Body Awareness - Yoga -Well-Being

Knowing ourselves from the Inside

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It has long been thought awareness is curative. Just as Socrates reminds us to "know thy self" The Buddha is explicit that mindfulness of arising mental and physical phenomenon is key to enlightenment. Current neuroscientific studies confirm these ideas revealing that through self-awareness practices we feel better and amazingly we actually can brain functioning specifically in areas related to self-awareness. Notable regions include the prefrontal cortex which is correlated with rational thinking, reflection, and the managing of competing respones and the insula known as region that process the overlay of emotional and visceral input. Thus, the insula is sort of the sight of feeling states that are defined for example as both "a sense of fear and a butterflies in the tummy ". In other words feelings have a visceral and emotional component and the insula seems to take these two different aspects of experience and combine them so they become like one thing that we label 'feeling'.

Constant emerging research indicates that mindfulness practices increase activity and volume in these two structures. Such that as we aspire to know ourselves our brain alters and therefore leading credence to the notion that awareness can actually changes us. Also, this is really important, because reduced activity or volume in these structures is found in most common mental health problems. Based on this integration of factors engaging in practices that would help us to "know thyself" seems like a fab idea for people struggling with their minds. And of course it is, however, there are a few glitches in this idea, especially if we have chronic mental health problems.

The most important is that mindfulness requires an inability to interrupt thoughts. To know thy self we need at least of modicum of space in the mind. For those of us really caught up in the whirling of the mind this can be challenging. From a neurological perspective this is also apparent. Even though mindfulness practices can strengthen the prefrontal and insula areas, we need them to already have some level of strength to allow us to be mindful. This is what is caught a catch-22. We need to be able to be mindful to practice mindfulness, which enhances the ability to be (kind of unfair)

Thankfully there are ways to support activation of these structures without initially using mindfulness, we will get to this in a second.

The second reason that mindfulness practices can be hard for people who struggle with there mental health is that often mindfulness relates to awareness of the body. Further mindfulness of the body is usually the way we initially teach and learn mindfulness, so we need to get here before we go further In fact the Buddha once said "All you need to know is in this fathom long body"., suggesting that all we need is body awareness. Although the body can be a marvel and a wondrous resource it's also the place where we can region feel sadness and anger, pain and fear. Consequently when asked to pay specific attention to sensations we may shy away. If we are feeling awful we are less likely to want to know ourselves. Similarly, in the case of trauma it is often the body that has been in someone compromised or attacked and resistance to awareness it therefore strong and sometimes even protective.

So....give this potential what can be done. If mindfulness is hard for people with mental health issues for the two pre-listed reasons what can be done. Well, it appears yoga might the answer. Naturally, without specifically attempting to we become mindful of our body as a result of the challenge posed by an asana. We become aware of our front thigh in warrior II whether we want to or not, we notice our back stretching in bridge even if we would rather be at the park and tend to be really frightened of the feeling we are having. (but of course since we know it's coming from bridge pose it is probably not as frightening as it could be)

In an unpublished study (which I heard about in a medical conference lecture series) yoga practitioners have more awareness of their bodies than mindfulness practitioners even in the event that the yoga practitioners was not trying to be mindful. And yesterday a really cool paper came out revealing that yoga hours directly relate to levels of body awareness. Researchers took participants and measured both their interoceptive capacity (the awareness of sensation in the body) and proprioceptive capacity (awareness of where the body is in space) In both instances the amount of yoga practice was directly correlated with levels of interoception and proprioception. Researchers suggested this resultant arose as yoga practitioners learn to develop a sense of how the feel moment by moment as they do poses without mirrors in front of them and begin to tap into a gamut of different sensations and use personal insight rather than collective opinion to determine the meaning of these feelings. asana is a really good way to learn to know thy self which may be easier for people than other methods.

I know I am no exception, years of yoga -have given me a profound sense of my body and allowed me to take care of its needs earlier rather than later, keeping me healthy and well.

Heather Mason

Founder of the Minded Institute, The Minded Institute

Heather Mason is a leader in the field of mind-body therapy and the founder of Yoga Therapy for the Mind. She develops innovative methods for mental health treatment drawing on her robust educational background including an MA in Psychotherapy, an MA in Buddhist Studies, studies in Neuroscience and a current MSc in Medical Physiology.. She is also a 500 RYT, a yoga therapist and an MBCT facilitator. Heather offers various professional trainings for yoga teachers, healthcare professionals and therapists, lectures around the world, and delivers training to medical students. She also develops protocols for different client populations by translating cutting edge research from the psycho-biology and neuro-biology of stress into yoga practices, breathwork, mindfulness interventions and therapeutic holding. Further she is involved in research on the efficacy of these practices, holds the annual UK yoga therapy conference and is blazing the trail for the integration of yoga therapy into the NHS