Move Your Body, Free Your Mind


I come home on a Tuesday night. I’ve seen patients all day and gone shopping afterwards, so I’m tired. But not tired enough to account for the way I feel: disoriented, headachy (though with no real headache), and ill at ease. Maybe I’m coming down with a cold or something. But no, the symptoms aren’t really of that sort. I collapse into a chair and think, “Let me get a handle on this.” I have a vague sense of déjà vu. Why? Then it hits me: I’ve done no hatha yoga for four days. That’s about my limit. After that, something begins to happen in my body that is uncomfortable. An undercurrent of tension, a sense of being thwarted, stuck—it’s hard to articulate. But I know what I need to do.

With no further hesitation, I put a blanket on the carpet and lie supine, my arms together on the floor above my head. After relaxing into this position for a couple of minutes, I sit up slowly into the posterior stretch, reaching for my toes. It doesn’t feel good. The tightness in the backs of my legs is at the edge of pain as I lean forward. I am caught between my pride, which says I should be able to stretch farther, and my legs, which are saying “Enough!” I breathe consciously, on each exhalation asking the tension in my hamstrings to release. Bit by bit, I ease down into the posture. This is followed by a cobra, a plow, a head-to-knee, and a spinal twist. Twenty minutes of this and I am a changed person. I feel “high”—serene, almost euphoric, and aware that being in my body is now deliciously enjoyable.

I am baffled. Why do I put off doing something that is so wonderfully pleasurable? The answer must be that I am avoiding the initial discomfort and the necessity of facing a backlog of tension and neglect. The more regularly I exercise, the less of an obstacle there is to overcome. Yet every so often it slips down my list of priorities and disappears, and I find myself in the uncomfortable situation just described.

I am baffled. Why do I put off doing something that is so wonderfully pleasurable?

So how do we motivate ourselves to exercise? Here’s what works for me (most of the time), for my patients, and might just help you: First, maximize the “feel good” quality of your exercise, so it’s appealing. Second, cultivate a sense of curiosity about your body and its movement, and develop a habit of approaching them in the spirit of adventure and discovery. To make this possible, it will help to understand more about how your body moves, and what impact that movement has on your emotions and mind. Once that’s clear, you will be able to design an exercise regimen suited to your unique needs—one that you will look forward to and enjoy.

Life Is Movement

Life flows when you move; it is movement that connects intent and action. The sedentary life is one in which the two become split, disconnected. When you sit for long periods doing mental work, you develop the habit of following a train of thought without expressing what is in your mind through action. This is useful to an extent—it allows for reflection and discrimination before you take action. But it has its drawbacks. Physical immobility risks breaking the link of spontaneity that makes the shift from thought to action a natural, flowing one. Then it becomes difficult to engage joyfully in the process of moving toward your goals and fulfilling your ambitions.

In the early phases of my training in yoga, Swami Rama would often bark at me, “Get up, do it now! What are you waiting for?” After so many years of school and desk work, I tended to stay curled up comfortably somewhere in the recesses of my mind, and found it increasingly difficult to initiate physical action. The spiritual/philosophic tradition that provided the context for my training in yoga, ayurveda, and holistic medicine put a lot of emphasis on the concept of spanda (pronounced “spahn´duh”). This term comes from the same root as the Latin sponte, which gives rise to our word spontaneous. The ancient teachings described spanda as a sort of energy of the psyche, a throb or vibration felt in your body that is expressed by your action or, if you haven’t acted yet, by your feeling of determination to carry out an action. When you are able to connect with it, you are spontaneous and feel authentic. When you are disconnected, you feel as if you are “trapped in your head” and cut off from your bodily source of action and joy.

Such a disconnection from your inner spark of intent is at the root of a lot of what we call depression. A chasm separates thought and action. Fears and apprehensions clutter up the space between impulse and expression. It becomes progressively difficult to find your way through all those obstacles to action, and almost impossible to escape a growing sense of uncertainty and frustration. Kierkegaard wrote that depression is what occurs when Spirit wants to move you, and you resist.

What we call exercise, the regular and deliberate movement of the physical body, offers the possibility of cracking the shell of inertia that has developed around us. This initiates a process of restoring spontaneity, of reforging the natural linkage between what feels right to us and its expression in free and creative activity. This can have revolutionary effects on our lives and can occasionally provide the strategic wedge that will pry open a stubborn disease.

Viewed from the level of energy or of the mind, the physical aspects of exercise make more sense.

Though a great deal of attention has been focused on the biochemistry of exercise, I find that what is going on at the molecular level offers less insight into the essential nature of exercise than what is transpiring on the level of consciousness and energy. Exercising to generate a dose of euphoria-inducing endorphins is less appealing to me than exercising to recover my capacity for free and spontaneous self-expression. Besides, the world of molecular events is confusing. Even with the sharpest intellect and the highest level of knowledge of its intricacies, you can get lost down there. Take a tip from the yogis and climb up to where you can get a better perspective on things. Viewed from the level of energy or of the mind, the physical aspects of exercise make more sense.

For example, doing exercise is a challenge. There is a barrier to break through, and though it’s primarily psychological it has often become physical and molecular as well. When you begin to move, you’re likely to run up against stiffness. A great deal of that, especially the stubborn kind that doesn’t yield to stretching, may be a result of the accumulation of environmental toxins in the connective tissue. Free radicals cause irritation and damage connective tissue, decreasing the elasticity of the ligaments and the fascia.

The accumulation of ama (pronounced “ah´muh”), or internally generated wastes, probably also contributes to the stiffness we feel. Stretching might release some of this; more of it can be removed by cleansing techniques. The two work together well. I suspect that moving into an unaccustomed posture stretches ligaments and fascia where toxins have been accumulating, mobilizing them so that they can be removed.

Letting go of the old allows us to move on to the new. But again, the letting go and the moving are more than physical. They are mental and emotional, too, and both aspects find a point of interplay in connective-tissue matrix, whose passageways conduct subtle currents and store wastes. Let’s take a look at how the deposits it contains, the strictures and stiffness it develops, create an overall shape that constrains and defines your movement in a way that not only holds you steady but can also, depending on your habitual manner of moving, become uncomfortably confining.

The Fascial Straitjacket

If I ask you how your friends recognize you, you might answer, “They know my face, of course.” But they can recognize you from four blocks away—or even on a dark night, when they only catch a glimpse of your silhouette against a wall. Somehow your personality, your character, is reflected in your body shape. Your posture and way of moving are uniquely yours. Let’s see how this comes to be.

The tight muscle expresses intent, whether you are consciously aware of it at the moment or not.

The story begins with muscle tone. Tone is what gives your arm firmness. Without tone, it would be flaccid and flabby. Tone results from a small number of muscle fibers undergoing contraction. If you are feeling alert and energetic, your body will show an overall tone in the musculature. If you’re anxious, some muscles may tighten up more. If you say, “My right shoulder is really tense,” I’ll wonder what’s going on in your mind. From the point of view of mind-body interaction, tension reflects intention. The tight muscle expresses intent, whether you are consciously aware of it at the moment or not.

Let’s say you are reading this on a cold day, and somewhere in the back of your mind you picture yourself getting up to go put on a sweater. But you want to finish this article, so you push the thought aside. You go on with your reading, but you feel the cold, and the intent to get up from your chair has not gone away. It has simply been banished from your immediate consciousness. Meanwhile the muscles that have to do with getting up have developed some increased tone. If the room is cold enough, the heightened tone becomes frank tension. If you sit there long enough, you may begin to feel discomfort in those tight muscles.

Such momentary episodes come and go, and may leave no lasting imprint on our bodies. Those that are habitual, however, may. For example, perhaps your boss criticizes you a lot. Not openly, but in subtle ways. He reminds you of your father. When your father yelled at you, you reflexively shrank, pulling your head down and lifting your shoulders as though to protect yourself from what felt like a verbal blow to your head. As a teenager, you stopped doing that because it could make you look weak and frightened. Your shoulders didn’t move anymore, but they still tensed up.

Now, every time your boss aims another barb in your direction, those same muscles tighten a bit. Not enough to move perceptibly, but a little bit nevertheless. And over the years your shoulders have crept up, shortening your neck and creating a characteristic hint of defensiveness in your posture. You look in the mirror and say to yourself, “Relax!” and let your shoulders drop a bit. But a few minutes later they have crept back up, as though pulled by some invisible force, or snapped back in place by a hidden rubber band. The fact is, that’s exactly what has happened.

There are mind-body mechanisms that restore your customary shape. Two forces act to bring your body back into its characteristic posture. The first is the mental—in this case it would be defensive thoughts running like a subterranean stream through the events of your day. That could be changed through insight and the resolution of emotional issues. But even if it were, and if you managed to get past the fear and defensiveness, your shoulders would still tend, for some time at least, to gravitate back to their accustomed position. The rubber band that pulls your shoulders back up is the complex of connective tissue sheaths that surround and encase the muscles. The anatomical term for these sheaths is fascia. 

Two forces act to bring your body back into its characteristic posture.

Unfortunately, re-creating the body configuration that corresponds to the fearful thoughts prompts them to return—just as opening your arms wide nudges you toward feeling openhearted and generous, or straightening your spine bolsters your courage. By popping you back into old positions, the fascial elastic perpetuates mind-body habits.

All the muscles of the body exist in fascial envelopes. In fact, each muscle, however small, has its own little fascial container. All these envelopes are interconnected, one with another. You might imagine a sort of honeycomb of sheaths, with muscle tissue where the honey would be. Because the connective tissue of the fascial envelopes is made of fibrocytes and elastin, they are flexible and can be stretched. But they can only be stretched to a certain point. Then they begin to pull back into their original shape. Elastic, they have a dual purpose: they allow movement, and they provide stability by returning you to your customary position.

The fascial planes of the connective tissue network and the ligaments and tendons that are extensions of it establish themselves around your customary posture and arrangement of body parts. This is their resting point—zero on their scale of movement. You can depart from this so many degrees, but the farther you go, the more they tug you back toward their resting point. If you try to go beyond the range of motion they are designed to permit, you may begin to tear some part of the system. You then experience pain, so you stop.

We might say this network of fascial planes provides a second superstructure or “skeleton” for your body—one that is flexible to a degree but that also holds you close to your habitual posture and way of moving. Because it sustains your habits of movement, it acts, on a physical level, to stabilize your mind and emotions—by only allowing you to enter those positions that will support mental and emotional states that are familiar. So you have a permissible range of motion—physically, emotionally, mentally—and if you begin to depart from it too much, you are pulled back, returned to where you were, like a child lifted by the strong arm of a parent back into his seat.

I often wonder how much imitating the posture of others—especially by children as they’re growing up—contributes to creating the uniformity of thought and emotion that are the commonality of a culture. Even more important, how much does incorporating those physical constraints into mind and feeling sustain and enforce the belief systems that give civilization its coherence, but also hold it to a course that may be, on occasion, self-destructive and may contribute to the development of disease?

Sustaining postural habits is a means whereby the unconscious mind contains and restricts your range of choices. The mind has established its arena, beyond which you are not allowed to move. A certain pattern of habits is permitted. If you attempt to step out of that pattern, you are restrained by the fascial network. It prevents you from “going wild.” It is, in effect, a sort of connective-tissue straitjacket. Unconsciously you create this internal fascial straitjacket to preserve the security of the familiar to ensure that you don’t do anything out of character.

Many of us have very rigid containers. We are “stiff,” we say—an interesting choice of words, since it’s also slang for a dead body. In such cases the range of choices open to us is so restricted that the quality of life suffers. A few people are the opposite—so flexible they are amorphous. I once treated a woman who was known for her ability to twist her body into the most difficult yoga positions. But mentally and emotionally she was distressingly unstable. She would weep uncontrollably, and afterward find herself at a loss to explain why. She couldn’t set a course for her life, or define herself.

The specifics of your fascial limitations will tell you much about your “forbidden zones”—the areas of feeling and consciousness that are off-limits for you. If there are sexual fears, motion of the hips and pelvis will not be free. A collapsed, closed chest protects the heart from being hurt, but shuts off communication and compassionate interchange. With time the bones, which are also dynamic and continually reforming themselves, will reshape around the position we have established. In healing work, it is preferable to start when the constraints are still largely limited to the fascial network. Bodywork is especially useful here. Rolfing or “structural reintegration” was developed explicitly to rework fascial strictures. Yoga remains, however, a thorough and elegant approach to freeing yourself from your self-created fascial trap.

The specifics of your fascial limitations will tell you much about your “forbidden zones”—the areas of feeling and consciousness that are off-limits for you.

If you are a do-it-yourselfer, by all means take a yoga class. If you already have, dust off that manual and get down on the floor. Yoga works slowly but gently. By gradually moving a little farther each time into the position, you stretch the fascial planes and bit by bit expand the repertoire of physical positions you can enter. You find yourself walking differently, moving more freely. This implies that you have also expanded the range of mental and emotional spaces you can enter.

Hatha yoga was developed as a preparation for, and an adjunct to, meditation. It’s generally assumed that that means loosening up the body so you can sit cross-legged on the floor. Western meditators say, “Not necessary. Just sit in a chair.” Sitting in a chair is fine, but that misses the point. To be able to sit for meditation means to be able to have the flexibility to move your mind into new places—into those parts of the field of consciousness where you have previously not been able to enter—the areas blocked out, repressed, hidden, shoved into the unconscious. Where the body can’t go, the mind can’t either—at least not easily.

Consistent use of a few basic postures will go far to loosen your physical constraints and open new possibilities of mental and emotional experience. A condensed routine would include one forward bend, one backward bend, and one twist. Lie quietly and observe the effects of each posture after you’ve done it. Problem areas will need special attention. The rule of thumb is this: the positions that are the most difficult will provide the biggest payoff, because the tightest constraints are hiding the most. Where you feel you are up against a wall, get the help of an expert.

Meanwhile remember that exercise takes the body through its paces in a way that is both necessary and enjoyable. The more enjoyable you manage to make it, the more beneficial it will be. Exercise also helps to loosen connective tissue so that deposits are mobilized and can be eliminated. If used properly, exercise can push the connective-tissue envelope within which you exist and stretch it—opening new possibilities for you to move into physical and psychological positions that you have not had access to before. In the process of doing this, you have the opportunity to learn much about yourself—about your fears, your inhibitions, and your potentials. And the techniques and habits you establish to deal with the movement of your body will serve you well as you turn your attention to the movement of your mind, or the movement of your life and the directions it feels best for it to go.

Last and probably most important, exercise can help you get back in touch with your innate capacity for spontaneity and authenticity. The more you use your exercise sessions as a time for exploring yourself, the more of these benefits you will experience. You need only to be attentive to body, breath, and mind.

About the Teacher

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Rudolph Ballentine
Rudolph Ballentine, MD, is Chief Medical Advisor at the Olive Leaf Wholeness Center in New York City... Read more