nervous systems. How slow? Think of the pace of Tai Chi or Qi Gong; this slow pace integrates contemplative, meditative practice with movement. One of the simplest ways to try this is with Sun Salutations.
The vinyasa system often uses a breath for each movement; we inhale and draw the arms up, and exhale into forward bend, and so on. For Mindful Sun Salutations, try lengthening each transition for six seconds or more. Inhale for six seconds as you raise your arms, and exhale for six seconds as you lower into Forward Bend. Continue in this way through several rounds. Ensure that each transition (moving from Downward Dog into Lunge, for example) lasts for six seconds or longer. When you finish, close your eyes in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and stand with your hands on your heart or abdomen. Do a quick check-in: Are you in your body any differently than before? What is the speed of your mind? The depth of your breath? Make a note also of your emotions and your level of physical pain, if any. Also observe your mind’s response to moving more slowly: Are you frustrated? Relieved? Grounded? A combination of all three?
Checking in will help you register the difference, which is an embodiment-enhancing tool in itself. As you get used to this slower pace, you might wish to lengthen each transition up to 10-seconds.
There’s a different way of living than we’ve been taught, a different way of movement, of rest, of creative expression, of being in relationship with ourselves and everyone around us. A healthy, happy, and fulfilled life, as it turns out, is an embodied life. It’s well worth the effort: our lives—and the quality of our lives—might just depend on it.
About Bo Forbes
Bo Forbes is a is a global yogi, innovator, information-gatherer, and paradigm-bender who integrates the fields of yoga, mindfulness, neuroscience, psychology, and movement studies. She is the founder ofEmbodied Awareness, an online education company whose mission is“wellness through embodiment.” Called a “scholar, healer, and maverick” by Yoga Therapy Today, Bo’s background includes training in biopsychology, behavioral medicine, sleep disorders and stress management. Bo utilizes her unique work in embodiment and mindfulness with professional athletes, including baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey. She conducts teacher trainings and workshops internationally, writes frequently for Yoga Journal, Body + Soul, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and other leading magazines, and is on the advisory board of the International Association of Yoga Therapists and the Give Back Yoga Foundation. She is part of a research collaborative investigating yoga as a contemplative practice, has spoken at the Mind and Life Institute’s International Symposium on Contemplative Studies and, in 2015, attended its Summer Research Institute. She is the author of Yoga for Emotional Balance: Simple Practices to Relieve Anxiety and Depression. Learn more at boforbes.com and find more tools on Instagram and Facebook.