Most of us are probably aware that our mind and body are interconnected and that they are constantly communicating back and forth between one another. But we may not realize that the stress in our lives can manifest itself both physically and emotionally. It enters the body and mind in various ways: as an unhealthy diet, traumatic event, work related anxiety and so on.
Despite our understanding that the mind and body are connected, many of us still believe that happiness and our emotional well-being lives only in our mind. The reality is that it’s also present in the body, along with many other positive emotions. One of the most surprising factors in boosting happiness is found in turning our awareness towards the body. (Learn more in Finding Happiness.)
The Physiology of the Mind-Body Connection
Our physical body – especially our digestive system – is made up of complex and amazing systems. These help churn out neurotransmitters that govern the way we feel. The gut has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system which is similar to the central nervous system (the spine/brain). Many people associate the gut simply with digestion, not realizing the other important roles it plays in the body.
The gut and brain actually communicate via the body’s nervous systems, endocrine system and the immune system via the production of neurotransmitters, hormones and other chemical signals that send messages back and forth. In fact, the gut and brain can be said to speak their own language, through a part of our body known as the vagus nerve. The cells and bacteria in the gut compromise a stunning 70-80% of the body's immune system and produce more than 90% of the neurotransmitter, serotonin. Serotonin is critical to regulating emotions of well-being and happiness. Through these pathways of communication, the entire body and mind are linked – everything truly affects everything else.
Healing Through a 'Pure Diet'
In traditional yogic philosophy, prana (life force energy) is responsible for health and vitality. It is said to depend greatly on strong digestion, absorption of nutrients and a “pure" diet.
Modern science confirms that diet directly influences mood, concentration, memory and behavior. Neurotransmitter function and important hormonal balances (particularly those related to cortisol, serotonin, melatonin and dopamine) are influenced by the quality of nutrients you’re obtaining. These determine your level of consciousness and outlook on life in many ways. For example, the type of sleep you get, your energy levels, your temperament and clarity of mind all impact your overall well-being.
By switching from a diet high in processed foods to one that contains large amounts of fresh and available nutrients – you can expect to feel dramatic changes in the way you feel and perceive the world after just a few days. Plus, the way that your body operates and defends itself from threats will be improved. The bacteria inside your gut build and maintain the gut wall. This wall protects the body from outside invaders like viruses, harmful bacteria and pathogens which can cause illness, fatigue and depression. Bacteria are constantly coming into contact with our bodies – they are living on our skin and in nearly every organ we have – but a healthy lifestyle gives us the power to stand up to them.
Part of many yogic disciplines is eating a wholesome, low-processed diet. Often one that is vegetarian. Sattva is the quality of cultivating love for all beings, awareness and non-harming. This is supported by a plant-based diet. Choosing to forego animal products is one way to help end suffering and form a connection to all living beings. It also supports sustainable agriculture and the environment. (Read more in A Plant-Based Diet Makes Better Yogis.)
Aside from eating foods that are as close to nature as possible, the way those foods are prepared is also important. Foods are said to be more nourishing and health-promoting when they are cooked from scratch, with love, patience and gratitude (rather than canned, frozen, boxed or leftover).
The foods most recommended as part of a yogic lifestyle include fresh fruits and vegetables (ideally lightly cooked and not leftover); whole/ancient grains including rice, wheat and oats; beans/legumes; all types of nuts and seeds; healthy fats like coconut and olive oil; natural sweeteners like honey; and plenty of herbs/spices which are great for digestion and supporting a strong immune system (such as ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamon, etc.).
Healing Through Meditation and Other Yoga Practices
Yoga asana practice, breathing exercises and meditation give us a chance to learn about our body and tune into body sensations in a powerful, direct way. A body scan meditation, or slow Yin yoga practice, are two great ways to link these three disciplines together. They shine a light on the fact that our body plays a key role in the experience and expression of our emotions. For example, just about every emotion we feel has an affect on our breathing, the tension in our muscles and how much energy we have or don't have. (Read more about Discovering Yourself Through a Body Scan Meditation.)
A body scan meditation provides a wonderful way to cultivate an experiential way of knowing what we are feeling in response to the world around us. Paying attention to sensations and reconnecting with our bodies can lead to insights we might have missed. By using all of our senses – sight, touch, smell, sound and taste – as well as vibrations and thoughts, we become aware of our habitual reactions.
Using our breath and concentration, we can stop the cycle of thinking negatively about our physical sensations. Have you ever been mad over having back pain or frustrated that your headache won't go away? Non-judgmental awareness of sensations in our body can uncouple the link between sensations and the fear/anger/frustration that keeps the cycle of rumination and unhappiness going. It teaches us to bring wisdom and open-hearted attention to all parts of the body, even when they are the site of unpleasant sensations.This skill can be applied to other aspects of our lives, allowing us to open up to challenging emotions while freeing ourselves from self-imposed constraints that can block our happiness. (Learn about Relieving Muscle Pain and Tension with Breath.)
Lasting Health and Happiness
Now that you've learned how your diet, meditation and yoga practices all work together to improve happiness, there's one more thing to consider. There are many other ways to pamper yourself and improve your mood by relaxing tension and boosting positive body sensations. Warm showers, aromatherapy, slow walks in nature, touch from a loved one or professional massage therapist, all help release powerful hormones that bring on good feelings. Learning to notice, soothe and appreciate your body reinforces even more healthy habits.