Yoga & Meditation: Central Components of the Mind-Body Connection
Jim Massey, ND
So, you want to further explore the mind-body connection? Yoga and meditation play a significant role in everyday practical life and in developing a holistic experience that brings together body, mind, heart, and spirit. A committed yoga practice, along with an ongoing meditation discipline, furthers the capacity to deeply relax by being totally present in the moment.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning to join or yoke, implying the integration of every aspect of a human being, from the innermost parts to the external. This union of the many seemingly opposing layers of our being – mind and body, inner and outer, internal and external, activity and receptivity – nurtures the formation of a non-dual and inclusive state of mind that allows us to experience the challenging dualities of life without actually succumbing to duality.
Yoga: Preparing the Body for Oneness
Yoga has been practiced for over 2 millennia. The Indian literature is a storehouse of knowledge about yoga, covering every conceivable level. For example, the Vedas (books of spiritual knowledge), the Upanishads (philosophical readings), testify to the continued relevance of yoga as a discipline, as well as the Yoga Sutra, which is the living source wisdom of the yoga tradition. Yoga is considered a philosophy, a science, and an art. Yoga has been defined as the union of the individual spirit with that of the universal.
Most of us are familiar with yoga and the many different types of yoga postures that help develop our ability to “stretch,” ie, increase our flexibility and our range of motion. I remember in the mid 1980s, when I had a family practice in North Carolina and was reluctant to suggest yoga to some of my patients because some folks believed yoga was a cult. The term “stretching exercises” was more readily accepted, and oftentimes it is wiser just to meet patients where they’re at. Times have changed and yoga has become a widely-accepted practice. Yoga studios are ubiquitous.
Yoga poses (asanas) are postures or positions that are designed to help master the body and enhance the body’s functions. They create strength and endurance, improve circulation and energy flow, and enhance joint and muscle function. These yoga exercises evolved thousands of years ago from the need to create a healthy body in order to move more readily to a state of oneness and self-realization. Western culture has attempted to have yoga viewed simply as exercises and just another form of superficial workout routines, rather than having any holistic or deeper connection to life. It is quite interesting to observe and wonder how our culture continues to play the role of trying to keep individuals from looking within themselves and connecting and empowering their personal self.
Much like mind-body medicine, yoga broadens our capability for connection and inclusion by moving us out of both our physical and mental comfort zones. It broadens our capacity to acknowledge and dwell within our bodies and minds to experience deeper levels of compassion and personal intimacy. It teaches us to become more fully engaged in feeling our bodies and mental states via the asanas explored in a yoga practice. It is about being here now. Yoga brings us into the present moment without undo distractions, creating a greater awareness of the deeper physical and mental reality that is always present yet is often missed because of the multitude of distractions bombarding us moment to moment.
Meditation: Quieting & Centering
The mind, or mental component of yoga, brings breathing exercises to quiet the mind and brain. There is a definite connection between the practice of yoga and that of meditation. Many yoga practitioners view yoga as a strong complement to their daily meditation practice. There is a fundamental relaxation response in both yoga and meditation that allows the practitioner to develop the ability to deeply relax and quiet the “monkey mind” that can keep us stuck in the ongoing inner struggle and chatter of life going on around us.
The basis of every effective mind-body self-care program is meditation. Yoga science (including meditation) views the body as the covering outside the mind, and the mind as the covering outside the center of consciousness (the soul). To experience health and well-being, we must properly care for and feed the body, regulate our breath, coordinate the functions of our mind, and base all our actions on the inner intuitive wisdom of our spirit, as reflected by the conscience. Yes, that’s quite a challenge, especially living in the superficiality of our Western culture; heaven forbid we look within ourselves for answers.
Meditation increases theta waves (the electrical waves that appear in the brain just before the sleep cycle begins; however, in contrast to the sleeping person, the meditating person remains alert and focused). This experience creates a sense of calm awareness that allows the meditator to overcome the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. This slows down the mind’s rapid series of thoughts and feelings, and replaces that mental activity with a calm inner awareness and attention. As a consequence of this quiet, effortless (not that easy in the beginning), single-pointed focus of attention, the body and mind both become rejuvenated. By maintaining a daily meditation practice, symptoms of stress, fear, depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, and addictions can be diminished and the body can become free to function to its healthy potential.
Practicing Mind-Body Medicine
Mind-body medicine is an approach to healing that uses the power of thoughts and emotions to positively influence physical health. As Hippocrates wrote, “The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting a comprehensive and time-honored program for well-being.” Quantum physics has brought the acceptance of the fact that all things are indeed connected.
Meditation and the entire science of Yoga represents a holistic mind-body medicine that can provide the skills and the motivation to change old, debilitating habits into new, healthy habits that create not only better health but a greater sense of well-being. Regardless of your age, if you practice meditation and the principles of yoga as mind-body medicine, you can change your life. Albert Einstein once remarked, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If you find yourself stuck in such a rut and wonder how to break this vicious cycle, you are a prime candidate for instituting these changes in your life.
Simply by integrating and embracing a daily discipline of yoga and/or meditation, we can create a more optimal state of balance and health. Some of the common benefits that are derived from these practices are the reduction of stress, an improved sense of mindfulness, greater focus and clarity of thought, more happiness in our lives, the development of deeper and more heartfelt relationships, and the ability create a stronger vital force with added energy and awareness.
The US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in Atlanta, GA, report that the key factors influencing an individual’s state of health have not changed significantly over the past 20 years. Their reports show that everyday lifestyle choices contribute 53%. Quality of medical care accounts for only 10%. Heredity accounts for 18%, and environment 19%. The decisions people routinely make about their daily lives are by far the greatest factor in determining their wellness. The meaning of these statistics is strikingly clear. If people could be introduced to some essential, basic information and be motivated to make more skillful choices, they’d experience better health.
We do have the ability to live in a far more optimal state of balance and healthfulness, if we simply learn to make living in that state a greater priority than is presently done. As Gandhi so aptly said, “We need to be the change we want to see.” The facts are most convincing that we can create better health, be happier, and have far less stress in our lives if we would integrate and embrace these practices into our daily living. The choice is ours.
Jim Massey, ND, is a naturopathic physician licensed in OR and AZ (retired) and practicing since 1985. He was the one of the first licensed naturopathic doctors to practice in NC, and cofounded the North Carolina Association of Naturopathic Physicians in 1985. He served as a board member on the AANP from 1994-1996, working with Bob Timberlake on state licensing and chairing the Public Relations department. He and his wife, Karen, founded Mountain Peak Nutritionals in 1996, which specializes in creating “condition specific formulas®” for healthcare professionals. Dr Massey has focused and taught clinical nutrition, homeopathy, and mind-body medicine. He and Karen have lived in Portland for the last 11 years, gardening and growing their company.