This week and probably next we're looking at aspects of the body. Don't we do that every week? Well, yes and no. Although in the West, yoga is primarily a physical practice, we are often completely disconnected from our bodies - even when practicing. I've mentioned before how many of us (including me!) live our lives mainly in our heads: constantly thinking, analysing, planning, remembering, fantasising, ruminating and so on. Yoga is a great practice as it is designed to get us out of our heads and into the body, into our felt experience. As well as movement, there are other techniques in the practice, such as various breath techniques and using the gaze point, to quieten the mind and withdraw attention inwards.
How often do we really FEEL what's happening in the body during practice? Often times, class is just following the teacher's instruction without ever feeling whether something is good for the body. I can see many students forcing themselves into places the body really isn't comfortable, and no matter what I say about backing off, or feeling with the body, the pushing and contorting still continues. It's made me really re-consider what cues and instructions I'm giving, as well as thinking about my approach to teaching overall.
This disconnection from the body is important in other ways. When the body is seen as something we 'do' something to, not only is it easy to try and control and dominate it, but it's also easier to fear and hate the body. Our bodies are AMAZING! Our legs carry us around, our bums and backs allow us to sit. The body gives us real pleasure. It allows our species to breed. It breaks down food into energy. It stores and shows us emotions. It houses our instinct and intuition. Our bodies come in a wonderful variety of shapes and sizes and colours, often showing our rich genetic history, the story of our ancestors, where we came from. Rather than celebrating this, for some reason we all seem to want to look the same: same hair, same bum, same boobs, same chest and arms, same make up! We stuff ourselves with food and drink that can make us ill - or we remove whole food groups for no real medical reason, and some drastically reduce their food intake completely.
And for me, so much of this happens because we are disconnected from feeling in the body. Once you truly start to build a relationship with your body, marvel at the things it can do, not to worry about what it can't, celebrate it's appearance whether it's Instagram worthy or not, listen to what it is telling you physically, emotionally, instinctively, your desire to control and sometimes punish the body will start to decrease. For me, I was one of those always wanting to be thinner, or prettier, or trendier, or have a bigger bum, or flat tummy. I didn't listen to what my body was telling me (and sometimes I still don't!), which caused serious injury including back surgery, long episodes of depression, and much longer periods of hating myself. Yoga has helped me change the relationship with by body, so now I don't want to put too much bad stuff into it as it FEELS awful. I'm much better at listening to what it's saying (I spent half of a workshop in Brighton yesterday lying down as I was exhausted!).
Someone once asked me if yoga keeps me slim. It plays a role, but not in the way people think. I'm this size because of genetics, always being active and playing sports and running around since childhood and throughout my teens and twenties. Yoga has helped, not by being a physical practice, but because of how it transformed my relationship with my body and myself. I rarely drink alcohol. I eat a healthy, wide ranging diet including all foods, although some like meat, fish and sugar in small quantities. I drink a lot of water. I don't drink caffeine. I keep my stress levels down through mindful movement, meditation, cultivating relationships and being out in nature. A lower stress level, means less cortisol, which affects insulin production and weight gain - plus less 'stress eating' (or non eating as was my case). I eat regularly and never skip meals. I work out in the gym for strength and conditioning to avoid injury and to get my heart pumping. This helps not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. My physical yoga practice is NOT 5 vinyasa flow classes a week. I used to do this, but it lead to injury! I go once a week, and do a gentle home practice the rest of the time. Physical yoga for me is a time to connect to my body, to hear what it's saying, to almost meditate with the body.