Befriending the Brilliant Body (Part 2)

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In Befriending Your Brilliant Body Part 1 I shared how the body is the gateway to everything we experience in our lives: physically, emotionally, mentally, energetically, relationally and spiritually. I also shared some practices to become or return to a state of friendliness with the body. 

In Befriending Your Brilliant Body Part 2 we will go a little deeper, especially for those who have embodiment practices, are physically active, feel connected to their bodies or are kinesthetic learners. As I fall into all of these categories I find that learning to befriend and fully inhabit the body is a lifelong journey. 

If you are a mover why did you start a physical practice (whether it is yoga, running, swimming, tennis, etc.)? For myself I wanted something. I had insomnia and I thought yoga might help me sleep. Lucky for me it worked, and I became more and more dedicated to the practice through the years because I found it kept giving me what I wanted. I felt stronger, more capable, aware of my body and mind, and it was fun! Through feeling stronger in my body I took up running, which led to 5Ks, 10Ks, ½ marathons, a marathon and triathlons. I liked challenging my body and mind and enjoyed having a goal that I was striving for. Yet as I reflect on my experience with physical movement sometimes I was befriending the body and a lot of times I wasn’t.

When I first came to yoga there was a sense of innocence and curiosity. I had no idea what I was doing nor was I in a place to compare myself to anyone because I practiced by myself in my bedroom learning from a book. As I became more physically active and more engaged with active communities there creeped in a desire to manipulate the body. I strived for certain poses because I wanted my body to contort into shapes I thought were “advanced,” and I pushed myself to the point of injury. I lost some of the sheer awe of moving and being in my body to a place of trying to force it to an ascetic, pace or perceived ideal in comparison to other bodies. 

Even though I could say I was “in my body” I wasn’t actually honoring the body. I have come full circle to only doing yoga by myself in my bedroom where there is no one else watching or no one to watch. Sometimes I lie on my mat and simply feel my body. Sometimes I do movements. They might look like yoga āsanas but many times they don’t. The Sanskrit word for “seat” is āsana, and it refers to the different poses, or “seats,” we do in yoga. Currently, walking and hiking are more appealing than running, biking or swimming and allowing the body to go through these phases of wanting different kinds of movement can be a way to respect the body’s desires. If I was training for a race I “had” to run a certain amount of miles each week. I was listening to a training plan more than my body. Now I train for treks in the Himalayas, but there is a different quality to the training. I do have some mileage goals each week, but there is also a looser grip to the goals. If I start my cycle I take a break from strenuous activity to honor the work my body is doing to shed the uterine lining. If I have a lot of energy I go a little faster and enjoy the hills. If I am feeling lower energy I might choose a flatter or shorter route. This is not about competition anymore (even with myself), but more of an opportunity to honor the body, which can and does include challenging it! Competition isn’t bad or wrong. It can fuel excitement, fun and doing things that seemed impossible, and I experienced all of these in my physical pursuits. However, I also noticed a marked increase in manipulation of the body to look and act in ways it may not want or even be capable of.

A more subtle way to contemplate the body is around emotions, which also live in the body. Emotional words like happy, sad, angry and afraid are just labels, and we have certain sensations (and typically thoughts) that arise giving us information that a particular emotion is present. When I feel happy I know I am happy because I am smiling, my chest is open and my belly is soft. I know I am angry when my mouth tightens, my shoulders contract inward and my breath gets faster. When I am experiencing an emotion I don’t like I have difficulty allowing that emotion and I try to control, fix or change it. The same way I have manipulated my body in running and yoga I also do in my emotional states. When I experience fear I try to soothe myself so I don’t feel it anymore, I rationalize there is nothing to be afraid of or I blame someone else and get angry (which can feel safer than being afraid). What I am learning with my teacher, Dr. Kavitha Chinnaiyan, in The Renegade Method is a radically empowering way to allow things to unfold in the body instead of trying to control them. What emotion are you noticing right now as you read this? We are typically feeling something, but it may be quiet. See if you can identify the word(s) you use to name that emotional state. Peaceful? Nervous? Lethargic? Disappointed? Joyful? Pissed off? Need more suggestions? Check out this emotions and sensations chart to help you identify the emotion and/or sensation in the body. Once you have named the emotion, see if you can determine what your body is saying. How do you know that emotion is present? If you say because of the thoughts can you bring curiosity to see if you can FEEL the experience of those thoughts? What do thoughts of anger FEEL like in your body and how do they differ from shameful or hopeful thoughts? 

If you have identified the sensations of an emotion can you drop the stories about the emotions (i.e. this is a good emotion and should stay or this is a terrible emotion and I should figure out how to get rid of it, etc.) and describe the sensations? Do you feel tightness in your chest? Tingling in your stomach? Lightness in your shoulders? Tears welling up behind your eyes? Soft and relaxed belly? Instead of trying to control or manipulate the sensations can you allow them to be for a few moments? What happens when you allow the wave of sensations to move through the body? What happens when you try to control the waves? 

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Emotions can be looked at as waves that come and go. Sometimes they are big tsunamis and other times they are gently lapping. No matter what kind of wave I want from the ocean, the ocean will continue to create waves in relation to the wind, tides and underwater phenomena that are impacting the water. We are our own ocean where different information that comes into our senses will cause different kinds of waves. If we can learn how to ride the waves as they come and go we can move through them with a little more ease. 

Finally, pausing is such a powerful tool for returning to the body. I find the mind is often moving at a much faster pace than the body and the mind can leave the body behind. Many times my mind is thinking about something 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days or 5 years from the moment I am in, which makes it hard to be present to the body. A practice my teacher gave me years ago is to pause in transitions. When I finish my meal I take five breaths to return to the present moment where the body lives. I feel the chair underneath me, my feet on the floor, the satiation in my belly and my breath moving in and out. I do this when I finish with a client or come home from an errand. Any and every transition can be a reminder to return home to the body and to the present moment. I have found this practice to be incredibly impactful and a transformative tool for slowing down my mind, being connected to my body more often, listening to what my body is telling me and being able to do more of what I want in my life because I move into the next activity with intention rather than an all too familiar state of rushing, lack presence and multi-tasking. 

In summary, here are some additional practices to explore in continuing the lifelong adventure of befriending the brilliant body:

  1. Innocence. Can you approach movement from a place of curiosity rather than an agenda of what your body should or shouldn’t do? Meet each practice fresh because your body is different every day.
  2. Let the body lead. How would you move if your mind directed? How would you move if your body directed? Can the mind take a break to allow the body to lead? 
  3. Emotions are sensations. When you are having an emotion can you get under the label to understand the bodily sensations? 
  4. Ride the wave. Once you identify the sensations of an emotion can you allow the emotion to run its course without trying to change it? Here is a guided meditation on riding the waves of emotions. If the emotions become overwhelming some of the practice in Befriending the Brilliant Body Part 1 can be helpful. 
  5. Pause. Whenever you finish something (i.e. a meeting, an email, taking a shower, cleaning the kitchen, watching a show, etc.) pause for 5 breaths. Notice how your breath feels moving in and out of the body. Become aware of the sensations in your body. Notice what your mind is doing. Step back and observe the thoughts and emotions present. After 5 breaths, move with intention to your next activity. 

These are just a few ways I explore befriending the body. How do you befriend your body? How has your befriending journey changed through the years? I’d love to be inspired by your own body kindness practices as we are all learning together!