The mind-body connection is a powerful one. We’re still unfolding the potential but what we know is that by working on one – the body or the mind – people can change. Traditionally, psychotherapy has worked to facilitate change by focusing on the mind. More recently, we’re discovering the incredible power of the body to effect change in the whole person.
What is the Psychology of Yoga?
The power of yoga is that it operates on all levels – mental, physical and spiritual. We know the three are connected and that a change in one can effect a change in the others but the power of yoga psychology is that it works with all three at once.
Now – what to expect … If you’ve never practiced yoga before, it might feel a bit awkward at first but this will soon pass. Yoga uses postures or movements, breath and meditation to connect with your inner experience – the part that is often neglected but which has an enormous impact on physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health.
You don’t have to be flexible. You don’t have to be athletic. And if you have trouble walking and breathing at the same time without falling over, that’s no problem at all because you don’t need to be co-ordinated either. The mind-body connection is such a strong one, and everything, however small, you do to connect to your body will have benefits mentally, physically and emotionally.
Yoga isn’t about arranging yourself into poses with precision and it’s certainly not about looking beautiful while you do it. It’s about reconnecting with your inner experience – something that’s so easily lost or pushed aside without us even realising.
How Does it Work?
Science is beginning to reveal the capacity of the body to effect mental change and the research is exciting. Neuroscientists are exploring an emerging area called interoception, which is an awareness of internal sensations, including hunger, heartbeat and how we perceive the physical sensations that determine mood, emotions and an overall sense of well-being.
Physical sensations are the first cue to our emotional state and to the presence of a need. When those needs are ignored or misinterpreted, mental and physical health can be compromised. The more we can become aware of our physical sensations, the more capacity we have to change and control our emotions and to have full awareness of what it is we need to re-establish a state of balance.
It’s easy to become so familiar with a way of being that we forget what it’s like to be otherwise. Through bodywork, yoga psychology is able to release the tension in muscles and connective tissue that contributes to the activation of the nervous system, and provide the experience of being ‘not depressed’ or ‘not anxious’.
Emotional memories are stored as emotional experiences in the body. Yoga psychology accesses these emotional experiences that often are out of awareness. By bringing them into awareness, we can navigate around them, work with them or change them. Rather than being swept along by things we aren’t aware of, we can act deliberately and consciously in full awareness. This is the essence of healing – and the power of yoga psychology.
So How Do We Know It Works?
Research around the connection between body therapies and mental health is on the rise. Recently, science has paid plenty of attention to the mental health benefits of yoga.
A number of studies have shown that aside from the physical benefits (overall physical health, strength, flexibility, reduction of heart rate, blood pressure and back pain), there are an abundance of psychological benefits. These include strengthening social connections (particularly when done in a group), stress reduction, and the alleviation of anxiety, depression, the effects of trauma and insomnia.
According to Stanford University health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal PhD, research is showing that yoga has the potential to change people at every level. For this reason, the number of psychotherapists embracing yoga in their practice is on the rise. Talk therapy, combined with moving and working through the body can be extremely powerful for mental health.
Sat Bir Khalsa PhD, Associate neuroscientist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School describes how yoga targets unmanaged stress, the driving force behind anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes and insomnia. Yoga works not just on a spiritual, mental and physical level, but also on a physiological level by reducing the stress response through the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and the stress hormone, cortisol.
Yoga effects measurable changes in the brain. Magnetic resonance imaging has shown that an hour of yoga increases the levels of a neurotransmitter (gamma-aminobutyric acid for those who like a tongue twister) by 27%. This increase is enough to counter anxiety and other mental health disorders
Yoga has enormous potential to effect change and to facilitate mental and physical strength, empowerment and confidence. We’re still unraveling the extent of its positive reach but without a doubt, by facilitating greater physical and mental awareness, a fuller, more deliberate way of living will follow.