Coordinating Mind, Body and Breath

Many students of yoga (or people who are in touch with their physical selves) know the connection between mind and breath – when you are upset or your mind is full of information and problems, your breath is generally quick, short and/or shallow – and once you participate in any form of exercise that requires coordination of breath to movement, its pretty clear how the mind, body and breath work together.

There are other ways that the breath, mind and body work together.  For instance, when you are upset or “taking a moment” before confronting a problem, have you ever noticed how you tend to have a long, full exhale, sometimes even counting to 10 like grandma suggested?  That’s your mind telling your body to calm itself by engaging the para-sympathetic nervous system with the long, soothing, outgoing breath.  Your mind knows when you are anxious:  Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand. When you feel stressed by something going on around you, your body reacts by releasing chemicals into your bloodstream. These chemicals will give you more energy and strength. This is your body’s throwback reaction to when human’s stress was generally caused by physical danger.  So this helps if the stress is caused by an emergency or physical danger.

Many different things can cause stress — from physical (even think about how your body reacts to a near-miss in traffic) to emotional (our never-ending concerns about family and friends). Identifying what may be causing you stress is often the first step in learning how to better deal with stress.

Sometimes we can change or modify the cause of the stress and anxiety.  Sometimes we can’t.  That’s where using our yogic tools comes in handy.  Deep breathing, alternate nostril breathing, calming poses like legs up the wall or child’s pose, yoga nidra and meditation are all arrows in our yogic quiver that can be used to coordinate the mind, body & breath and relieve stress and anxiety.

There is also a different aspect to mind, body and breath coordination in yoga, and this is one with which I am personally struggling.   That is when your body is injured or aging and your practice starts to change.  Change is ever present and of course we all know that the harder we fight change, the more we are like a fish swimming upstream – struggling against something we cannot control or change.

Now, just because your body may be changing or that you are rehabilitating an injury doesn’t mean that you can’t still have a satisfying yoga practice.  But your body may not cooperate with what your mind thinks it can still do.

For instance, in Sivananda yoga,  headstand, shoulder stand and plow are routine asanas in class.  I loved shoulder stand and plow and eventually, learned to love headstand.  However, when I was learning these asanas my focus was not on alignment and proper use of breath.  Five years later, my memory of these asanas is both wistful and a little  peeved.  I really, really wish I had known then what I know now, and if it weren’t for my own physical limitations I would be practicing these poses routinely.  However, convincing my mind and heart that my body is no longer physically equipped to support these poses is a new challenge in itself.

I’m far enough along in my physical recovery to know that its time for me to start testing my limitations and boundaries as to what I can do, where my body can safely go and riding the breath all the way.   Its time to start poking at my own fears, hard edges and rebuild strength and continue to find flexibility.  In order to achieve this, I will need all of the yogic tools I’ve been taught over the years – which again, brings us back to the mind, body and breath connection.

Whether you are trying to connect your mind to your body and breath to deepen your practice, recover from injury, start a practice, relieve stress and anxiety or build strength, keeping the “big three” connected will be key.