Polar Bear Yoga Pose
Mention yoga to anyone and it inevitably conjures up images of fit bendy people in exotic poses. It’s easy to forget that long before yoga’s recent popularity in the West it developed over many hundreds, if not thousands of years as a way of not only optimising the physical body, but also understanding the mind, and ultimately and perhaps most ambitiously a way of liberating us from our suffering.
The ancients who forged this vision of yoga believed that in much the same way that a sculptor works tirelessly crafting a piece of stone to reveal its hidden beauty within, a life devoted to the various disciplines of yoga would give them the ability to release their physical and mental bonds and set themselves free.
Some believe we in the West have been far too easily seduced by the physical benefits of yoga to appreciate, or even realise the deeper mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of the practice. There have been many who have criticised our Western adaptation of this ancient tradition, believing that we have totally misunderstood and misinterpreted the purpose of working with the body and as a result have turned it into just another form of exercise.
Perhaps yoga has lost part of its soul in its adoption by the West, but in many ways this is hardly surprising considering that the East and West have diametrically opposed views when it come to the relationship between the mind and the body.
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The Western conception of a split between mind and body goes back many centuries, to such ancient thinkers as Plato and Aristotle. But it was the French philosopher Rene Descartes who in the 17th century gave us the modern and perhaps the best known formulation of mind body dualism with his famous declaration ‘I think therefore I am.’ This simple phrase expressed a radical split between mind and body, which became definitive of Western thought.
Even to this very day much of our understanding of thought, and the way we think, is based on Descartes’ mind-body dualism But whether you support or reject Descartes’ dualistic mind-body view, the downside to his powerful legacy is that it encouraged us to see our bodies as a machine that acts only to serve the mind.
This kind of mind centric view has taught us to value thought above everything else, and to ignore our emotions in the belief that emotions have very little to do with helping us to achieve our goals.
But emotion is related to thought and each one plays an important part in who we are. When our brain generates a certain type of thought it generates a rapid and automatic chemical reaction, which then triggers a response in the body that we perceive as an emotion or feeling such as love, fear or anger. To deny our emotions in any way only inhibits them and prevents them from running their natural cycles.
In the early part of the 20th century a small group of influential writers, musicians and academics became interested in Eastern philosophies and wisdom traditions, which view the mind and body as being intrinsically linked. It was the father of analytical psychology Carl Jung, who in the 1930’s became the first person to present these Eastern mind-body theories from a medical point of view. But it wasn’t until the 60 s and the mind altering psychedelic experiences of the hippy movement and their interest in Indian mysticism, that mind-body theories started to become popularised across Europe and North America.
But the mind-body debate is still very much alive and to suggest that any kind of mind-body therapy could play a role in a clinical setting alongside medical and psychiatric treatments is still considered by many to be unproven and ’alternative’.
But recently there have been some exciting new studies that point towards yoga’s therapeutic benefits when used as an effective and affordable by using a combination of breath and consciousness, yoga becomes a safe and gentle way to connect to ourselves and our deeper states of being adjunct treatment for many of the most common forms of mental illness. Some of these conditions include chronic stress, anxiety, mood disorders, mental burn out and insomnia. In many cases yoga has been known to work as a form of prevention as well as cure, and has been proved to help with increasing feelings of overall wellbeing.