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Yoga: The Union of Body and Mind

Woman doing yoga
Woman doing yoga

Whether you regularly roll out your mat at a yoga class or have never entertained the thought, you will likely have heard of the mind-body connection offered through yoga.


Our minds are most often busy, noisy places - with thoughts, memories, daydreams, fears, worries, and to-do lists competing for attention. It is little wonder what is going on in our minds can also affect our physical bodies.


The connection of mind and body is ever-present. It is there when butterflies in the tummy take flight as you stand up to address an audience, your mouth begins to water at the sight and smell of delicious food, or your gut has an instant reaction to a situation or person.


Problems arise for the body when the mind is so anxious and stressed sleep proves elusive. And carrying a lot of anger may increase the risk of ulcers, high blood pressure or heart attack.


When starting a yoga practice, the focus is on the physical aspect of moving the body through asanas (poses) and using the breath intelligently. The purpose of asana practice is to develop strength, endurance, flexibility, and breath awareness while calming the nerves and beginning to focus the mind.


When focusing the mind on what we are doing with our body and breath in our asana practice, we are - for a time - calming the whirlpool of our minds and removing the negative impact on bodies and minds.


‘Asana’ means seat. The purpose of asana practice is to prepare the body, breath, and mind to be able to sit comfortably for meditation in stillness. The benefits of meditation[1] are profound; it quietens the mind, brings relief from worry and stress, lengthens attention span, improves memory, enhances self-awareness, increases kindness toward self and others and it may help fight addiction, control pain, decrease blood pressure and improve sleep.


Just as the mind has an impact on the body, what we do with the physical body influences our mind. Through asana practice, we stimulate and calm the mind. Back extensions, like cobra pose, and side stretching, like triangle pose, create space for the breath, increase blood pressure, stimulate the mind, and promote an outward focus.


Conversely, forward folds support turning inwards, introspection, as the posture decreases the capacity of the breath and lowers blood pressure. Calming inversions like legs up the wall, or a shoulder stand, activate the parasympathetic nervous system - leading to feelings of calm and balance. Strong arm balances, like handstand and forearm balance, get the blood moving; invigorating the body and revitalising the mind, improving concentration and memory. Turning upside down also gives a whole different perspective, both literally and figuratively. Sometimes inversions can even help us to see things more clearly.


The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, provides a great example of the influence the mind can have on the health and well-being of the physical body, and vice-versa. Kabat-Zinn uses a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)[2] approach, combining gentle hatha yoga with mindfulness meditation. His studies have produced impressive results, and the method is now being implemented at hundreds of hospitals and clinics across the world.


Kabat-Zinn worked with patients with a wide variety of medical conditions including depression, anxiety, cancer, chronic pain, and arthritis. He observed patients who experienced primarily physical complaints, such as pain, often did best when using meditation. Patients living with mental health issues such as anxiety or panic attacks seemed to do better with approaches like asana practice.


Not everyone will neatly fit this rule of thumb. Fortunately, yoga offers an enormous toolbox from which to discover practices, and/or combinations of practices, to best support your physical and mental health.


A science and philosophy for living, yoga doesn’t tell you what to do but teaches you how to be. It helps you to know yourself, to relieve suffering and attain a state free from pains and miseries.


Women who participate in yoga classes with Women’s Health Tasmania regularly report improvements in their physical and mental health both from the practice and the social connections made with other students. One woman recently spoke of how she sings all the way home after class.


Fundamentally, yoga is union. It concerns the underlying unity of things which might appear, on the surface, to be separate. It can be helpful to speak of the mind-body connection. However, through the practice of yoga, we may come to realise the body and mind are not only connected but are manifestations of the same thing.


[1] Thorpe, M, MD PhD and Link, R, MS RD.2020. 12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation.

[2] Kabat-Zinn J, PhD. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Training website