Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Living in Body (March 11, 2018)

My new yoga teachers Ilana and Nicole kept telling us to “ask the body what it needs” and would give us time to “do whatever movement the body is asking for.” It used to stress me out. I mean, how would you know? I tell my body what to do, and it does it. My discomfort begs the question- how could I not know? My body is me, why would doing what I want and doing what my body wants be any different? Why would the idea that your body had useful information that it could share with the mind seem silly and weird?

Historians trace the body mind spit back to Descartes who cut a deal with the Pope; Descartes could do dissection on human cadavers if he promised to ONLY research the body, not the emotions, mind or spirit. Others trace this split back much earlier to the Zoroastrians or the Gnostics.

And though this sense of duality pervades our culture, I don’t think we are born with it. When my son was little he used to wiggle his little fingers in wonder, and nothing made him happier than grabbing his toes. Babies know what their body wants, and they are miserable until that need is met. As a child I loved nothing more than spinning and leaping around the house spontaneously. Like most children I struggled to learn to ignore the desires of my body- no leaping or dancing in school. NO putting your head down when you are tired. Sit up straight, hands quiet, please stop wiggling.

And the amazing thing about bodies is that they do learn. You can make your body more quiet, more strong, more flexible. We literally shape and reshape ourselves with the actions we take each day. Because they mostly do what we ask them to do, we begin treat our bodies like a car, or some other machine; we don’t give it much attention unless it stops doing what tell it to do. And as in any relationship, if we stop listening, the other party eventually stops talking.

When I was in seminary, Neo-Paganism was in ascendancy, as were women’s spirit groups who suggested that women were sacred, the body was sacred and the earth was sacred. I was introduced to the work of Eco-feminists, who suggest that part of the reason our culture subjugates women was because they represent the body, and that the subjugation of the body was directly linked to the subjugation of the earth. I strongly identified as a feminist, but that seemed like a bit of a stretch to me. But I had certainly noticed that our culture had a dysfunctional relationship to women’s bodies. Our culture teaches us that some people should wear bathing suits and be in magazines, other bodies should be hidden. Feminists pointed out that many kinds of bodies are invisible in media, are essentially erased. On the magazine covers are the Ferraris, and most of us feel like we are driving lemons, and are properly hidden in the garage.

I, like so many other young women, had a very poor body image. I felt honor-bound as a feminist to figure out how to love my body, just as it was. It seemed to me that whenever I gave my attention to my body it had a million complaints. It was not very rewarding. Fortunately at some point on that
journey I found yoga- an activity where mind and body work together. The word yoga means “union” or “yoke” and the kind of yoga Westerners practice, Hatha yoga, is designed to support a linking of mind, body and spirit. It turned out a lot of that flexibility and alignment I had as a dancing child came back pretty quickly, that even though it had been a decade or so, my muscles remembered. My low back pain went away. My posture improved. It was fun to be in my body again. There was a period where nothing made me happier than the challenge of a new pretzel to get myself into. I was delighted to watch my strength and flexibility increase, and loved the challenge of learning more and more advanced poses. It made me feel like a Power Ranger. This is called “proprioception” the ability to know where your limbs are in space, and to get your body into the shapes you choose.

Then I moved to Ithaca, and started a new job that involved a lot of prolonged data entry at a desk that was not the right shape for my body. I acquired a wrist injury that just would not go away. I responded with my standard approach- to push through it. “No pain no gain.” My yoga teacher Steven suggested I not do anything that made it twinge. Sadly that included all my favorite poses, all the ones that made me feel like a Power Ranger. Frankly, I began bursting into tears during yoga class I was so disappointed and sad to lose the capacities my body had always had. For months I refrained from doing those poses, and my teacher taught me how to modify with blocks and alternate hand positions to avoid stressing that part of my wrist. I convinced HR to get me a drawer for my keyboard, and I even stopped knitting. After months of patient listening to my wrist, the injury gradually healed and I could do yoga again!

Then I pulled my psoas. My teacher, once again, suggested that I not do any poses that caused me pain. What poses don’t involve bending over? I just stood there in Tadasana blinking back tears until my teacher passed by and asked “how does it feel?” “Of course it doesn’t hurt- I’m just standing here!” I thought angrily. Then it sank in. Oh. What a privilege that I can stand without pain. I wonder what other poses are like standing? I very carefully and mindfully tried out pose after pose- nope, nope, nope, oh- that’s okay. I was listening to my body in a different way. Not “how do I get into the pretzel the teacher is leading us in” but “Where is the source of this discomfort, and how can I support my injured body?” I had joked with yoga friends that nothing teaches anatomy like an injury. I began to believe that if I listened to my body and was careful with my injured parts, I would eventually heal and I could get back to doing yoga.

One morning my teacher Rachel spoke about integrating the strong and the weak parts of the self into one whole. My evolving thinking about my practice suddenly was clarified. If you believe in the wholeness of the self, then your weak, tight, or injured places are not the bad parts of you holding you back from the perfect pose, they are just part of the self which must be integrated into your practice as much as the strong, flexible, healthy parts of yourself.

Now I understood that even when I was standing in Tadasana, too injured to follow the teacher’s directions, I was still doing yoga. Uniting body, mind and spirit includes all your years of practice and the strength you have built, as well as a weak wrist or twitchy psoas. ON the days when everything flows and works and it feels like an ecstatic dance, and on days when the reality is stiff joints or scattered attention, it’s all part of the practice. The way I approach yoga now allows me to grow in not only strength and balance, but also self-knowledge.

Proprioception is only one facet of the relationship between mind and body. Another way of listening to the body is called “interoception” – what’s going on in there. Research is showing that this sense can be cultivated and increased, and when we are mindful of our bodies, health increases in certain ways. That was kind of amazing to me- that without changing what you are doing at all, just by listening to what the body’s up to and how it is, certain health markers increase. [i]

This wisdom is not just about what is a safe hand position for your wrist injury. My first settlement as a minster was in Palo Alto, home of Facebook and Stanford University, a very busy and productive town. Large amounts of work and stress were the norm. I often got belly aches during committee meetings. Since I was exploring this far-out idea that maybe the body has some wisdom to share, I started to say things like “when I imagine us doing that it kind of gives me a stomach ache.” When chose a different plan, the clenching in my gut would lessen. For years I had suffered from these kinds of pains in my gut, but now, after 15 years of listening to my gut, I almost never have them. After years of trial and error, I have gotten better at understanding what my gut is trying to say. I now pay attention when there’s just a bit of discomfort, and can often avoid getting myself into situations where my gut is one big cramp for months at a time.

Since childhood we have been trained to ignore the wisdom of our bodies; our body is tired and we give it caffeine instead of rest and so face the world in a chronically depleted state. We eat when we are not hungry. Our jobs and our technologies cause repetitive strain injuries and when our body cries out in protest we silence it. How often do I pop an Advil without really asking myself- what is this pain trying to tell me? Is there some wisdom in this pain? In most cases pain is not a malfunction of the body, it’s an urgent call to action.

When we silence our own bodies, we participate in a systemic silencing that helps maintain the domination of the powerful over the dis-empowered, forgetting that our bodies are intimately interdependent with all those in the web of life. When we disconnect from our own bodies, it’s easy to overlook, to render invisible all those other bodies. To quote Dr. Achlee Consuolo , social science and health researcher, “There are , tragically, bodies that do not matter in the public sphere, or bodies that have been disproportionately derealized from ethic and consideration in global discourse; women, racial minorities, sexual minorities,… to this list of derealized bodies I would add other-than human bodies.” (quoted in Mourning Nature p. 170) Why would we listen to the suffering of brown bodies, of poor bodies, of transgender bodies, why would we listen to the feedback of the ecosystems around us if we have spent our lives learning to ignore the feedback of our own bodies?

When I was a little girl, my favorite way of listening to my body was dancing- my limbs would choose the shapes, and my mind and heart went along for the ride. It was just a joyful expression of life lead by the body itself. As an adult, you have to be careful where you leap and twirl. It takes a strong ego to advocate for your body when what it needs, defies cultural expectations. It takes intention and practice to "let the soft animal of your body love what it loves". But that soft animal has a wisdom the mind can barely fathom. From listening to the body, wisdom emerges, not from the mind, but slowly, quietly bubbling up from some wordless place. When body, mind, spirit, and emotions are all united, are all yoked together, it’s like the tumblers in a lock falling into place. The lock opens and something sacred has room to breathe and move.
Two weeks ago, just in time for this sermon, I threw my back out again. I’ve learned the hard way that the only yoga I should do, the absolute best yoga I can do for my body on such occasions, is to lay flat on my back with a pillow under my knees, which was my major activity of the weekend. I cancelled all my yoga classes, and booked the first appointment at the Chiropractor’s Monday morning. By Tuesday I decided to give yoga a try. I figured if I ended up lying on my back for most of class that was just going to have to be okay. I put my mat in the back of studio, and warned the teacher I was not sure if I’d be able to do much at all. I approached the practice with compassion for my healing self, surrounded myself with blocks and blankets and only did things my body consented to. Though I had to ignore the teacher and skip most of the poses the other students were doing, it’s hard to describe what a deep and powerful practice it was- the discomfort of the injury helped me tune in attentively to what I was doing- a true yoking of body, mind and spirit.

As the sap rushes back up the trees, and the crocuses bravely unfold, I encourage you to tune in and listen to your own body as part of your spiritual practice. Whether you are hiking in the woods, eating breakfast, dancing in your kitchen, or lying flat on your back I encourage you to bring your attention mindfully to your body. It’s not just a machine you power up and drive around; your body is where life is happening, where reality is happening. It is an amazing mystery waiting to reveal the secrets of you.

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