Why Caring for your physical body is critical for your mental well being.
“Sometimes we can’t think things into existence. We need to breathe them into our bodies.” Elena Brower
I love this quote from Elena Brower. As someone who can spend a lot of time in my head and a lot of money on books, I have learned that as much as I may want to fix my tendency towards anxiety with mind-based solutions, my best day to day approach to creating better mental health is hands down one that is counterintuitive: taking better care of my body.
I am someone who has had a less-than-easy relationship with the physical version of myself. My body relationship has been marked by everything from being braced for scoliosis to severe childhood migraines, adult weight gain, and out of control asthma. As a child I hated moving my body. As an adult I learned I was pretty good at moving my body- and I pushed myself so hard I induced ill health by acting from a place of disconnect.
So what does this have to do with mental health? Everything. Because taking control of our mental health means learning to look at our mind and emotions through a lens that embraces the connection between mind and body. And for me that has meant learning a new way of thinking about how my body, breath, mind and emotions intersect.
The Language of Yoga- Introducing the Koshas
The Koshas are a philosophical framework from the world of yoga that give us a way to conceptualize ourselves. Each of us is said to have 5 sheaths or koshas that layer like an onion, and each of the layers has a different function and benefit. Beginning with the most physical layer- the Annamaya Kosha or food body- the Koshas become more and more subtle as they move from the physically tangible form of the body to subtler forms which include the Breath Body (Pranamaya Kosha), the Mind and Emotional Body (Manomaya Kosha), the Wisdom Body (Vijnanamaya Kosha), and the Bliss Body (Anandamaya Kosha).
What I love about the Koshas is that they are depicted like layers of an onion, with the Bliss Body at the center, and each consecutive layer adding on so that the Food Body- the most outer layer- contains or envelops it all. Each of these layers is said to interpenetrate with the next. For me this visual gives me a clear sense of two things:
1. I am more than just my food body, more than just my emotions and my thoughts.
2. Since each layer interpenetrates and can influence the layer beside it, I have the power and capacity to shift each of the koshas by consciously working with all of the layers
Where it Begins – 10 Daily Habits of Ayurveda
One of the simplest models I have found for learning how to care for my body comes from the Eastern health science of Ayurveda. Ayurveda teaches us that to create and maintain health there are simple but critical habits we should do every day related to sleep, eating, meditation, massage and care of our senses.
In the world of Yoga Health Coaching- where I practice my skills at helping people like you uplevel your physical and mental health- we teach these as 10 Body Habits. The first three- Earlier Lighter Dinner, Early to Bed, and Start the Day Right- are critical foundational habits that help us begin the journey of caring for our physical body in a way that positively impacts our physical and mental health. Additional habits like Sitting in Silence, Self Massage, Easeful Living and Sense Organ Care help us to amplify the benefits. Through a lens of modern habit science we learn how to integrate these new habits and routines into our life in a way that is practical and sustainable.
Why Caring for Your Body as a Lifestyle Approach Matters
So what does this have to do with self esteem and mental health? Most of us may feel we already have a sense of what we need to do to care for ourselves. We might even think we are pretty good at it. But if you are here, reading this post, there is something you are wondering about and quite possibly some kind of change you are hoping to create.
As someone who has been disconnected from my body, this clear visual of the koshas and of how all the aspects of me intersect and interact helps me better understand a key teaching from Ayurveda: to restore balance and health, we need to create routine and lifestyle choices that connect us into our personal rhythm and the rhythm of the world around us. And we need to care for our body as a key way to positively influence and care for all our koshas.
So on days when my anxiety is rampant, rather than trying to talk my way into settling and relaxing I know I have another way to shift myself: taking a brisk walk and moving my food body helps me to activate and regulate my breath body. As my breath begins to move more freely and with more force, my mind and emotions are able to calm and I am better able to process and digest what is happening. I have better access to my knowing and wisdom, and from there I can make decisions large and small from a place of grounded knowing. I can relax. And I can get on with my day.
My most important learning: by caring for my body with habits like waking and moving before 6am, eating dinner before 6pm, and using my hands to do self massage, I am giving myself a greater ability to process my emotions and to learn critical skills for self reflection, stress management and creating confidence. By changing the energies in my body I am creating an avenue to change the quality of my thoughts, the depth and amplitude of my emotions, and my ability to listen to my heart and inner wisdom. And for me that is freedom.