Aligning Mind and Body

Does your body lead your mind?

Thich Nhat Hanh said "Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy."

Aligning mind/body/spirit is possible in many ways. Sometimes it is helpful to reverse engineer the process of change by first changing the body, and then letting the body’s intelligence influence the mind. Physical movement coupled with the right intention will inherently affect the subconscious level of awareness, which in turn helps our moods, emotions, thoughts, beliefs and life experiences.

In this TED Talk, Dr. Amy Cuddy discusses how our non-verbal body language can influence hormones in the body, which in turn can effect whether a person feels confident and powerful vs. powerless, and more: 

Have you ever forced yourself to get off the computer and go for a walk outside, only to realize that it was exactly what you needed to improve your state of mind? Dr. Cuddy’s main message is “Fake it ‘til you become it.” Another example: A simple smile can improve mood by releasing the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. The act of smiling, whether you feel like it or not, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, increases immune system function, and more.

There are many beneficial physical activities that can improve our states of mind, emotions and moods: Qigong (with intention), yoga, walking, running, biking, meditation, martial arts, even floating in a sensory deprivation tank. These are just a few. One that is near and dear to my heart is martial arts. Many times I have felt depleted, tired or not wanted to leave the comfort of my own home, only to discover that in so doing, I felt so much better. When you step onto the mat, you cannot afford to take your personal problems with you, and so they are left at the door. You have to be fully present and really in your body, or else you might get hit or injured. Interestingly enough, by the time you leave from a training session, those “problems” have disappeared.

As a medical support hypnotherapist, people routinely come to me for help with physical pain and for guidance on how to heal themselves from a wide variety of physical ailments. In our work together, people come to realize how much the mind leads the body, and yet, the reverse also holds true:

The Mind Leads the Body – and The Body Leads the Mind.

Medical support hypnosis works because the subconscious level of awareness drives the body via the autonomic nervous system – think heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, immunity and much more. These are body functions that we don’t have to consciously think about - and thank goodness, or we wouldn’t get any sleep!

There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system: Sympathetic “fight or flight” stress response and it’s opposite, the parasympathetic relaxation response. As a result of our fast-paced times, most people operate in sympathetic stress mode during most of their waking hours. When the stress response occurs, a person feels anxious and the brain waves are disorganized so the higher mind shuts off, problem solving is difficult and creativity is stifled. Also, the immune system isn’t operating optimally, and the body is not in homeostasis or adapting well – essentially, nothing works well when the body is in stress mode!

Proper breathing triggers the vagus nerve to activate the body’s innate parasympathetic relaxation mode, where heart rate and blood pressure drop, optimal immune system function occurs and brain waves become more and more organized.

The breath is the gateway. The breath connects mind and body. The breath connects body and spirit.

Recently, my understanding of proper breathing and the ramifications it has on physical and mental relaxation has been greatly refined thanks to posture alignment therapist, Jessica Kisiel. Through her business, The Pain Free Athlete, Jessica helps many people get out of chronic pain, and return to the active lifestyle they enjoy.  For decades I’ve been following teachings from a variety of sources who say that deep “belly breathing” physiologically triggers parasympathetic relaxation response. For me personally, sometimes “belly breathing” worked, and sometimes it didn’t. My understanding now is that if “belly breathing” accompanies improper body alignment or dysfunctional musculoskeletal patterns, then the person will neurologically remain in stress response regardless of how much deep “belly breathing” they do. Jessica explains here:

If the back arches in “belly breathing” the chest and rib cage lift up and forward pulling the diaphragm into a flat, extended position. The diaphragm and rib cage need to maintain alignment directly over the pelvis to facilitate proper breathing mechanics. When the back arches this ideal arrangement is lost. The abdominals become overstretched and the rib cage rotates backwards, which can create pressure on the sympathetic nerves of the spinal cord located behind the rib cage. Hence, your posture, and the faulty position of the rib cage, can keep you in a stressful state even when you are practicing “belly breathing.”

For more information, see her blog.

The body is amazingly intelligent and can lead the mind if you let it. Proper aligned posture, smiling, healthy movement and getting outside in nature on a regular basis are key components to feeling relaxed enough to access deeper levels of mind.