Connecting Mind and Body through Yoga and Embodied Cognition | Core Spirit
March 29

Connecting Mind and Body through Yoga and Embodied Cognition

So, what is with all this talk about the “mind-body connection”? It pops up in arenas all over the internet, within communities such as alternative medicine, among health enthusiasts, and even amongst scholars such as psychologists and neuroscientists.

Walk into any local health food-store and take a look at the bulletin board of ads, and you will most undoubtedly come across ads for mind-body therapies and practitioners. Browse through some of their publications and notice this same phrase sprinkled throughout and highlighted as subject matter amongst the articles.

Living on the Gulf Coast of Florida, I’ve also noticed a growing trend of more and more yoga mats on the beach in the mornings and an influx of new studios popping up around town. On the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s (NCCAM) website, Yoga is defined as “a mind and body practice with origins in ancient Indian philosophy.”

Considering the definition of yoga mentioned above, what goes on in the interplay of mind-body? And more specifically, how does the body, by way of sensations and movements practiced in yoga, contribute to the workings of the mind?

One way to talk about the workings of the mind is through a focus on cognition, defined as “the mental processes associated with attention, perception, thinking, learning and memory” by the INS Dictionary of Neuropsychology, (Koizol, Budding and Chidekel 2012, 506). Embodied cognition goes a step further, and recognizes that cognition is often based on the experiences, movements, and structures of the body.

Movements and sensations by way of practiced postures and breath control in yoga are a means of embodied experience. I will first describe the philosophy and physical practice of yoga in this post as a way to understand how the body can cultivate the mind. Then I will turn to embodied cognition and its attention to perception-action systems of the body, and develop the argument that sensorimotor experience in yoga creates and alters cognition.

Yoga cultivates the connection of body and mind

As a graduate of a 200-hour yoga teacher-training course, I can expand upon the mind and body practice of yoga. By beginning to practice yoga, I began to notice a heightened sense of my bodily awareness. In particular, I began to notice my emotions and states of mind also correlated with bodily postures. For example, when I felt bogged down by stress from work, I noticed that my shoulders and neck would become very stiff and tight. When I was sad, I would assume a position of folded arms and downcast face.

There are plenty of common associations we know of that connect mind states of emotions to bodily movements postures. Being happy, one may find a “spring in their step” or even become motivated to do a little dance. Also, being proud is sometimes associated with “standing tall”, and being anxious may lead someone to tap their foot or bite their nails. “Power posing” even leads to neuroendocrine changes in the body.

It is widely known and taught in the practice of yoga that not only can the mind influence the body as seen in the examples above, but the body may well influence the mind, as work by Felicitas Goodman on body postures and trance has shown. The postures and movements taught in yoga practice can help shape the mind and its mental processes in cognition, specifically by directing attention inward.

Teachers of physical yoga practices encourage students to pay attention to the breath, linking breath to movement, and using this focus to observe oneself and the workings of the mind, such as reactions one may have to a difficult pose. Becoming more aware of the body and mind in practice can help one become more aware of the body and mind in everyday life, which in turn influences our perceptions, experience and overall cognition. Cultivating this inner-attention in the physical practice then extends to inner-awareness in meditation, which directly influences our brain’s cognition. Research has linked breathing, meditation, and health together, showing how this impact on mind can then affect the body.

One of the most important texts of yoga, The Yoga Sutras, was written by Patanjali who inherited his knowledge about yoga from the Vedas, the most ancient records of Indian culture.

What is Yoga? Patanjali answers this question in sutra 1.2 with chitti vritti nirodhah, Sanskrit that commonly translates to yoga being the “cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.”

Practicing postures (asana) in yoga and breath control (pranayama) are a means of preparing oneself to sit in meditation. In meditation the focus is on the sensory awareness of the breath and when thoughts arise in the mind, they are simply “let go” by bringing the attention back to the breath. This practice further works towards the final stage of intense concentration in meditation, (samadhi) where the practitioner and the object of meditation become one, which is what yoga is all about.

The literal translation of yoga is “to yoke” which means “to join” or “to unite”. Samadhi can also be described as total “absorption”, where the sense of the physical body is absolved into the complete attention with the object of concentration. We can then say in this state that the mind and body are united into one, and it is this connection of mind and body that has recently disseminated into health mediums and communities in the United States.

I realize that to someone who does not practice yoga, these may be foreign concepts, but I believe as an example it is a way to understand how the kinesthetic and sensorimotor aspects of a practice can work to influence and even control mind and cognitive functioning.

Embodied cognition theory: the body creating cognition

Recently, there has been a reaction to the widely held notion of dualism between the mind and body within the fields of neuroscience, psychology and anthropology to name a few. This reaction has been coined under the term “embodied cognition” which basically holds that cognition is grounded in the body. The case for embodied cognition draws on a range of research from behavioral curiosities of hand gestures during spatial reasoning, studies that show certain motions can help or hinder tasks, the navigation of robots as constituted by the engineering of their forms, (Shapiro 2011, 1-2) and the fact that abstract cognitive states are grounded in bodily states, which is explored in a book published by two of embodied cognition’s darlings, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

There are many different ways of construing embodied cognition, including six co-existing notions and constructs documented by Wilson and Golonka (2013). For an introduction to embodied cognition and its current research and figures check out this blog post by Samuel McNerney:A brief guide to embodied cognition: why you are not your brain. The Neuroanthropology blog has covered embodiment before, including this piece on embodied cognition and cultural evolution and another on distinguishing metaphorical uses of embodied cognition (it’s good to think with) from actual research on neuroscience and embodiment. And Wilson and Golonka want people interested in embodied cognition to go much further in how we understand embodiment:

Embodiment is not the weak claim that you can see small effects of the behaviour of the body in our mental representations of the world. Embodiment is the radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies, and the meaning-filled perception of the world they allow, do much of the work required to achieve our goals, and this simple fact changes utterly what our theories of ‘cognition’ will look like.

Not only is embodiment a challenge to mind-body dualism by holding that the body and mind are connected and the body’s processes can influence the mind, but it is also a reaction to standard cognitive science’s interpretation of the brain, with a mind that functions computationally in the brain as does a computer program in the hardware of a computer. Standard cognitive science holds a commitment to cognition as being abstract and functioning by “algorithmic processes across symbolic representations” (Shapiro 2011, 2) also known as mental representations and without much regard for the context of the environment or sensory input of the body.

In fact when the concept of mental representations was being developed in standard cognitive science, research on perception showed perceptual systems to be flawed, impoverished and probabilistic (Wilson and Golonka 2013, 2). Therefore, in this view, perceptual systems could not be relied on to solve higher cognitive problems, which also discounted the environment (since it is accessed by way of perceptual systems) and put sole responsibility of thought on the brain. The brain then has to optimize sensory input in combination with internal representations of knowledge in order to solve tasks. (Wilson and Golonka 2013, 2).

Advanced work on perceptual systems, particularly by J.J. Gibson and his theory of vision, has shown in fact the opposite of this notion, in that perceptual systems are not critically flawed but are highly functioning to give us direct access to the world (Wilson and Golonka 2013, 2). Gibson uses the analogy of a perceptual system to that of a radio, in which the brain doesn’t need to further process information from perceptual systems, but needs only to “resonate” with it, such as a radio tunes into radio-waves, the perceiver “self-tunes” (Shapiro 2011, 36).

So if our perception then is accurate, the need for internal concepts and mental representations then goes away and is replaced by perception-action systems associated with sensorimotor action within the environment (see our previous post on vision as sensorimotor, or something we do). This is now known as the replacement hypothesis within embodied cognition, and as Andrew D. Wilson and Sabrina Golonka put it in their 2013 article: “Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations…Embodied cognition (in any form) is about acknowledging the role perception, action and the environment can now play” (1-2).

Embodied cognition in anthropology

This view of embodied cognition certainly resonates with anthropology, since our field has long considered the role of bodies in the context of their environment and the interaction between them. Inquiries into how people shape, modify, adapt, symbolize and identify with their environment across space and time are central questions to anthropology (Wilk and Haenn 2006, 3).

Realizing “that bodies cannot be divorced from their lived experiences (Mascia-Lee 2011, 1), much work on embodiment in anthropology has already been undertaken, stemming from questions of power and oppression in the social sciences to consider constructs such as sex, gender and racial differences, paid close attention to by medical anthropologists (Mascia-Lees 2011, 1) as well as the “variable social meanings and political uses of the body, self, anatomy, and physiology” (Shepard 2004, 253).

In addition, a new approach within anthropology called sensory anthropology, calls for the attention to how cultures experience the world through the senses, the cross-cultural variation in sensory experience that exists and the interplay between culture, cognition and sensory physiology (Shepard 2004, 252-253). Considering Wilson and Golonka’s previous statement mentioned above and the role of perception, action and environment in cognition, perhaps an engagement of sensory anthropology can enhance the work on perceptual-motor systems as embodied cognition in neuroanthropology.

In neuroanthropology, we recognize that even into adulthood the brain retains a certain degree of malleability, or what is called ‘neuroplasticity’, being that the processes in the brain can change throughout life and are not immutable after a point in development. Culture is viewed as an inseparable part of brain development, shaping the underlying neurological and biological processes, so that our brains are ‘encultured’. Culture can be a guiding factor for those who engage in physical training practices that engage sensorimotor perceptual systems, and in turn alter the physiological functioning of them.

Returning to Gibson’s work on perceptual systems, he attributed vision not only to the eyes that serve it, but also as an entire perceptual system that is active and dependent upon the mobility of the body (Downey, 2007, 227). A turn of the head can bring about changes in the visual field as well as can an auditory sound from the ear can serve as a guide for the eyes focus. Considering vision as a an entire perceptual system, the Brazilian martial art Capoeira can serve as an example of embodied learning and how culture can determine the biology and physiological functioning of the visuomotor perceptual system.

In Capoeira, special emphasis is placed on the ‘sideways glance’ or peripheral vision in order to defend against adversaries. This tactic involves much “distinctive scanning patterns of rapid saccades, or eye movements” (Downey, 2007, 229) and actually is a restructuring of visual processes by suppression of the visual reflex of the eye to “intercept a visual transient with the fovea” (Downey, 2007, 229).

Properly developed perceptions such as the sideways glance in capoeira allow a capoeirista an extended field of vision with the sense of being able to see everything at once (Downey, 2007, 225). “Learning how to move ones eyes or shifting one’s habitual scanning pattern can profoundly affect how one sees” (Downey, 2007, 229). This idea is reflected in studies on athletes who differ in their visual search routines based on skill level (Downey, 2007, 229-230). In a related post, check out how varying trance postures as well as meditative states can lead to distinct cognitive experiences and neurophysiological outcomes.

We can see through this example how culture has the possibility to shape our perceptual systems, such as vision, and given the attention to sensorimotor, perceptual-action systems and environments in embodied cognition, has the possibility to affect our cognition and minds!

We can then say that our perceptual systems are ‘encultured’, with culture determining and shaping the biological processes central to their functioning. Furthermore, neuroanthropology should investigate if training programs such as yoga and capoeira undertaken by adults can be understood as ‘biologically embedded’ in neural processes as certain social conditions and experiences do early in life, getting under the skin, and altering developmental and biological processes and states (Hertzman, 2012, 330).

Yoga and embodied cognition

So, returning to our investigation into yoga as a mind-body therapy, which uses postures and breath exercises to influence the mind, we can see how this may be possible under the view of embodied cognition, particularly within the replacement hypothesis, giving affordance to bodies perceptual and sensorimotor systems to produce the mental processes in the brain, and by extension create our experiences. Practicing postures and breath exercises, and paying attention to the breath within the poses in yoga, are sensorimotor experiences based on perception-action systems aimed at creating awareness of mind and body and union between the two. And mind and body, we now know by way of embodied cognition, are already intricately linked.

In order to increase self-awareness, we might think of that process as interoception, or attention directed inwards, remembering attention as being one of the mental processes associated with cognition. A heightened self-awareness creates focus in meditation, which works to join the body and mind with the object of its meditation.

Under the analogy of Gibson as the perceiver who “self-tunes”, yoga as sensorimotor experience of interaction with the external (through bodily postures) and internal (through breath control) environment creates self-awareness, which heightens attention to perceptions and actions in order to further refine this “self-tuning” process affecting cognition.

Yoga through embodied cognition is a practice that works towards a goal of mind and body union based upon the perception-action system of the body from which cognition arises. Perception and action are used as the means to its meditational and mind-cultivating end. There are added benefits as well: Many studies have already shown how yoga affects the mind by way of mood enhancement and stress reduction, and can act as an effective treatment of anxiety and depression (Impett, Daubenmier and Hirschman 2006, 40).

So don’t take my word for it. Pay attention to the cognitive science (and there is much, much more of it.). And give yoga a try, for the betterment of both body and mind!

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