Mention yoga to anyone and it inevitably conjures up images of fit bendy people in exotic poses. It’s easy to forget that long before yoga’s recent popularity in the West it developed over many hundreds, if not thousands of years as a way of not only optimising the physical body, but also understanding the mind, and ultimately and perhaps most ambitiously a way of liberating us from our suffering.
The ancients who forged this vision of yoga believed that in much the same way that a sculptor works tirelessly crafting a piece of stone to reveal its hidden beauty within, a life devoted to the various disciplines of yoga would give them the ability to release their physical and mental bonds and set themselves free.
Some believe we in the West have been far too easily seduced by the physical benefits of yoga to appreciate, or even realise the deeper mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of the practice. There have been many who have criticised our Western adaptation of this ancient tradition, believing that we have totally misunderstood and misinterpreted the purpose of working with the body and as a result have turned it into just another form of exercise.
Perhaps yoga has lost part of its soul in its adoption by the West, but in many ways this is hardly surprising considering that the East and West have diametrically opposed views when it come to the relationship between the mind and the body.
The Western conception of a split between mind and body goes back many centuries, to such ancient thinkers as Plato and Aristotle. But it was the French philosopher Rene Descartes who in the 17th century gave us the modern and perhaps the best known formulation of mind body dualism with his famous declaration “I think therefore I am.” This simple phrase expressed a radical split between mind and body, which became definitive of Western thought.
Even to this very day much of our understanding of thought, and the way we think, is based on Descartes’ mind-body dualism. But whether you support or reject Descartes' dualistic mind-body view. The down side to his powerful legacy is that it encouraged us to see our bodies as a machine that acts only to serve the mind.
This kind of mind centric view has taught us to value thought above everything else, and to ignore our emotions in the belief that emotions have very little to do with helping us to achieve our goals.
But emotion is related to thought and each one plays an important part in who we are. When our brain generates a certain type of thought it generates a rapid and automatic chemical reaction, which then triggers a response in the body that we perceive as an emotion or feeling such as love, fear or anger. To deny our emotions in any way only inhibits them and prevents them from running their natural cycles.
In the early part of the 20th century a small group of influential writers, musicians and academics became interested in Eastern philosophies and wisdom traditions, which view the mind and body as being intrinsically linked. It was the father of analytical psychology Carl Jung, who in the 1930’s became the first person to present these Eastern mind-body theories from a medical point of view. But it wasn’t until the 60’s and the mind altering psychedelic experiences of the hippy movement and their interest in Indian mysticism, that mind-body theories started to become popularised across Europe and North America.
But the mind-body debate is still very much alive and to suggest that any kind of mind-body therapy could play a role in a clinical setting alongside medical and psychiatric treatments is still considered by many to be unproven and 'alternative'.
But recently there have been some exciting new studies that point towards yoga’s therapeutic benefits when used as an effective and affordable adjunct treatment for many of the most common forms of mental illness. Some of these conditions include chronic stress, anxiety, mood disorders, mental burn out and insomnia. In many cases yoga has been known to work as a form of prevention as well as cure, and has been proved to help with increasing feelings of overall wellbeing.
There is also a growing subset of yoga classed as “Yoga therapy” that uses trained yoga teachers to assess mental conditions and their related complications. This is a condition-sensitive form of yoga that works alongside a number of medical and psychiatric treatments for a range of mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, trauma, ADHD, depression and other severe mental illness.
Enter “yoga and mental health” into PubMed, the online medical database, and you are likely to get around 200 related academic articles on the effectiveness of yoga in psychotherapy. Apply the same search to Google Scholar and that brings up an additional 60 similar articles.
It was the Austrian born psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich who is generally thought of as being the first person to acknowledge how working with the body can help release trauma and suppressed emotions. His ground-breaking work in the 1940’s and 50’s helped lay the foundations for many of today’s now established forms of body-oriented psychotherapies.
The theory behind most of these types of therapies is that our unprocessed traumas are not so much stored in the speaking parts of the brain but rather they are stored in the unconscious processes that reach deep within the body.
We know through developments in biology and neuroscience that the body and the mind are talking to each other all the time in what is referred to as a feedback loop. Chemical hormones that travel through the brain also travel throughout the body, carrying signals to what are known as receptor cells. The release of these chemicals primarily acts to keep all our various bodily systems functioning optimally – this is known as homeostasis. But when these chemicals are related to certain kinds of thought they also have the ability to create our emotions and feelings. Watching someone blush is watching this miracle of nature at work.
It’s as if our bodies are eavesdropping on every thought we have, and when these thoughts are associated with fear and survival the body responds by using the chemicals to store memory of the situation within certain cells. But as a way of trying to cope with situations we find threatening or painful we will often reject and bury our own feelings, which in turn prevent this biological process from running its correct and natural course. The paradox of all this is that our stored experiences help us to learn, but at the same time they also have the ability to limit us.
When these types of feelings are unable to run their natural cycle they end up leaving deep emotional scars within what is often referred to as the emotional or pain body. And rather than diminishing over time they end up creating new patterns of thinking that intrude and influence us in our lives far more than we realize.
These unexpressed emotions can end up distorting our lives in such a way that they prevent us from experiencing lasting happiness and peace. In many cases the struggle to cope with these emotions buried in our deep subconscious processes can lead to various forms of depression as well as self-destructive behavior and addictions.
In the yogic tradition these trapped emotions are referred to as samskaras, which roughly translates as habit or pattern. It is believed that in order to release these emotional patterns we must embark on an inner journey that takes us beyond the level of thought and conditioning into the various layers of the mind body complex.
By using a combination of breath and consciousness, yoga becomes a safe and gentle way to connect to ourselves and our deeper states of being. Yoga is not just the position, rather it is the deep exploration of mindfulness and breath within the position.
In this journey we are encouraged to become what is known as the “silent witness” - a state of consciousness that is free of labels and judgement.
Ultimately the physical aspect of doing yoga is a meditation, and has the power to guide us inward towards the ultimate space of “being”. In this space we have the ability to release our deep fears, and like the sculptor, reveal our true essence and inherent wholeness
After all it was Carl Jung who said, "Who looks outside – dreams. Who looks inside - awakes."
Howard Napper is a yoga teacher and author who works with both physical and emotional wellbeing, as part of an overall plan for good health. Follow him on twitter @Howard_Napper