Yoga - Mind and Body in Harmony
By Michael Dorman
Through its long history, the practice of yoga has attempted to address, in various ways, the question of the connection between mind and body.
Different schools of thought within the yogic community have dominated the discussion of this question at different times. The earliest sages spoke of transcending both mind and body to reach a state of pure consciousness where the demands of the physical and mental worlds no longer applied. Hundreds of years later, other sages suggested that perhaps the proper place of yoga was to cultivate and strengthen the connection between mind and body--to achieve greater harmony between them, and to allow the practitioner to move more skillfully and effortlessly within the world, not just with the body but with the mind as well.
This latter school of thought forms the underpinning behind many schools concerned with the physical practice of yoga. More accurately referred to as Hatha yoga, this is what is generally thought of as "yoga" in the West (though in fact the practice of yoga can take many forms, many of which have no relationship to the poses and movements we perform on a mat in our homes or a classroom).
Take a moment. Sit on a park bench, stand on a busy street corner, and walk through a crowded mall. Watch the people passing by you.
Notice what these individuals' bodies seem to show you about their state of mind. The person with the narrowed eyes and jutting chin moving in a staccato stomp seems angry. The person who moves lightly, whose eyes are open wide with a smile on her face seems happy. The person who hugs his shoulders forward, keeps his eyes on the ground, and shies away from any contact with another person seems fearful.
It doesn't take long to realize a person's internal state and external expression are inextricably connected. Whether we realize it or not, for most people that internal state is on full display. The way a person's mind moves, the paths it takes, the state it occupies, shows in how the person holds them self, how he or she moves, how they engage with the world. Even small children are able to recognize these signs--they are able to pick up even subtle nonverbal cues of others' states of mind.
Even when a person is aware of this connection, they do not always recognize it for the opportunity it represents. The practice of Hatha yoga, though, supposes that just as a person's internal state influences their external state, a person's external state can also influence their internal state.
Although there are a multitude of ways that Hatha yoga can influence a person's internal state, some of the more significant ones are:
1) Relief from pain: This is often the first and foremost benefit of Hatha yoga--the simple relief from chronic pain.
If our body is in constant pain, our internal state is going to reflect this. Chronic pain often leads to limitations in our ability to enjoy activities we might once have loved, so we abandon them. Chronic pain can change the shape of our body, creating restrictions in how we are able to interact with the world. Chronic pain can begin to restrict our ability to engage or enjoy our lives often leading to depression and further withdrawal. Even small levels of chronic pain can have surprisingly deep effects.
If we are able to relieve this pain, our internal state is free to once again have a healthy relationship with the world around us.
2) Grounding in the body: To live in Western culture is to live in a very intellectualized milieu. Most of people's day-to-day activities are very focused on the use of the mind. Many people find the constant demands of multitasking or the pervasive presence of hard-to-ignore media to be very overwhelming, stealing focus from things of import or significance.
When the mind is awhirl like this, Hatha yoga asks the practitioner to try to move the body in a consistent fashion by drawing his or her attention to that most concrete of acts, breathing. By working to maintain attention and establish a consistent rhythm with the breath, the practitioner's thoughts can become quieter and more focused. The visceral quality of the action reminds us to stay engaged.
3) Feelings of agency and creativity: In our post-industrial culture, many people work in jobs that do not let them have an experience of their own agency, at tasks that do not provide them with a clear sense of having a creative outlet, or even the ability to be creative. Evidence of the drive of human beings to have creative expression is among the earliest artifacts of our existence.
The practice of Hatha yoga gives the practitioner the ability to see the power of the choices they make reflected in their own body, as it becomes stronger and more flexible, as they find a path of greater calm or relief from pain. There is also the potential to have the experience of creating beauty in the practice--to have the experience of letting one's own personal expression of a pose shine, if only for a short moment.
By giving practitioners the opportunity to experience these benefits and many others, Hatha yoga strengthens the connection between the mind and the body. This deeper, richer connection allows people to approach their lives with a greater sense of intention and possibility.
Michael Dorman is a dedicated student and teacher of Anusara Yoga. He can be contacted at email@example.com