Babies are born with the innate ability to listen to their bodies. They cry when hungry and stop eating when full. They fuss when they’re too hot and wail when they crave human touch.
Yet over time, we lose this connection to our bodies. We train ourselves to ignore hunger, to push past fatigue, and to engage in eating and exercising patterns that may not agree with our bodies. We resist the urge to hug or touch others because we fear their response or because we’ve been taught it’s not socially acceptable to express affection.
“We learn early to accept our family’s way of doing things and to pattern ourselves after cultural norms,” explains Deborah Adele in The Yamas & Niyamas.
“These early conditionings continue to form and move deep inside us creating pieces of our identity. Add to that our reactions to our own life experiences and we become neatly wrapped layers of packaging.”
All of the lessons we are taught over the years--by family, society, and our own minds--can override the natural reactions to our bodies’ needs.
Treating our bodies mindfully and intentionally, however, can unify the body and mind. Yoga--which literally means “union,” after all--helps us tune into our bodies. Moving intentionally with the breath allows us to bring attention back to the nuisances of our form.
Students new to yoga often say things like, “I never realized how different the sides of my body are!” Or “I had no idea how tight I really was.”
We have become so efficient at ignoring our bodies that it’s revelatory when we have the time and space to observe them. It’s shocking the secrets our bodies can reveal to us and the histories they hold.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist and one of the world’s experts on trauma, has found neurological evidence that trauma literally reshapes the body and the brain, which he discusses in depth in The Body Keeps the Score:
“Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies.”
“In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them,” continues van der Kolk. “Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
Yoga, meditation and other mindful practices/activities connect the mind to the body in order to bring about self-awareness. Besides initiating the emotional healing process, physical self-awareness and purposefully listening to the body can affect trivial, but important, daily events.
When we eat with intention, instead of focusing on what we “should” eat to fit the body image imposed upon us by society, we nourish our bodies.
When we consciously listen to how our bodies feel, we exercise when feeling sluggish or antsy and practice relaxation when our muscles are overworked.
If we hit a mental or physical plateau in our yoga practice or exercise regimen, we switch it up to challenge ourselves in new ways.
When we treat our bodies intentionally, we free ourselves of obligation and guilt, which in turn eases the stress on our minds. Too often we compare what we eat to the diet of another, how we exercise to the efforts of others, and what our bodies look like next to the “ideal” (even though that ideal changes every couple of decades).
We would never tell another to not indulge when hungry, to continue eating when stuffed, to exercise when in pain, or to sleep less when exhausted, yet we do it to our own bodies regularly.
For this week, make it a priority to treat your body intentionally, from the food with which you nourish your body to the self-care your body requires. Notice how you feel, and perhaps encourage others to let go of societal or self-imposed guilt and obligations. Let’s practice listening to our bodies with the intention of making it a lifelong habit.
Photos of Ashtanga Led Primary at Yogaja Yoga Toledo by Mary Wyar Photography.