Practicing non-violence towards the body
The principle of non-violence is at the heart of spirituality and the basis for any system that promotes wellness in ourselves and in society. As we have shifted towards our current fast-paced, technology-dependent lifestyle particularly over the past few decades, people are increasingly suffering from illnesses that are to a large extent inflicted by this way of life. Even those of us who are health-conscious experience a lot of inner conflict around what we eat and drink, how much we exercise, and so on. I'd like to offer a perspective of how yoga and meditation can help cultivate a deep connection with our bodies and an expanded sense of self for our physical and emotional health.
Disconnection with the physical body
Very few of us these days are living in the way our bodies were evolved to live. Hunting, farming, trekking, combat, horse-riding and so on are optional past-times for some but not exactly part of the average city-dweller's daily habits. Instead, we often find ourselves seated or just standing and walking for most of the day, maybe we take the stairs.
Physical activity has become an add-on to our lives. For many of us it is a task or chore we perform, like brushing our teeth. We 'do some exercise' with varying degrees of enthusiasm to lose weight, prevent premature or unnecessary decline of the body or to feel good. Whatever we choose to do, whether we're at the gym on the treadmill and using a weight machine that isolates our biceps, or a whether we're a professional athlete training to excel at one particular mode of movement, in the end our regime is nevertheless contrived. Very few of us experience a way of being for which our bodies were evolved, with all the natural ranges of movement, skills of intuition, balance, proprioception, gut instinct, heart-wisdom and much more besides that we would have relied on instinctively in the past. Much gets lost in this translation.
This may be part of the reason why it seems that many people have lost a positive relationship with their bodies. If you include the shift away from standard working hours towards an 'always online' culture and the level of stress that can be associated with that, it's easy to see why our more popular national past-times tend to err towards activities which dull our senses (watching TV, drinking, shopping etc.) rather than more mindful activities which tend to amplify what's going on in our internal ecosystem.
Research into the psychology of trauma suggests that we all carry around with us many 'micro-traumas' from our past, which get sealed into the memory of our physical bodies. The level of stress we're often under even from subtle signals like text messages, billboards, and sensationalist messaging in the media takes it's toll on our adrenal system meaning our bodies have become more burdened by stress than ever before. Even if we're not engaged in any sense-numbing activities, our bodies sometimes do this for us as a way of coping with these micro-traumas via the sophisticated system of pathways in our bodies which act as a bridge network between our physicality and our consciousness (energy channels known as nadis in yoga or meridians in chinese medicine). This can result in physical tightness or imbalance within the body or a switching off the ability to feel sensations in certain parts or to breathe into certain areas of the belly, back and chest.
In yoga and meditation, as we slow down and become more attuned to the subtle states of the body, the breath, the mind, our emotions and how these are all inter-related we start to build new neural pathways that offer us a different way of being throughout the day. Suddenly we find we're in a meeting and we become aware of tension we're carrying in our shoulders and in our breath, and we are able to ease that strain. Or we notice how some hurtful remark someone made has triggered us to comfort eat and we're able to see that and instead select a more nourishing way to soothe ourselves, perhaps by calling a friend or running a bath. Rather than forcing ourselves into ever more mind-boggling positions for no apparent reason, this attitude towards our yoga practice is how we cultivate a real, loving connection with the body.
A sense of self out of balance
Sometimes I think back to the days of my corporate career and my attitude towards my body back then. As a Project Manager, I would often have spells where I would work very intensely, putting in solid 12+ hour days under pressure to deliver to a deadline. I remember at those times having this strange sense upon finally stepping out of the office that I didn't really physically exist any more, like I was all mind and no body. As I'd step out into the busy central London traffic there were several occasions where my frazzled brain failed to register the very real physical danger associated with this spaced-out state and was lucky not to be run over.
Many of us think of ourselves very much in terms of who we are in the external world: our level of success, what we have achieved, what we own, who we know, where we live and so on. To flourish under this assumption requires a lot of mental effort. We have to get good grades at school and get a good job and work hard and hopefully all this leads to status, a comfortable home, nice clothes, a pleasant lifestyle and perhaps even the opportunity to have a positive, meaningful impact on the world. That's the theory. But in reality what we are often seeing is that many of us living this kind of lifestyle start to suffer from typical modern health issues such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart-disease, obesity, hypertension and digestive issues. There is often a sense of alienation and loneliness which is thinly disguised by our consumption patterns, many of which are similarly harmful to our health. This is the road I was on when I was in my corporate role.
Conversely at other times I think about times in my life where I was hyper-conscious of my body. In my teens I felt a deep sense of shame about it. Even though I had a great, healthy physique, I simply couldn't see that. It was the 90's and everyone in the media looked like a waif in a Wonderbra. For about a year I couldn't even wear jeans without tying a sweater around my waist to hide my “fat” bottom. I exercised constantly to the point of exhaustion and restricted my diet to a punishing 700 calories a day.
When we overly identify with our bodies we think in statements like “I am fat”, “I am old” and so on. These types of statements indicate a belief that our identity is defined by our physicality, rather than the deeper levels of our being. If we base our self-worth on our own or other's opinions about our bodies we are setting ourselves up for suffering as we will one day age, die and decay. In many Eastern spiritual traditions there is a strong component of contemplating impermanence of the body by visiting cremation grounds and gaining exposure to the reality of death (some mystics even bury themselves alive!) to the point where attachment to the body weakens and an increased sense of the preciousness of life arises. It is no coincidence that in the West we do exactly the opposite, hiding sickness and death as much as possible so as not to shatter the fantasy that by eating organic vegetables and buying the right creams we will not meet with the same fate.
It has been clear for a long time that cultural norms around the representation of beauty and the body are damaging for anyone remotely psychologically vulnerable. But even much of the body-positive messaging that we now see on social media and in the marketing of some of the smarter brands, which recognises the beauty of people of all shapes, sizes, colours, and ages can to some extent be regarded as harmful. The more we reinforce the message that for some reason it's so terribly important that we see ourselves as beautiful, the more we're perpetuating the imbalance of our identification with the physical aspect of ourselves.
Both these two extremes, one of complete disregard for the body and the other of over-obsession with it, are rife in our culture. They are two sides of the same coin in the sense that both are symptoms of our tendency to objectify our own bodies, a result of this deep disconnection. They also both reveal deep-seated misalignments in our perception of who we really are. We are so much more than that.
A wider sense of Self
In terms of viewing ourselves more broadly, there are many different schools of thought on this but I'd like to summarise this (essentially Tantric) framework for thinking about ourselves more holistically, which I find very useful.
- Outermost layer: This is whatever we create and share with the world, and the infinite repercussions of our actions as a chain reaction of everything we say and do. Examples include a simple smile, a piece of art, a business (and along with employment), something we've built, a positive feeling in someone we've helped or inspired, all the way through to changing the course of history.
- Personal outer layer: Our wealth, home, friends and family, possessions, clothing. Also, where we eat, brands we like, who we spend time with, political and social affiliations.
- Physical body: Our health. How we look. How we feel physically (hungry, tired, thirsty etc.)
- Thoughts and feelings. There's a lot to this so I'll explore this layer in more depth next week.
- Vital energy (prana or chi): How much life-force or vitality we have and how energy flows through and in and out of our bodies.
- Some would argue there's a transcendent “void”-like layer that is accessible in meditation. A sense of deep stillness.
- Consciousness layer: Finally, deep within the very essence of our being we might find an all-pervasive consciousness. You could take the view that much of spiritual practice and indeed spirit for life emanates from an attempt of this consciousness to understand itself.
According to this model, it's not that it's inherently “wrong” to identify with any of these layers. They are all equally valid and part of us. It's just that often we identify very strongly with one or two of them and forget or not even ever become aware of the rest. This causes a great deal of suffering and self-harm. We can learn to use this framework to keep us right, to ensure that we are balancing out these different elements so that our bodies do not suffer.
Balancing out the layers
In yoga and meditation practice, we work on all these layers of the body to find a state of unity amongst them; to find complete peace. In some ways these practices can become quite complicated, but in many ways establishing a practice that reharmonises these layers can also be very simple.
A physical yoga class will help as by synchronising physical alignment and movement, breath, attention and intention we are aligning at least several of this layers at any given moment. A simple, regular meditation practice goes a long way to start to gain familiarity with a sense of inner stillness. An easy mindfulness technique we can use to reset the balance is simply to consciously breathe and to smile more often. By making the decision to perform this simple act we're returning to the present moment. In that state of just being with whatever is happening in that moment, whatever we notice through the senses and feel physically, we can find that sense of returning home to our bodies. When we act from that central place it is only natural to honour and respect our bodies. That state of connection and balance is only ever a breath away.