How the body influences the mind

By A. G. Mohan and Dr. Ganesh Mohan

Yoga tells you how

If you give your cat a food that’s really tasty, you can imagine that she’s thrilled to eat it, just as we may enjoy ice cream or pizza. Tasty food is an experience to be enjoyed whether one is human or a cat!

Cats taste food, digest it, and enjoy it. So do we. Cats like to rest a little after eating heavily or during a hot afternoon. So do we.

Cats move around, run, and stretch. So do we.

If a cat eats spoiled food, it feels sick and lethargic, and loses its appetite. We would feel the same too. If a cat senses a threat, it gets ready to fight or to run away. So do we.

If you like dogs better, this example works fine with dogs too, or mostly any other mammal! That’s because, at the lower levels of our physiology, we are quite similar to other mammals.

Many of our basic life experiences are a result of the biology of our body. We tend to consider that body problems are in the body and mental problems are in the mind. That’s not true. There is no sharp division between mind and body. When one is unwell, the other feels unwell too. Therefore, it is difficult to feel well in your mind if your body does not support that feeling from bottom up.

For instance, if you sleep poorly, eat junk food, or have chronically poor posture, your brain is going to be affected by all these signals, and it won’t function at its best. No one wakes up after a night out at a bar followed by three hours of sleep, or after a binge on tubs of ice-cream the previous night, and feels fantastic the next morning. More likely, they feel dull and heavy!

You can try a small experiment: clench your fists and tense your shoulders up toward your ears. Now say aloud or in your mind, “I feel calm and kind.” Doesn’t feel real, isn’t it? Your body is saying, “I am tense and angry,” so your mind finds it difficult to generate the opposite feelings. Your thoughts are influenced by your posture — from bottom up, the body is influencing the mind.

This is what we can call the bottom-up pathway to well-being: you increase well-being by gradually changing your body and your senses — movement, posture, breathing, diet, touch, environment, etc., and create a more beneficial state in each of them. Automatically, this will cascade up to your thoughts and emotions too, and leave you feeling well.

This is why Yoga Sutra of Patanjali from so many centuries ago, being a pragmatic text, points out that stillness of the mind, which is yoga, depends on creating calmness and well-being in the body too. Hence, the pathway described concisely by Patanjali uses eight limbs to the yoga path, which combine practices that work “top down” or simply, from mind to body, and “bottom up,” which is body to mind.

The practices of asana and pranayama, for example, shift the way we feel in our mind from bottom up — by starting with the quality of movement and breathing. When movement and breathing become steady and calm, our thoughts and emotions settle down. When movement and breathing are tense or jerky, thoughts and emotions reflect anxiety and restlessness.

One of the most important contributions that yoga can make to your life is create integration from bottom up. Shift what you feel in your mind not just from your mind, but also from the biology of your body.

This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.