The Yoga Remedy
By Deborah Cohen
Many of us would freely admit to spending hours lost in the world of ideas, glued to a computer screen and keypad for hours at a stretch, and functioning as little more than disembodied heads. Cues from the rest of our biology are stoically pushed to the side so we can just finish. The mental pattern responsible for this phenomenon is reinforced until it becomes a default setting. We are helpless against its pull. However, practicing mindfulness disciplines such as yoga and meditation help us identify and gain mastery over the patterning of our minds and bodies. In fact, it improves more than postural habits; it changes the very structure of the brain.
The proto-yogic ideas and practices of mindfulness, regulation of the breath, chanting and incantations, and shifts in states of consciousness can be traced back to 3,000–1,900 BCE in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in what is now North India. However, hatha yoga, with its current emphasis on cultivating the body rather than concerning oneself with the metaphysical, is a more modern phenomenon. It derives from what Georg Feuerstein, a noted yoga historian, describes as the Siddha (meaning “accomplished” or “perfected”) cult, which flourished between the eighth and twelfth centuries. Its aim was to cultivate an adamantine body that was capable of experiencing higher spiritual states. Today, many people practice yoga without any desire for psychospiritual change. The goal can be far more worldly than the original intent.
Many hatha yoga practitioners’ goals range from losing weight to managing health concerns like back pain, diabetes, asthma, or infertility to cultivating more flexibility or improving posture. The primary appeal of yoga in mainstream culture is the manner by which it improves quality of life. This can be compared to an approach that recognizes yoga as a discipline whose ultimate aim is transcending ordinary life, but such a neat comparison is not accurate. Because spiritual experiences pepper our lives, because “spiritual” describes moments rather than people or fixed states, we do well to refrain from pitching tents around such experiences, holding on to them too tightly when it is time to move on. There is no need for condescension for those whose aims regarding yoga are moving them toward health and wellness and wholeness. The process of using the body as a tool to train the attention is powerful work. It bears fruit on many levels and “understanding yoga” comes along the way. One is always a beginner; the layers of subtlety are endless.
The mindfulness practices, where we tune in to what is happening while it is happening, without judgment or expectation, have been demonstrated to have beneficial effects on the physiology of the brain. When we attune to our own body and mind, the effects in the brain are the same as when another tunes in to us. This experience of attunement is a human need, one that is necessary for the healthy emotional development of a child. A child whose mother is able to consistently attune to his or her thoughts and emotions is able to develop a secure attachment style, whereas a child lacking this experience becomes reactive in intimate connections with others. Fortunately, these mindfulness practices enable us to repattern the neural circuitry so that we can connect more fully with our own thoughts and feelings and to those of the people around us.
The opposite of this experience is when we go on automatic pilot, moving through our lives without really connecting, with-out experiencing the life of the senses, the life of the mind, and emotions in a fresh way. We “re-act,” conceiving of our experiences based on past conditioning, making sense of events based on what we already know to be true. It is useful to the extent that it frees us to move more quickly and efficiently through the tasks set before us. However, if this is our only way of operating, then we become locked into experiencing the world according to our preconceived notions. We shut down and react based on our understandings of the past and because of the emotional charge of some of those events; we tend to repeat patterns over and over again. Mindfulness practices train the attention in order to enable us to experience our inner world and the world around us in a fresh way. They still the patterning of our consciousness. In this open, curious state, we are able to attune to ourselves and the world around us and open to new possibilities.
There are many people who draw a distinction between the life of the mind and the life of the body. There are aspects of our culture that encourage such an attitude. The working world receives positive reinforcement for sitting in chairs 8 to 12 hours a day, and our bodies wither, become brittle, and slump. Our culture overemphasizes technology, dismissing the value of human contact and the life of the senses, and our communication gets confused and lacks meaning. Rewards abound for those who can override the rhythms of the body for the sake of productivity. Consistently, the message we receive and transmit to others is that doing trumps feeling. This is a dangerous strategy that leads to alienation and meaninglessness. Feeling leads to being grounded and connected to our sense of self. From there we can do much more effectively. How well are we able to pay attention to anything or anyone when the body does not allow for such attention because it is deprived of sleep, good nutrition, exercise, and conscious awareness?
What is important to understand is that the mind and body respond to one another. When one works with the body, to consciously relax it, there are shifts in thinking patterns and emotional states that accompany that relaxation. We are able to recognize when we are stuck in the physiological state often described as “the stress response.”1 Without conscious attention, many people’s bodies and minds remain in the stress response instead of responding to a perceived threat with appropriate increased vigilance and then returning to a baseline relaxed state. When we live in that heightened state of alertness, experiencing chronic stress, or we shut down and collapse, never rising to appropriate levels of engagement, these two experiences manifest as anxiety and depression. In either case, the reaction is due to being unable to pull away from an unskillful thinking pattern.
The culprit is the speed of the thoughts. The remedy, then, is to slow down the thinking. Both seated meditation and hatha yoga are disciplines to effect that end.
- This term describes what happens when the hypothalamus triggers the stress hormones, cortisol and epinephrine, to shift the body into a state of alert where heart rate, respiration, and blood sugar increase; digestion, the immune system, and reproductive system functioning are compromised; and muscle tension, or the tonus of the body, increases.
Deborah Cohen graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Graduate School of Education. She runs an accredited yoga teacher training program and teaches sections for Harvard’s “Positive Psychology” undergraduate class. She is involved with several research studies measuring the effects of yoga on schoolchildren