I first heard the term psychoneuroimmunology during my participation in a 30-day residential yoga teacher training program in Lenox, Massachusetts. The President of the Kripalu Center for Health and Wellness was giving a lecture on yoga and integrated functioning of the body and mind. As words like “dopamine serotonin beta blockers” and “bioneurology” were thrown around to a room full of seekers on a spiritual path, I wondered what on earth any of these things had to do with my stretching and meditation practice. As the lecture progressed, however, it became apparent that the theory of the mind-body connection — a state often accessed and explored through yoga — and its increasing scientific validity is more far reaching than I could have ever imagined.
As the story goes, yoga postures as we know them today are actually snapshots of ancient yogic energetic rituals. Yogis would respond to the built up energy force (prana) in their bodies and would practice erratic dance as a means to honor and surrender to their inner goings on. Coupled with this practice, was meditation — in which they would sit sometimes for days on end in order to achieve union with the divine. To prepare the body for this sustained meditation, “snapshots” of the pranic release dances would be used as poses that the yogis would hold to develop the flexibility and strength — both mental and physical — to be able to sit in meditation for prolonged periods of time. In the deeper history of yoga, the principle behind the practice was that yoga would serve to unify the mind and body, bringing each back to its natural state, achieving balance and possibly, the ability to heal itself.
When one steps onto the yoga mat and begins their practice, more often than not they expect to be stretched (literally) to their maximum physical capacity. In practicing yoga, one begins to find him or herself with increased flexibility, strength and even pain relief. Meditation is often partnered with an asana (posture) practice in a classroom setting and as one travels down an Eastern inspired spiritual path, yoga and meditation go hand in hand. After a prolonged commitment to practice, the benefits of a spiritual practice begin to manifest themselves in ways that go beyond the physical: learning to quiet the mind and help with stressful situations, an ability to stay “present” from moment to moment, becoming more aware of oneself, feelings, emotions — a unification of body, mind and spirit. Various studies have taken the benefits of yoga a step further, into the health & wellness realm and claim (among others) the following benefits: pulse rate decreases, sleep improves, total cholesterol decreases, depth perception improves, hemoglobin increases, excretory functions improve, triglycerides decrease.
As yoga can be literally translated as “union”, its effects of unity on the entire person can begin to make sense however, why and how does physical motion unified with breathing techniques yield effects on our minds? Does it work both ways — do our minds somehow exert a measurable influence on our physical well-being? According to research in mind-body medicine, the answer is “yes”.
Take, for example, the phenomenon known as the ‘placebo effect’. This is an act where an individual receives the expected result of an experience merely by its given expectation — a testament to the power of mind to influence our physiology. The branch of medicine that studies the relationship between the brain and the immune system is referred to as Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). It offers a way of looking at the whole of a person, the integrated functioning of the body and its interaction with its environment in order to study, prevent and cure disease. PNI examines the chemical ways that the various systems of our bodies communicate with each other. As its name would imply, it brings together knowledge and specialists from various branches of the medical field, more specifically and especially endocrinology, immunology, psychology and neurology. While a lot of research in medicine tends to focus on advancements in the more seemingly impressive arena, such as heart transplants or pharmaceutical breakthroughs, research on the mind body interconnection has a rich history and continues to provide new information.
The term ‘psychoneuroimmunology’ was first coined by Robert Ader and Nicholas Cohen at the University of Rochester in the 1970’s. Similar to the Pavlonian study of dogs salivating at the ring of a bell, Ader and Cohen conducted research on rats relating to the immune system. They fed the rats saccharine infused water, first laced with Cytoxan (a nausea inducer) which caused the rats to become ill. Later, when the Cytoxan was removed from the water, but the saccharine was still present, the rats exhibited the same symptoms — nausea, lethargy — showing that after conditioning, the immune system was still affected by the nervous system.
Taking this research a step further, Dr. Candace Pert emerged. Dr. Pert’s studies first focused on neuropeptide receptors in the brain and immune system. After discovering the endorphin and the opiate receptor, Dr. Pert went on to identify receptors not only in the brain, but in our body organs, muscles and glands. A network of nerves was discovered that led to blood vessels and cells of the immune system. Ascribing the cells of each individual area with the gift of “muscle memory” — or their own intelligence — she claims that the body IS the subconscious mind. Dr. Pert uses Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) as an example of the power of mind over body. In some cases of MPD, actual physical characteristics may change with the personality — for example one personality may have perfect vision, while another may need an eyeglass prescription. If MPD, as classically perceived, is just an affliction of the mind, how might the issue of a change in visual ability be explained? It would seem that further exploration of the mind, body and its biochemical interactions is completely warranted.
By this logic, one can deduct that sensory input, once “inside our body” is converted to a chemical which kicks off a process in which the chemical binds to the receptors throughout the body, at which point we may begin to develop a corresponding emotion, even experiencing a physical manifestation of the sensory experience. In short, she is saying that emotions are the link between the mind and the body. Claiming that we are “hard wired for bliss”, she took it a step further and tied spirituality in to the existing study of mind-body dynamics. Dr. Pert claims that health and longevity have a positive correlation to our awareness and perception. Meditation is a method she cites as contributing to the development of these attributes. Meditation, like yoga, comes from the Eastern view of physical wellness where consciousness is seen as the “ultimate reality”. This is in stark contrast to the Western view which seems to imply that consciousness is a by-product of existence, or something that we need to develop or tap in to. Through meditation, we learn to quiet our minds. In doing so, we familiarize ourselves with the nothingness state of mind and are that much more sensitive and aware of the way we are converting our sensory input. Over time, with a dedicated practice, meditation teaches us to control our thought patterns, potentially reducing our absorption of negative emotion, which could physically manifest itself in the body. By becoming aware of and controlling our emotional and mental states, we may be able to maintain optimum health and heal more quickly from ailments. Based on continuing research, the integration of the known and unknown in order to understand the human body as a holistic mechanism might be the reality of the direction of modern medicine.