Science: Why do we call yoga, meditation, and breathing techniques “mind-body practices”?

Why do we call yoga, meditation, and breathing techniques “mind-body practices”? When we sit still to meditate or practice breathwork, we are clearly engaging our minds to focus, but how are we engaging our bodies? And, when we practice asanas, or yoga movements, we are clearly using our bodies, but how are we using our minds? These activities are coined mind-body practices, because of the unique way the nervous system is involved.

The nervous system has two parts: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS is comprised of the brain and spinal cord, and the PNS is comprised of the nerves that extend from the spinal cord and brain. The PNS is responsible for receiving information from other parts of the body, e.g., organs, skin, limbs, and glands, and sending it to the CNS. These messages help the body react to stimuli, letting the body move voluntarily, e.g., doing a forward bend, child’s pose, or walking, and function involuntarily, e.g., blood flow, digestion, and breathing.  The interaction and team effort between the CNS and PNS illustrates how the body is connected to the brain.

Scientific research on mind-body practices tends to focus on the brain more than the body, because this is the nexus of the health benefits of yoga. This distinguishes yoga from other exercises, where the body is the target for major benefits, and the brain becomes a confounding factor that receives residual benefits. 

 For example, in a study by Valk et al. , “Structural plasticity of the social brain: Differential changes after socio-affective and cognitive mental training”, MRI scans were taken every three months after a meditation intensive course, which included mindfulness-based attention and interoception meditation, which involves self-reflection. After the completion of the nine-month study, researchers found that cortical thickness was significantly greater in the meditation group compared to the control group. Specifically, mindfulness-based attention and interoception meditation increased thickness in the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes, which are responsible for attention control.  Researchers also found that socio-affective skills, like compassion, increase cortical thickness in the limbic area, which is responsible for processing emotions.

Increase in cortical thickness is important, because it means that there is more grey matter and neurons, which allows for more connections and more specificity.  In turn, this means that after practicing these two kinds of meditation, one’s attention and emotional control becomes more manageable. Consider, for example, receiving a barrage of information and feeling overwhelmed. With a brain strengthened and trained by meditation, one is better equipped to focus attention on what matters most and manage emotional response

Implications

This study supports the common understanding that meditation has a biological effect on the brain and positively impacts health and well-being.  For Flyway, it also supports why we chose to employ certain meditation practices in our curriculum. Our Flyway breathwork, body scan, and mindfulness cards are equivalent to the study’s mindfulness-based attention and interoception meditation.  Our loving-kindness, moving the mind, and inner child meditation cards are equivalent to the study’s socio-affective skills.  These cards and our classes teach our clients to focus their attention on their breath and bodies, and, in so doing, this help our clients develop more grey matter and manage their attention and emotional control.

Meditation is not a short-term fix, but, with practice over an extended period of time, the brain does physically change and the practitioners health and well-being improves.

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Elizabeth Nesbitt