Embodied cognition and Yoga, by Megan McDonough

Yoga improves your emotional state. That’s obvious to anyone who has stepped onto the mat, or taught others and noticed the shift in the room as the class progresses. What is it about the Breath of Joy that actually makes us feel joyful? Or the strength of Warrior pose that makes us feel powerful? Or the surrender of Child’s pose that makes us feel nurtured?

There’s an intimate link between the movement of the body and the thoughts of the mind. People call this the mind/body connection. A more accurate phrase may be mind/body unity. The mind and body are cut from the same cloth. The body and mind are two sides of the same coin. This intimately linked feedback loop between body and mind is what psychologists call “embodied cognition” or “embodied mind.”

Embodied cognition: A definition

Cognition refers to the thought process of acquiring, integrating, and applying knowledge. It includes taking in information, forming concepts that put that information to practical use, and making judgments based on that understanding. It’s a mental process that includes reasoning, language, awareness, perception, and judgment.

Yoga teachers and practitioners know the term embodiment. We live it on the mat through the awareness that we hold in a posture—giving intimate, detailed attention to the length of our hands all the way to our fingertips, the grounding of our feet on the earth, the lift of the top of the head to the sky. Asana informs us about what it feels like to inhabit every part of our physical being. We fill the container of our own skin with our mind’s eye. The more we include the whole of our body in the yoga experience, the richer the practice.

Philosophers, psychologists, and even artificial-intelligence researchers who study embodied cognition and the embodied mind contend that the body shapes cognition. Or, to put it more simply, yoga postures shape how we think and feel—and, by extension, how we act.

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