Over the winter new year break I received a pile of books from a friend who was having a clear out. One of them I read straight away: How your mind can heal your body by David Hamilton and I’ve meaning to blog about it for months because it’s very interesting, and has implications for our yoga practice, and our whole lives potentially.
At first glance my immediate reaction to the book and its title was ‘what nonsense’, but two things made me change my mind. One was that the title is a bit simplistic as the author does state several times that the mind can help heal the body and people should continue with their conventional medical treatment alongside adopting helpful mind-based approaches. The other reason was the extensive amount of research of human trials that he quotes that back up all his claims.
I think the book’s message boils down to a few key statements:
- the mind is powerful and we still don’t fully understand how it works, but meditation including visualisation techniques, can have a positive healing effect on a number of different mental and physical conditions;
- a positive attitude towards life, and your current/long term health/healing issue is beneficial;
- placebos work, a lot;
- our experiences, our thoughts, and how we react to situations, all affect the brain and it can change as a result of our thoughts and experiences; and
- positive affirmations can help you in your life ie we can train the brain.
It’s a very easy and readable book, despite all the research he quotes and if I wrote here all the notes I made about it, it would be far too long a post. When I read the book it was very timely as I had a broken bone at the time and was a bit down and depressed about that. I like to think I have quite a sunny outlook on life but I could see how people can very easily get caught in a downward spiral of negative thoughts and depression. I found myself being anxious about my health, about my future physical fitness, and various related things. On reading this book I tried to adopt a more positive approach and did practice some healing visualisations to help. (And a friend directed me towards healing music too, based on delta waves.)
One of the findings the author notes is that if someone is seeing medical professionals, the words used by the medical staff are crucial – positive helpful words led to higher recovery rates than those who received more bland or negative statements. I can relate to this as both my experiences with the consultants I saw for my broken bone left me anxious and in a state of uncertainty – I didn’t feel I’d been provided with much help, information or assistance, and felt quite ‘dismissed’ and abandoned after the second and final session. Depending on the person and the medical condition, this could have serious medical implications. David Hamilton goes on to discuss ‘neuro speak’, and how just talking positively about increased mobility in one shoulder led to the participants noticing greater flexibility in that shoulder. From a yoga teacher’s perspective, this makes me realise I need to use positive language in my yoga classes, and possibly look into this further.
Another aspect I really liked was findings that showed that when participants just watched physical exercise, their skills improved, and just imagining exercising improved their skills and muscle development! So if we watch some more yoga videos we’d improve in our yoga practice? Whilst it sounds far fetched I’ve heard of similar studies of world class athletes undergoing two different training programmes, and the ones who just did the ‘mental’ version out-performed those that did all the physical practice!
There’s a lot of other nuggets in the book, some of which I’d absorbed into my way of thinking/viewing things already, such as the brain being sensitive to the environs and other people’s emotions etc, thus if your friends all tend to be positive, grateful and happy, you too will begin to adopt that outlook. Also that a positive mind can lead to a quicker and better healing process.
The author describes in detail the type of visualisation exercises he works with, and section three of the book has different suggested visualisations for a whole variety of physical and mental conditions. Section two is given over to case studies from people from around the world who have used the healing power of the mind to help them with their conditions.
Bringing it back to yoga and meditation, the research shows that we can train the brain and change our thought patterns and that regular meditation can increase the areas of the brain associated with compassion, concentration and free will. (I’m skipping the science bit but it’s all to do with chemicals, neuro transmitters, receptors, and cells.)
But, if you’re currently in need of some healing and if all this seems overwhelming, don’t ‘blame’ yourself for being poorly or ill. The author notes that it’s ok to suffer, but don’t overly criticise yourself. If you can make peace with yourself and offer yourself some compassion you’re on the healing path.
PS I still can’t get over the research which found that even people who watched others lifting and exercising their fingers improved their finger flexibility by 32%, whilst the actual do-ers improved by 50%.