Wednesday, March 24, 2010
"It's a lot easier to ride a horse in the direction that it's going," I said to the seven people sitting across from me. It was my regular Wednesday night gig at Butterfly Yoga on State Street, and all eight of us were on the floor, cross-legged on yoga mats at the beginning of class.
"My day was all about meetings," I continued. "At some point, I realized that my mind wasn't in the meeting where my body was sitting. I was thinking about the hundreds of little things on my plate instead of being where I was. As soon as I realized that, I became present to the meeting, and where before I was annoyed and impatient—and the meeting felt like a pain in my ass—I relaxed, and things started moving smoothly."
"I had surrendered to reality," I said. "Instead of suffering and fighting what was so, I began 'riding the horse' in the direction it was already going. Surrender, in that sense, doesn't mean giving up."
As a yoga instructor, one of the things I do to prepare for class is to come up with a theme, something my students can think about and use as I instruct them through our practice together. Usually, I reach into my bottomless bag of aphorisms, my knowledge of Buddhist and yoga philosophy, and illustrate the theme with an example from my life.
I've heard that the teacher teaches best what she needs to learn. If that's the case, it's no wonder that so many of my themes come back to a common place: Be here now; get present to your presence.
In my go, go, produce, produce existence, it can be tough: I always have a half-dozen or more projects in the works. But yoga has taught me that the first thing to do when I'm stressed or feeling put upon is simply to breathe. You've heard it, too: Calm down; count to 10; take a breath. It's the tough yoga poses—and the tough life situations—where we forget to breathe. And that makes everything harder.
It's a simple demonstration of how closely our bodies and minds are intertwined. Our minds and bodies function best as a unit.
When I'm feeling stressed (an emotion centered in my mind), my body reacts to protect itself, getting ready to fight or take flight. My breathing becomes shallow and fast; I begin to produce stress hormones (like cortisol, GH and norepinephrine) that direct blood flow away from digestion and into my extremities. My reaction to pain diminishes, my pupils contract, and my awareness is heightened. I'm ready to meet the threat of that proverbial saber-tooth tiger, even when none exists. I can feel the reaction as I type this, safe and cozy in my little JFP office.
Simply by changing my breathing pattern, slowing it down and drawing it deeply into my abdomen, my mind begins to calm down. The harmful effects of too much stress begin to dissipate with my next exhalation.
It presents the question: Does my mind affect my body, or does my body affect my mind?
Smiling and laughter is another example. Your mind reacts to the stimulation of turning the corners of your mouth up. It can't tell the difference if it's a "genuine" smile caused by a funny joke or a cute puppy, or whether you're faking it. Just the physical action of a smile—or better yet, a good hearty laugh—makes us feel better, lighter, refreshed. And we react to smiles; it's hard not to. Telephone customer-service reps are told to "put a smile in their voice," by putting a smile on their face. Why? Because it's hard to be angry with someone who's smiling.
The mind-body connection has a fancy name in Western medicine—integrative. Eastern medicine and philosophy has never lost the knowledge that it all works together.
"Blame it on Descartes," my yoga teacher told me. It was Rene Descartes' theories of dualism that separated our minds from our bodies in the 16th century, heralding the onset of the Western mode of physical medicine: Treat the body if the body is sick, the mind if the mind is sick. That's a vast oversimplification, of course, but it has led to predominance of doctors in the west who treat diseases and forget about patients.
Wellness is more than just treating disease, it's a deliberate effort to prevent illness and prolong life, being healthy in body and mind. And it's recognizing the body-mind connection as a legitimate route to being well. By whatever path we take—yoga, meditation, prayer, mindful eating, taking the inner journey—it all works together. And it all falls apart, together.
As the stories in this issue have brought back to me, wellness depends on recognizing that healthy bodies and healthy minds come together as a package. In a time when so many of us are sedentary and overweight, we have to stop fighting that reality. The "horse" called health has always been going in the direction of wholeness. When we surrender to that path, being healthy is bound to get easier.