We often hear about the mind-body connection – that our thoughts and emotions influence our bodies, including our physical health. Some very exciting research is being done in this area, which informs the way mindfulness practices are being integrated in a range of healthcare settings.
What I also find fascinating is the body-mind connection – how the way we use our bodies can influence our mental state. We can get a sense of this with a very simple exercise – walk around the room twice, once with the head down and shoulders slumped forward, staring at the floor; the second time with the head high, as if lifted up from above by a silver string, looking around. Another one, which I have written about before, is the gentle half smile. Bring a slight frown to your face, and stay with this for a few breaths. Then, on the next outbreath, bring a gentle half smile to your face instead. What difference do you notice with these?
Recently I woke up feeling out of sorts, and my ‘working from home’ day didn’t help much to improve my mood – technology issues, a restructure at work, not one person to talk with except on the screen. As soon as I went to my Tai Chi class in the evening and started flowing through the graceful movements, I felt like a different person. The postures of sitting meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, dancing – they are all designed to enable us to be present in the world in a certain way. In the classic sitting meditation posture, the body is well connected to the ground, the back is upright and at ease. This posture signals to our brain – I am grounded, balanced, supported, present, and strong.
We are also learning more about the effects which diet, exercise and adequate sleep can have on our moods, our ability to think clearly, and our energy levels. All of us are different in the amount of sleep we need, the foods we tolerate, the exercise we enjoy. There is no magic formula – one person loves taking the dog to the park every day, while someone else won’t be satisfied unless they regularly participate in gruelling triathlons.
Mindfulness can be very helpful to assist us to discern, gently and regularly throughout the day – when I walk around the local park, my mood lifts; when I eat this food, I feel sluggish; when I sit at the desk with my head up, I feel more alert. Simple gestures, like placing our hands over our heart during emotionally difficult times, or washing our hands slowly and mindfully, thereby giving ourselves a little hand massage, can help to shift our mental state. None of these, of course, are designed to replace conventional medical care or psychological supports. Nor should these ideas lead to blaming people or ourselves for making ‘poor life choices’.
The mindfulness approach would instead be to notice the constant and subtle causes and effects in our lives, and to make conscious choices based on this awareness, while being compassionate and gentle with ourselves. Awareness of our current state is crucial if we want to make ongoing changes. Equally important, however, is the understanding that many causes and conditions beyond our control have brought us to the point where we are now, and to proceed gradually and with kindness as the increased awareness helps us to make positive choices in our lives.
Find a private place, and set aside ten minutes to explore holding your body in different postures and noticing how each one feels. Then tune into your body at other times of the day and notice your posture. Play around with subtle adjustments to your posture, and notice how they feel.