Sjana Elise Earp photographed by Jason Ykobosky.
Unlocking the Mind with
Yoga—and One Simple Breath
It’s easy to recognize that some thoughts are purely biological: I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I’m tired. These are the ideas that make us biological entities. But what can be more difficult to understand is that the deeper workings of the mind—like the idea that our lives have meaning or that we can appreciate our place in the world—are the result of biological processes as well. The way our hearts beat, the way we release breath, the trillions of synapses firing in our brains—these are much more than simply biological functions.
“Our brains are amazingly ancient developments of evolution, but our impulse to question, to know, to create, to imagine, to express compassion, and to plan are fairly young,” says Eddie Stern, a legendary yoga teacher and a longtime friend of goop. The higher-level creations of the mind, he explains, are functions of the prefrontal cortex, the youngest evolutionary structure of the brain. And they’re also the functions we’re least likely to label as biological.
To explain their existence, we usually look for a transcendent cause, something far from the ground: the collective consciousness, a higher power, some kind of mystical ether. But Stern’s work—including his new book, One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life—is a call to come back down to earth by bringing us back into our bodies.
Stern explains: Just as the mind is inextricable from the physical structure of the brain, it is also inextricable from the body. Practicing yoga—and specifically focusing on breath—can cultivate habits that can reduce stress, rewire our brains, change our very biology. And that can adjust those higher-level functions, orienting us toward steadiness, connection, and a spirit of compassion.
One Simple Thing
Yoga has been around in one form or another for about 10,000 years, according to Hindu oral tradition, and the ancient teachings of yoga started to appear in written form about 5,000 years ago. Yoga poses the same central questions that philosophers ponder today: Who am I? What is the purpose of life? Why are we here? What is the universe made of? Is there a way out of suffering, pain, and sorrow? Is there such a thing as freedom? And perhaps most importantly: What is consciousness?
The yogis thought that the starting place for these inquiries was not necessarily the mind but the body. We have a mind because we have a body. So through moving and holding the body in very deliberate postures, yogis would access more subtle states of awareness by extending their attention to more subtle facets of the body-mind complex. In Sanskrit, these postures are called “asanas.”
The verbal root “as-” means “to sit,” and the word “ana” means “breath.” An asana, then, is the act of sitting with your breath. When you sit with your breath, you allow your awareness to move into the present moment—so an asana is, too, a seat of awareness. Each time we do an asana, we are moving our body, breath, and awareness into the same place at the same time. This is a type of a union, which is one of the reasons why the word “yoga” is translated as “union.”
In those moments of awareness, it becomes apparent that awareness and body are connected. This is because awareness—an activity of the mind—and the body are one. They are on a continuum.
During the activities of the day, the mind gets filled with our to-do lists: Feed the kids, take out the garbage, answer emails, do the laundry, pay bills, figure out what to eat, find time to exercise, and on and on. This is because it is the job of the mind to think, categorize, and organize information, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. But when the mind gets overwhelmed with these things, it loses awareness, and it thinks that it is a separate entity from the physical body. However, the processing of thoughts and feelings occurs in every part of the body, and the beauty of yoga—and what makes it effective—is that it allows that field of information to come alive. When the mind is quiet and calm, it becomes aware that it is actually one with the rest of the body.
It is when awareness fills the body that we feel most connected, at home, and filled with being who we are. When that happens, you are sensitized to the messages your body is sending you, and it becomes easier to bypass or reduce stress. All we have to do is create a space to listen.
The easiest way to create this listening space is through the breath. By consciously slowing the breath, we begin to activate the branches of our nervous system that process and mediate feelings of calm, safety, restoration, and contentment—sensations that we actually feel in our bodies.
Feeling safe, as we have all experienced, is not a solely mental phenomenon. If we feel safe, the body relaxes, our breath calms, our heart rate steadies, and we feel warmth and security in our bodies. If we feel unsafe, on the other hand, our heart rate increases, our blood pressure rises, and we might feel tightness in the chest or an inability to think straight. Those are physical sensations.
There are two branches of our nervous system that are responsible for these phenomena: The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for creating the physical conditions of safety, and the sympathetic nervous system mediates the opposite and also helps move us toward activity in the presence of a threat.
These branches are in operation with every breath we take. The sympathetic nervous system is dominant when we inhale, and the parasympathetic is dominant when we exhale. Ideally, they balance each other out. However, when we have too much incoming information or when too many demands of the world weigh down on us, the sympathetic nervous system becomes overactivated and stays turned on, driving inflammation in the body. What can help: elongated exhalations, which activate the parasympathetic.
A simple practice to downregulate the stress response is to consciously slow the breath to about five to seven breaths per minute. (Ordinarily, we breathe about fifteen to eighteen breaths per minute.) You can start by inhaling for a count of four, then exhaling for a count of four. If this feels like too short of a breath, then try for five or six seconds on the inhalation and exhalation. Your breath doesn’t need to be deep, just slow and smooth. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but after about ten minutes of this breathing practice, the parasympathetic nervous system will become dominant.
If you practice this breath every day, you will begin to build not only the new breathing habit itself but also a habit of awareness. As this habit deepens, your mind will begin to develop a background trait of steady awareness that you can return to more and more easily when your mind gets overwhelmed. The changing thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the mind are its states, but the steady awareness that you build through breathing, yoga, or meditation is called a trait. The mind’s traits, not its states, have the most impact on how we interact with other people and the world we live in.
As your trait awareness develops, you’ll begin to see that you have different layers of being that are all intertwined, pervading one another like clouds, which seem to have a form but change all the time. These are your three bodies.
The most obvious is our physical body, which is maintained by the food we eat and the liquids we drink.
Then there is our body of breath, called the subtle body, which is our link to life and the link between our body and our inner worlds.
The next body in from the breath is the mind, where we experience sensations, feelings, information flows, thoughts, and memories. The mind, however, is not our ruler; it is just a field in which thoughts and sensation occur.
Giving support and power to the mind is the intellect, which is subtler than the mind and directs our actions, meaning the intellect decides which thoughts to act on. When the intellect is clear and strong, we know how to act. When the mind is stronger than the intellect, we make mistakes.
What powers the intellect is called the causal body, or the body of bliss, and it’s where the joy of being shines forth. When we feel the happiness of being alive for no particular reason, that is the causal body shining through unobstructed.
The various yoga practices address all of these different sheaths that make up who we are:
- Yoga postures address our physical body.
- Breathing practices strengthen the connection to the body of breath.
- Chanting and ritual help us cross over the turbulent waters of the mind.
- Meditation strengthens the intellect to be more present in the support of the mind.
- Doing things for other people—the best way to forget about our self-obsessions—strengthens the causal body, the body of bliss.
Together, these practices help us experience that we are not a body and a mind (and maybe a bunch of other stuff) but one cohesive thing. And not only that: We are not separate things living apart from all the world’s other things—we are all one thing, interconnectedly living in this world together, influencing one another with each breath we take. Everything in the universe is happening all at once, together, in each moment. In reality, there is nothing that exists independently.
We’ve been trained for a long time to divide one thing from another for the sake of examination. That has been helpful for science, technology, and medicine. But it is not helpful for creating a loving, compassionate, accepting society.
In the practice of yoga and meditation, we begin to consciously create a narrative shift, moving from a localized story revolving around “me” and expanding our circle of awareness to a sense of “we.” We are all in this world, happening together, at the same time. When we live from this place—where problem-solving and understanding are our prevailing mental traits—we diminish stress, anxiety, and conflict.
When we live with the driving urge to win or be right, we are living in a defensive mode. Everything is seen as a threat to our control. But when we live in a nondefensive mode, we don’t see things as a threat. We might see them as a challenge, but challenges are good. They make us stronger and give us opportunities to rise to our highest potential as thoughtful, aware, cooperative human beings.
This is what yoga is for. It is more than a great workout and even more than a journey of self-discovery; it is a journey of fully connecting with our own hearts, where the sense of the sacred is felt. We experience meaning and purpose, and we recognize that every other being does, too. And so we feel deeply that all other beings and all other bodies are sacred, because they exist to fulfill their own meaning and purpose just as we do our own.
The ability to live at this level can seem far off, but it’s not. It starts with one simple thing, and that is the breath. All we need to do is extend our exhalations just a little, and we extend ourselves into the sacred space of our inner world—fully connected, whole, complete, and loving.
Eddie Stern is a yoga master, an author, and a cofounder of Ashtanga Yoga New York, the Brooklyn Yoga Club, and the Brooklyn Ganesha Temple. He studied yoga under Patthabi Jois from 1991 until 2009, and he continues to study with Pattabhi Jois’s successors, Sharath Jois and Saraswati Jois. His latest book is One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.