Does the mental/physical distinction make sense regarding health… or yoga?

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Lately “Mental Health” has been getting a lot of play. There’s a Mental Health Foundation page on facebook that promises to help you manage stress. I’ve been listening to some of the speakers on Recovery 2.0, an innovative conference on addiction and recovery organized and facilitated by Tommy Rosen. I even wrote a piece for Muse in the Valley during Canada’s “Bell Let’s Talk” week on how yoga helps me with PTSD. I recently had a Twitter convo with Ben King of Armor Down, discussing how he came to found this revolutionary organization for helping soldiers armor down after deployment.

So perhaps you’ll forgive me a moment of confused frustration with the term “Mental Health.” In Ancient Greece, there was no distinction between mental and physical health: activities benefitting and destroying your body were assumed to have corresponding effects for the person’s mental function and outlook, and visa versa. Sometime after the Enlightenment, when we stopped referring to “humors” to explain illness, we began to look at physical ailments as a class separate from purely “mental” ones. The shift was complete by the time Freud adopted the diagnosis of “hysteria” for his female patients suffering from a variety of symptoms. Though even he used physical images to describe what he surmised was causing his patients’ suffering, and much of it came down to disorders of the “nervous system,” these were used as a metaphorical correlates for the very distinctly physical system.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We currently prescribe drugs and investigate the impact of exercise, mindfulness and diet on depression, addiction and other “mental health” diagnoses, however it doesn’t seem that those suffering from these imbalances are accorded the same latitude as those affected by “cardiac health,” “metabolic health,” “musculo-skeletal health” or other health phenomenon. Which is strange. Because there’s an equal and growing recognition of the psychological effects of cardiac ill health, as well as all other forms of disease. Yet insurance coverage, work policies and social stigma persist regarding “mental” health.

Truth is, being sick can make you sad. Being sad can make you sick. Trauma sucks and has lasting results on the nervous, hormonal and cardiovascular systems, effects that can be mitigated and reversed through lifestyle choices like meditation, yoga, group therapy and, yes, medications. Depression is a physical illness, affecting  body chemistry in known ways. So, too with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The brain – hold on for the revelation – is part of the body. Whoa. I know, deep, huh?

No underestimating the profound effects of addiction, depression, PTSD, bipolar and schizophrenia here. Just questioning setting them aside as “mental.” There are two possible assumptions behind setting aside some illness as mental, so far as I can see:

  • A simple taxonomy of providers and research that allows specialists to group together for professional and training reasons. Emergency Professionals train together, as do Cardiology pros (surgeons, nurses, etc), as do Psych pros. 
  • A classification of some symptoms as originating from a different mechanism than physical ailments. Mental symptoms are caused by ideas, while physical ones are caused by electro-chemical reactions within the body on which we can have meaningful impact with diet, exercise, surgery and drugs. Symptoms caused by ideas skip this physical mechanism and are healed or helped by other ideas which similarly skip physical causation.

The first is really just practical. The second is really just false, as suggested by exercise and pharmacological suggestions for psychological symptoms and meditative help for cardiac ones. Clearly, if you’re having “the big one” or you’ve sawed your arm off, you have a certain range of therapy you must seek in a finite range of time. This speaks to acuity and profundity of the symptoms rather than their source, however. We know that surgical, pharmacological and electrical interventions are often nearly as  damaging as they are helpful: that’s why we approach, prescribe and consume with great caution. Only when the gain in quality strongly outweighs the loss in trauma and side effects is it wise to engage. In extreme and emergent situations, the gain of life over probable death or profound loss of function justifies using tools that operate rather immediately on a gross level instead of ones that cause change slowly while operating on processes that are less concentrated and longer range tests are required to detect.

As a yoga teacher (were you wondering what all this had to do with that? ;>), the basis of my practice is that breath, body and mind are different ways of referring to the same experience. The experience accessed through sensation, breath, feeling and thought is that of “me:” my identity, history, person, singularity or unity. In Western Philosophy, the fallacy represented by option two above (originating from a different mechanism) is called “The Mind-Body Problem.” It’s only a problem if you think they’re distinct. We can have useful discussions about whether one causes the other, or if one is created by but has no causative force on the other (epiphenomenalism), or if they are identical, but if you begin with an assumption that they’re different in kind, you land in a briar patch that no one in the history of philosophy – in East or West – has ever escaped.

Once you’ve accepted that all well-being and dis-ease have both molecular and emotional (which also have molecular) effects, it’s easier to see that just like cardiac health, mental health is a continuum. And the lifestyle choices we make that increase our well-being on one continuum, are likely to have effects on the other – whether those lifestyle choices are pharmacological, exercise or nutrition choices.

Would we lose anything by ditching the “mental” distinction for psychological specialty symptoms? Nothing except a freakishly outdated notion that ideas are caused by ideas which somehow magically skip concourse with our bodies and directly change our emotions… which are, er… um… wow, this could be embarrassing to admit, huh? Embodied. It’s one thing. Your mind and your body are different ways of relating the one irreplaceable experience of you, and your health is singularly important. All of it. All of you.

Relaxation Revolution!

Nucleosome structure.

Image via Wikipedia

Revolution is a powerful word, and well applied to Dr. Herbert Benson‘s work.  As a Harvard Medical Center researcher, it is indeed a revolution for him to mention yoga as frequently as he does in his advancement on the Relaxation Response, published more than 3 decades ago. You can watch him in a bookstore talk here, or listen to a wonderful interview by Diane Rehm here. Newest science is overturning the notion that genes are destiny. We powerfully affect gene expression with practices such as yoga, meditation and chi gong.

You’ve heard of the fight or flight response of your sympathetic nervous system, and probably know that stress increases cortisol levels and has detrimental effects on your whole body. Dr. Benson is championing the opposite system indigenous to us all, the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response.

Yoga can be described as one big compendium of methods for invoking the relaxation response. What Dr. Benson stresses and what has been too little stressed in our popular understanding of yoga and ourselves, is this fact: relaxation does not equal passivity. Relaxation does not mean passivity. True, if you relax and you are uber-sleep deprived, you’ll fall asleep, because that’s what your body needs most. Relaxation is an alert and effortless, open expansion of the mind, allowing you to respond in the moment to what is actually arising.

In a state of true relaxation, you respond to the nature of the moment, to what is true in that place and time. If your body-mind is so fatigued that what you actually need is rest, then that response will occur. Similarly, if what arises is profound and deep emotion that you’ve been avoiding with busyness, that is what will arise. Allowing these intense needs to surface and be addressed rapidly brings about a state of equilibrium. Once relaxation has systematically surfaced remnants of stress, injury and pain, you will encounter a  clear field, and enter a state more usually associated with relaxation.

For most people this response is nearly immediate, because as much as most of us like to play the stress-monkey,we really crave the alert, openness of true relaxation. Dr. Benson’s work is emphasizing how simple and close the experience can be. It’s truly one yoga practice away. What are you waiting for? Your practice is as close as your breath.

Finding Core: Body, Mind & Soul

Where is your “core”? You’ve heard the commonplace that “it’s not your abs,” which is true, but doesn’t tell us where to look. The name itself, though, is instructive, and with breath and attention we can find our “core” experientially. While practicing 3 part yogic breath (dirgha), move between the poles of abundance on the in breath, and stillness on the out breath. After becoming established in this rhythm, notice and accentuate all your muscles hugging toward center as you gently press your breath out. Feel the pattern and rhythm, and pay direct attention from the floor, all the way up to the roof of your mouth, 360 degrees. As your body expands and contracts, you’ll begin to feel the center around which your body is moving.

Did you know, that your core is closer to your back than your belly button? That’s why one of the instructions in moving from the core is often to bring your navel back towards the spine.

Did you know, that your core traverses the upper and lower bodies? One of the most used stabilizing muscle sets, the illiopsoas, connects the upper and lower body, attaching about a third of the way down the inner thigh, zigging and zagging up from there to the inside of the pelvic bowl, and back to its midline origin, fanning out along the low spine on either side.

Did you know, that your core can be drawn away from midline by injury and habitual holding patterns? In yoga, we call these “samskara” and they are precisely what we are unearthing in yoga asana by moving in ways unusual to everyday life, with attention and breath. When you practice the breathing above and find your core feels off-center, you already have the tools to use your muscular awareness to bring it back to center. This weakens the grooves of habits and realigns you to increase your focus, energy and awareness in everything you do!

The “abdominals” – rectus (middle front), transverse (lower belly, the one we use in kapalabhati), and obliques (sides) – are part of the core, and when given awareness through breathing, a great way into your true, literal center!

Finding Core: Body, Mind & Soul

Where is your “core”? You’ve heard the commonplace that “it’s not your abs,” which is true, but doesn’t tell us where to look. The name itself, though, is instructive, and with breath and attention we can find our “core” experientially. While practicing 3 part yogic breath (dirgha), move between the poles of abundance on the in breath, and stillness on the out breath. After becoming established in this rhythm, notice and accentuate all your muscles hugging toward center as you gently press your breath out. Feel the pattern and rhythm, and pay direct attention from the floor, all the way up to the roof of your mouth, 360 degrees. As your body expands and contracts, you’ll begin to feel the center around which your body is moving.

Did you know, that your core is closer to your back than your belly button? That’s why one of the instructions in moving from the core is often to bring your navel back towards the spine.

Did you know, that your core traverses the upper and lower bodies? One of the most used stabilizing muscle sets, the illiopsoas, connects the upper and lower body, attaching about a third of the way down the inner thigh, zigging and zagging up from there to the inside of the pelvic bowl, and back to its midline origin, fanning out along the low spine on either side.

Did you know, that your core can be drawn away from midline by injury and habitual holding patterns? In yoga, we call these “samskara” and they are precisely what we are unearthing in yoga asana by moving in ways unusual to everyday life, with attention and breath. When you practice the breathing above and find your core feels off-center, you already have the tools to use your muscular awareness to bring it back to center. This weakens the grooves of habits and realigns you to increase your focus, energy and awareness in everything you do!

The “abdominals” – rectus (middle front), transverse (lower belly, the one we use in kapalabhati), and obliques (sides) – are part of the core, and when given awareness through breathing, a great way into your true, literal center!

6 Second Alignment

Human female pelvis, viewed from front.

Image via Wikipedia


  • Increase energy
  • Increase alertness
  • Generate Focus
  • Cultivate Concentration
  • Feel Taller!

Place your thumbs on your lower side ribs and your fingers on the bony prominences at the top of your pelvis. Using the muscles in between, gently and evenly lift your ribcage up from your pelvis, centering the oval of your ribcage over the oval of your pelvis, and taking care not to lift more in the front, back or either side. Allow your arms to fall gracefully at your sides.  Cultivate Dirgha, or Three part Yogic Complete Breath, and feel your whole body return center on the outbreath.

Do this any time – at your desk, standing in line, even mowing the lawn – you want to become more present, cultivate your energy or just change your perspective!