I’m Sara Intonato, and today on the blog we are doing some myth busting on what the mind-body connection really is. My biggest gripe with the wellness community in general is that EVERYONE talks about the mind-body connection, but they do so in such an airy-fairy way, without actually explaining what it is or how it works. So today we’re examining the richness the mind-body connection because it IS real, and it’s something you can use to your advantage to function more efficiently and more joyfully on every level. Today we are no longer going to think of the mind-body connection as some loopy, new-agey concept, but as a real concept and an ancient concept at that. Let’s get right into it.
The first important concept you must understand about the mind-body connection is that in order for you to stimulate it on a physical level, you have to initiate proper breathing techniques. Many yogic traditions use technique called the ujjayi breath. In Ashtanga yoga, it isn’t actually called this, because the ujjayi title is reserved for deeper pranayama exercises which are too intense to do while practicing poses. Instead, it is called “free breathing with sound”, and the sound comes from a gentle engagement of the esophagus. While correct breathing sounds a bit like Darth Vader, it does not make a vocal sound. No humming! It’s just a steady rhythmic vibration that’s coming from our breathing.
When done effectively, with a deep nostril breath, you are stimulating your brain stem, (your medulla oblongata to be exact) with the vibration which occurs during the engagement of the throat. This is what awakens all the receptors in your brain. By doing this, you’re allowing the brain to transmit its messages to your body more efficiently.
Two important things to note: First, you are only breathing effectively if you are engaging your bandhas, your energy locks at your pelvic floor and your navel. Without those, you will not be taking a deep, diaphragmatic breaths in the way you required to wake up those mind-body receptors and develop a cleaner transmission from brain to body.
Strong bandhas are achieved by paying keen attention, so get ready to focus! We want our breath to be equanimous, meaning our inhale and exhale are equal in volume, depth, timing, etc. Very often, our exhalations overpower our inhalations, something I notice frequently in my students’ practices. It’s our job to make sure the inhalation is not being shrugged off, as it has a very strong role in our practice. When inhale and exhale are equanimous, engaging the bandhas, and breathing rhythmically for an extended period, all the dormant energy in every part of your body wakes up and the mind-body connection becomes a clearer pathway to physical and mental health.
The second important note is you have nerves which run from your medulla oblongata directly to your organs. The biggest of these is the vagus nerve, which is the 10th cranial nerve and the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system. It runs all the way down through your cervical spine, down into your body, and connects to the transverse colon. Because the vagus nerve conveys sensory input about the state of the body’s organs back to the nervous system, it is directly stimulated by correct bandha engagement! Equanimous, diaphragmatic breathing, and stimulation of the pelvic floor lock strengthen and tone this nerve, which has a calming effect on your mind. So when you feel frenetic, simply stop and connect to your bandhas and breath, and immediately your mind will become steadier. When your mind is steady, your body can receive the messages the mind is trying to send with much more efficiency.
Remember, your mind-body connection doesn’t just work for you when everything in your life is going great. Your mind-body connection is present when you are stressed, sad, or worried. It would be silly to think that that tension in our physical body and the countless ailments most folks feel daily are not coming from our mind in some way. Negative messages are translated by your brain stem and sent into your physical body just like positive ones. The knots in your neck, insomnia, exhaustion, allergies, and joint pain (must I go on?) are proof this is true. The residue of your mind is clogging up your physical body with junk.
The good news is it works both ways. Your mind affects your physical body, but your physical body also affects your mind. Simply by stimulating your body via breath, the breath and bandhas, you awaken the vagus nerve and your mind can receive the calming effects from your yoga practice. Once this happens, your mind can communicate with your body in a clear, responsive way.
The next time you’re in class and your teacher reminds you take a deep breath, it’s important to remind yourself he or she is not doing so just to have a nice time. He or she is doing it because it will have a physical effect and mental effect on your body. Keep this in mind with every practice. Know that even though your poses might look fancy, (and even if you post pictures of them on Instagram), you’re not doing it for this reason. You’re doing it practice because it’s going to help you live a joyful, healthier life, and that’s why we partake in this daily sadhana.
Thanks so much for tuning in today. Have a great day. Namaste.