Mind Medicine

“Most psychologists treat the mind as disembodied, a phenomenon with little or no connection to the physical body.  Conversely physicians treat the body with no regard to the mind or the emotions.  But the body and mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other.”  -Dr. Candace Pert (1946-2013)

The late Dr. Candace Pert, PhD, who discovered the elusive opiate receptor (the receptor that allows us to feel pain), played a pivotal role in bringing the mind body connection to the forefront in the scientific world. 

What IS the mind exactly?   It is the faculty of consciousness and thought.  It is what enables a person to be aware of the world and their experiences.  It enables us to think and to feel, to judge and to remember. 

It is a bit easier to understand what is the body.  It is our physical structure, comprised of bones, connective tissue, organs, and flesh.  It is, in a sense, a physical vessel in which the abstract part of us, our mind, resides and takes material form.

Without the body, we do not have a vessel in which to physically exist; without the mind, the body is an empty vessel.  They are intimately connected and interwoven.  One does not fully function or experience without the other.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois himself once said in an interview:  “There are three types of disease:  body disease, mind disease, and nervous system disease.  When the mind is diseased, the whole body is diseased.  The yoga scriptures say “Manayeva manushanam karanam bandha mokshayoho”:  the mind is the cause of both bondage and liberation.  If the mind is sick and sad, the whole body gets sick, and all is finished.  So first, you must give medicine to the mind.  Mind Medicine – that is yoga.”

Last week after one of our Mysore classes at The Shala, a few of my students questioned each other and me as to why they were feeling so “emotional”.  One went home after a deep hip opening and bawled her eyes out.  Another has been crying off and on for several days for a reason she can’t pinpoint, but she had just started practicing the primary series consistently 2 weeks prior.  Yes, they were all women; you could attribute it to that.  But you men…well, you men practicing Ashtanga are probably having some mind manifestations of sorts too.  Maybe not tears, but perhaps anxiety, or feeling “revved up” for no apparent reason. 

Why do we feel this way when we take regular practice?  Why do we tear up or literally freak out inside or out sometimes when we get deep into a new pose, or go deeper than ever before in an established pose?  Why do we get nauseated with back bending?  Why does Intermediate Series feel so agitating, especially when starting out?  Why, why, why???

Yoga, or Mind Medicine as Sri K. Pattabhi Jois so intuitively and knowingly called it, if practiced daily, helps us begin to clear samskaras. Samskaras are marks, or impressions, left deep within the subconscious mind (chitta) by past experiences.   These experiences occur with each breath with take, every sound we hear, each sight we see, every feeling we feel, each taste on our tongues, and every smell that envelopes us.  The world enters our mind through our senses, creating samskaras that become deeply imbedded into our being.  Samskaras are formed (if you believe in reincarnation) in our previous lives (thus we can bring them with us into this life), in our childhood as parents and our surroundings impose beliefs and morals upon us, and again by the experiences and actions that we take throughout our lives.  Once formed, samskaras lie latent in the chitta.  When they resurface, they may generate memories.  Or, they may manifest as established patterns and habits by which we live that can be positive or negative.  They can potentially generate repeated suffering, suffering that we choose to relive because that is what is comfortable to us.  They can form layer upon layer of rooted negative behavioral patterns.  They can “color” our future experiences.  They can aggregate and draw us into repetitive loops with repeated actions, patterns, and events.

Sutra 2.12 reads:  Klesa mullah karma asayah drsta-adrsta janma vedaniyah:  Acts stemming from mental disturbance leave imprints that always show themselves in some form or other, visible or invisible.

Hmmmm.  So, if we just sit and meditate, or talk to a therapist, or just try really hard to change our patterns that are negatively afflicting us, and thus negatively affecting our bodies, then we can get rid of this little suckers call samskaras, right?  After all, these methods are all “medicine to the mind”, right?  How about a drink?  I know….an Old Fashioned will do the trick!

If only it were that easy.   How many times have you repeated a negative pattern, and then told yourself you wouldn’t do it again, and then did it again? How many times have you told yourself, or maybe others, that you would change?  That you will break a habit?  That you will quit smoking, or be nicer to your spouse, or be nicer to yourself for goodness sake? 

Here is again what Pattabhi Jois had to say about medicine to the mind:

“A weak mind means a weak body.  That’s why you build a good foundation with asana and pranayama, so your body and mind and nervous system are all working.  By practicing (yoga) every day, the blood becomes purified, and the mind gradually comes under your control.  This is the yogic method”

The physical and breath practice of yoga leads to a healthier mind.  Yoga is therapy that recognizes the intimate mind-body connection.   Take daily practice, build strength in the body and thus the mind, build fire with the breath and generate tapas (heat) through the practice, and then we will begin to truly release layer upon layer of samskaras.  When we begin to deepen into the yoga practice, be it through increased regularity of practice, or moving forward in a sequence of poses, or getting deeper into a posture than we have ever been before, this is when the samskaras will surface from the subconscious to the consciousness. 

I like to think of samskaras as old files in a locked vault.  Records of sort.   Yoga is the key to that vault.  It opens the vault door and allows us to begin to burn these files one by one.  The way is not easy.  Tears will flow.  Anger may surface.  Nausea or headache may take form.  Anxiety or restlessness my encompass us.  The beauty in yoga is that all of these feelings and experiences that we are pulling out of the vault and tossing into the fire will burn and dissipate, but first we may have to feel and acknowledge them before getting rid of them altogether.

So to the students at The Shala experiencing emotions of all kinds in your practices on and off the mat, I commend you for dedicating yourselves to this practice.  With each passing day you grow stronger physically, and as a result mentally and spiritually.  Let those tears flow, but don’t dwell on them.  Let anxiety surface, but don’t perseverate on it.  Let anger or shame reveal itself, but don’t feed it.  Acknowledge these sensations, let them pass, and then move on.  Continue to practice this medicine for your minds, and as Pattabhi Jois said, “the blood becomes purified, and the mind gradually comes under your control”.