Twisting

 

I am in a yoga class where the teacher is emphasizing twists. She is encouraging us to initiate the twist by sensing into our backs, and then using that connection to press into action, as opposed to pulling or yanking ourselves around. Over and over again these instructions drop me into Something far greater than a yoga posture.

How many times a day do we twist and turn away from what is? From what is Real. So much of our daily living can be about pulling, yanking and forcing. Too often, without our even knowing what we are doing, we behave as if we can overpower Life itself and make it conform to our desires. We force and we fix. We push and we pull. We attempt to bend things to our individual will. And through it all, we regularly lose touch with the truth; It is not all up to us.

There is another way; a way that involves opening to a supportive hand at our back. Opening to Something we can lean into. Something that holds us. These days I am taking every opportunity I can to sense into the physical support available to me whenever my back touches something, or is being held by something. We can use the body as a doorway into Truth. But it requires our awareness. It requires our ability to be with the body beyond a reflection in the mirror, beyond our fears, and beyond the beliefs we carry about what the body should be doing or looking like. This way of being with the body has the potential of holding a central and sacred place in our lives that no outside “truth” can even begin to touch.

The Doorway

 

“Everything is here,” the teacher repeats over and over again throughout class. It becomes my mantra as I move my body, feel my feelings and think my thoughts. As many minutes as there are in class, I come back to what is here. What is Now. And it becomes a doorway; a place where I can step through to see anything I need to see. Feel anything I need to feel. Understand anything I need to understand. Everything is here becomes the anchor, the truth and The Way. I am mesmerized. Through it I am made whole. Despite the thoughts that continue to ripple through. Despite the ache that just won’t go away. Despite the feelings and the judgments that rise and fall. It is all here. It is all me. And it is all that I need in this moment.

This is so not how it usually is. More often than is good for us, we are not here. We are not actually anywhere as we traverse between past and future, living as ghosts; neither here nor there. Through the past we solidify and maintain our stories, habits, worn out identities, and agendas of old. We smolder with the narratives of how we were wronged, what’s missing and how things should go. And when we are not in the past, we jump to later.Through our orientation to the future, we seek our release and plan our escape believing that down the road it will be different, better. We worry and fret our way into convincing ourselves that if we obsess enough about it all, we can bend the future to our will. In the meantime, we live lives where we are seldom where we are. We live lives never realizing that the peace that we all seek happens only when mind and body are as one; in one place at the same time.

It is the ordinary mind, the survival and fretting mind, the anywhere but here mind that leads this charge. But the body knows another way. This breath. This sensation. This sweep of the arm or turn of the head. It seems so outrageous and ridiculously foolish to suggest, given all of the cerebral information available everywhere and at any time, to reference the body as the source of wisdom. What could the body possibly have to offer us by way of politics or the news or the stock market? How will the body inform regarding climate change, the escalating costs of living or water problems? What does the body have to offer regarding what daily decisions to make regarding work, family and finances?

It cannot be told. Only experienced. It cannot be read. Only done. Given how we live and what we have been told this is no easy place to get to. We are so afraid. We are so distracted. We are so brain-washed. We are so not inhabiting the very ground of our existence.

When The Heart Leads

 

Through teaching yoga, dance and a college course on relaxation, I have the great opportunity every year of seeing how hundreds of bodies move, sit and carry themselves. Part of what I do in every class is to offer instruction and provide experiences that help us get in touch with the way we carry ourselves throughout our days. I return to this regularly because so many of us live hunched over a screen; head thrown forward of the body, chest collapsed in on itself, shoulders rounding in, and back over-stretched.

In class, we often talk about not only the physical and physiological problems this creates for us, but what this posture does to our minds, emotions and energies. We come to this topic from the knowing and the felt experience that the body and the mind are one; what you do to one, you do to the other. And while the list is long around the physical imbalances of a body bent forward for years on end, my personal and professional experience tells me that perhaps more detrimental than anything else is that when a human being spends prolonged amounts of time in this shape, a kind of dangerous imprint gets formed in both soma and psyche that travels through us, out of us and into the world.

Head first and heart collapsed is how I would describe it. A head too far ahead for its own good, and for the good of the body. And a heart shrouded, closed off and shut down. Try it yourself. Get in the position of being wrapped around a device and notice your heart and mind. Then, try the opposite: Pick up your gaze, lean back, draw your head in line with your body, settle the shoulders back and lengthen up. A whole new version of you gets created just by changing your physical shape; a version that is at ease, balanced and open in body, mind and heart.

Could we not use more of this in the world? Instead of the head taking the lead, leaning too far forward, leaving the body behind as if we were all sprinters trying to make it over the finish line first, what if we decided to lean back and look up? How might we feel? What might we see? Become aware of the two images in your mind. More importantly, feel the difference between the two throughout all of the layers of you. How we carry our bodies speaks volumes about how we think and feel and believe. And how we think and feel and believe translates into how we act in the world. What exactly are we shaping and positioning ourselves for?

Self-Trust

 

“Do things not smell or sound right-even if you can’t define why? Trust those feelings for they will define themselves shortly.”  I have these words tacked up on my bedroom wall. I need to be reminded daily that I can trust myself despite what the demands or expectations of others, or the culture at large, may be. My experience has been that within each of us, there is an urge, an undefined and maybe not yet articulated knowing that rests just beneath the surface. All that it takes is a little coaxing to come forward.

One of the best ways to tune into this internal knowing is to go through the body. It is the home of our most basic instincts, intuitions and urges. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that both degrades and ignores the body. And it shows. Look around at how many of us have illnesses and diseases that are purely choice-related. Look around at the cultural sanctioning of health-degrading habits in the forms of fast foods, the use of stimulants, the disregard for the body’s need to rest along with the expectations of busyness that serve as the agreed upon standard for how we are doing. Having no idea how to take care of our own bodies leaves us bereft of the health, joy and well-being that come from living as a being who understands how to take care of a body. On a deeper level, we miss out on the wisdom and guidance that is available to us from within; a kind of built-in navigational system that is sorely missing and desperately needed if we are to live lives that matter and make sense to us.

We are what Clarissa Pinkola-Estes calls “instinct-injured.” We have forgotten how to trust our inner wisdom; that which is natural and innate.  Screen messages, “expert” advice, stress, busyness and the sense that we are not doing enough have created and continue to compound this injury, leaving us vulnerable to the belief that we need a steady stream of outside sources to tell us how to live.Trusting your instincts and intuition runs contrary to the belief that only the rational mind knows the way, and that we must constantly be looking outside of ourselves to keep up in order to know what to do. In this time of information overload, hidden agendas and multiple ways of distorting the truth, we need a way of being in the world that goes beyond the ways that our rational mind can deceived. It is a most empowering experience to know that there are instincts and intuitions within all of us that will take us to exactly where we need to go. It is from this place that we begin to develop the impeccable radar that will serve our lives as well as the best instincts of any wild animal.

When I think of body wisdom, I think of my dog Grace. She lays on the porch until some inner urge says, “get up, get a drink, bark at that person, scratch, roll around, chase that animal.” This is not an exercise of the rational mind. Instead, it is about going below your every day, habituated behavioral patterns. It is akin to following bread crumbs through the forest where you allow yourself to be led from within. Do not let yourself be fooled by the simplicity of this. When we can learn to listen to the needs and the demands of the body, we begin a conversation; one that for many of us is long past overdue. As we begin to tune into and respond to body basics like hunger, thirst, rest, the urge to move, the urge to get away from something, we begin a dialogue with a part of us that cannot be fooled. Cannot be misled. No matter how good something looks. No matter what “they” say. The willingness to really learn what your body needs is what gives this approach its power. For when we learn how to pay attention to what the body needs, we learn to see beyond all the thoughts, demands, expectations, beliefs and busyness that swirl around us and obscure the truth.

When I can tune into what my body needs or is experiencing, two things happen. I take care of myself in the most natural of ways, and everything that actually needs doing, gets done. I have come to discover, over and over again, that there is something within that I can rely on that transcends external pressures, agendas and demands. This orientation to life creates a way of being that allows you to be with the challenges of living while simultaneously experiencing your own  inner guidance, leaving you with the greatest inner capacity of all: self-trust. In my own journey, the supports I ran across gave me the hope and the inspiration I needed to learn another way of being. But more than anything else, they gave me the permission to trust myself. Who or what helps you to trust yourself?  Do you have that in your life?  Carve out more time in the presence of those people, circumstances and places.

Beliefs And The Body

 

More and more our culture is recognizing the undeniable and indivisible role that the mind has in the health of our bodies. In terms of bodily truth, this union is irrefutable. And while many of us can make this connection intellectually, it is quite another thing to know how to work with this directly. Our thoughts and beliefs are as familiar and often unnoticed to us as the air we breathe. Much of what occurs with our belief systems operates beneath the surface. Because many of our beliefs are below conscious awareness, we cannot access them directly. It is like with the wind. We cannot see the wind. But we can see the wind through the movement of the trees. Here is where the body comes in. The body, like the trees, reflects the winds of our mind.

So, how could we access what is beneath the surface of our mind in the service of greater health? Carve out 15 minutes to be alone with yourself. Bring paper and pen. Sit quietly and breathe. Nothing else. Let your body be as soft as you can allow it to be. When you feel settled, visualize a health issue that you feel stuck around. Let yourself experience the symptoms, frustrations and fears. Ask yourself, “What do I believe it means to have this imbalance/illness in my body?” Then, begin to write without pause or interruption for 5 minutes. Do not pick the pen up, censor yourself or worry about grammar or punctuation. Just write and write and write. When the 5 minutes are up, read what you have written. Take it in.

Then, and here is the challenging and often hard to see part, ask yourself one of the following questions; “What do I get out of being unwell?” “What benefits do I derive from this?” “What protection does this afford me?” “What does this keep me from having to know about myself?” “What does this keep me from having to take responsibility for?” Repeat the 5 minute write and reflection.

You cannot con the body. Ever. You cannot talk it out of anything if you are being disingenuous or if there is still something left unattended to. It is important to remember that the body always has perfectly good reasons for doing what it does. This is not a punishment, but instead a communication and an opportunity to grow and heal in the most authentic of ways. Perhaps you have been believing what you believe for a very long time. Could you offer yourself the time, patience and commitment needed to bring body and mind into alignment?

 

*The 5 minute write idea comes from Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Body Language

The body speaks to us daily. Moment by moment actually. What throws us sometimes in this conversation is the subtlety, nuance and seemingly “foreign” feel of the body’s communication with the rational mind. This is partly due to the busy and frenzied nature of the every day mind which cannot hear the body’s cues until they are extreme. To learn to listen with a sensitive ear to the tides and rhythms of our bodies is to open a door to great possibility in our lives. To be in direct contact with our bodies is to know how the Universe and all of Life flows. That is because we are Life itself, embodied.

What often gets in the way of this vital communication is the tension we hold in body and mind. There is one kind of tension that builds up over the surface of the body much like a suit of armor. It gets created when we have too much going on; when we view our lives as emergencies. It reinforces itself through our denial of a sane pace and of our bodies most basic biological needs like rest and food.

Then there is the tension that emanates from within. A kind of holding on and holding in that was established within us long ago. It is a kind of contraction that is built on the limiting and fear-based beliefs we carry about ourselves and the world. Maybe we can recognize it in the raise of our shoulders as we add to the piles of “shoulds” we must take on to believe we are a good person. Or maybe there is a tension in our jaw as we clamp down or bite back something we really need to say to someone but don’t for fear of alienating or angering another. Perhaps it is in the way in which our stomach clenches as we put up with behaviors from other people because we believe that it is our job to absorb or smooth over what another does.

We all have our places in the body that represent deep and long held beliefs. Over time, these tensions build up creating dis-ease and imbalances in the body. No matter how you look at it, tension held in the body over the long term, is the enemy of health and healing. Worse yet though than its impact on the body is the way it robs us of a sense of ease, joy and freedom in being who we are. These inner tensions hold us in check keeping alive ways of being that undermine our vital life force. It is as if we are encased in concrete. This casing keeps us from “violating” some inner code of conduct we established for ourselves long ago that we developed to help keep us protected, accepted, and included.

One of the most profound opportunities we can give ourselves is to discover what it is that we really believe about ourselves and the world. Really believe. The rational mind will often not admit to us what is beneath the surface, but the body will always reveal the truth of what is happening within. Like looking at the trees to see the presence of the wind, we can locate our truest beliefs about ourselves by observing the movements of the body.

To practice this, locate an ongoing and perhaps long-standing place of discomfort in your body. Notice where it is located and what it feels like. Pay attention to thoughts associated with the area. Become aware of when and why it flares up. Then, be willing to listen. To learn the language of the body is a lifelong process. It is the equivalent of learning a foreign language as an adult; its takes lots of time, practice and patience. And it takes devotion. To Life.

Cross-Training For The Mind

 

Perhaps you have experienced, or at least heard of, the benefits of cross-training for the body. The view being that when we repeatedly do the same movements over and over, our bodies can get too “efficient” and therefor complacent around a set of movements. When this happens our overall conditioning decreases and our risk of injury increases. By training the body in a variety of ways, we open ourselves up to greater strength and flexibility.

We can take this very same approach when we want to create a more resilient and flexible mind; one that works in the service of our greatest hopes and desires as opposed to being too “efficient” with thought patterns that no longer serve us, ultimately even harming us. Our nervous systems, i.e. the brain and therefor our thinking, thrive in the presence of novelty. The more novel and unfamiliar something is, the more the mind can stretch and change.

This knowledge lies embedded in the system of Yoga. The ancient yogis came to know that when they put their bodies into different shapes, it gave them access to different energies and states of consciousness. If you have ever seen a picture of an old yogi putting themselves into an unimaginable position, you get a sense of the mind states they were accessing. Different levels of consciousness and ways of thinking become available to us when we move our bodies in unusual and unhabituated ways.

Modern living encourages a lot of linear, forward movement while being hunched over something. There is also a lot of sitting. Not only is this hard on the body, but it creates a kind of equivalent mind set. If you have ever wondered why you always keep getting the same things over and over again in your life, it is because you keep doing the same things over and over; in both mind and body.

If you desire a different way of thinking about yourself and your place in the world, try intentionally moving your body in unique and unfamiliar ways. Get on the floor and move. Walk backwards, sideways and in circles. Try walking in messy and random ways as opposed to the linear habit of getting from here to there in the fastest and shortest way possible. Meander, shake and shimmy as you move through your day. And then, notice. Outlook, moods, thinking and energy levels shift according to the way we move our bodies. A particularly powerful practice is to become aware of a thought you would like to shift and then, whenever it arises, consciously move your body in an unusual way. Your intention and a new shape in the body creates a new neurological reality in the mind. And with it, the change you are seeking.

 

Containers

 

I recently read a statement describing yoga postures as “containers for experience.” Immediately my mind went to the possibility of seeing our bodies themselves as containers for all of human experience. What a radical way of viewing ourselves! Gone would be the need to live up to a cultural standard of what and who the body is for. Gone would be criticism and judgment around its look or shape. Gone also would be the need to reduce ourselves down to a container, forgetting that it is what is inside the container that is most important and precious. The truth is, whether we view our bodies with tenderness or scorn, they allow us to be here and to experience, everything. Without them we would not know joy, beauty, suffering, loss, pain, love, accomplishment, or failure. We would not know the wind, movement, or loving touch. What if we could see our lives as containers for an all-inclusive package of experiences while being less picky about the particular experience, and more focused on experiencing what it had to offer?

Practice being a container for experience by saying “yes” when feelings and sensations arise. Allow yourself to feel whatever is there for no other reason than because it is there. Even if you are afraid, don’t want it or don’t know what to do with it, just say yes to its presence, to the fact and to the truth, that it is there. We begin strengthening our container by acknowledging what is real about our experience in any given moment. When we deny pieces and parts, we deny the full range of what it means and what it takes to be human. Seeing ourselves to be containers of all experience is to be fully aligned with the reality of the present moment. And when we can do that, tension subsides and wholeness prevails.

Milestones

 

I ran a road race this past Sunday called the Hot Chocolate Run. As I crossed the finish line, I burst into tears. This surprised me. Some of the feelings I could pinpoint. Some, remain a mystery to me. What I knew was how  happy I felt to be part of this crazy mob of people in all their outfits, shapes, sizes and varying degrees of fitness. And I also knew how blessed I felt to be able to run at all.

I have not always felt this way at the end of a race. I have been a runner since I was a freshman in high school and for many years I used coercion, competition and shame to motivate myself. A number of years ago, I was out struggling through a run when suddenly my body went rogue and just stopped. I burst into tears. The unthinkable had happened; I had stopped forcing my body. I had stopped telling my body what to do. Relief flooded me. The reign of terror was over.

For the next several years, I walked. Over time, and only with my body’s permission, I started to run again, but only downhill, and in the woods, never in a straight line, and never uphill. I ran at a pace and for distances that the earlier me would have ridiculed. But I stuck with it because it felt good. That was my only agenda; what felt good to my body. Throughout my “comeback” I had only two prayers: “Help me to move in a way that honors my body and allows me to be strong in who I am in the world” and “I want to be able to run with my people.” It took years of listening to my body to discover just what it meant to be me in the world and just who “my people” were. The race on Sunday was a personal and palpable milestone for the power of moving my body in ways that allowed me to shed old patterns and open to something greater within.

Our body’s musculature carries imprints of every way we have ever held ourselves, recoiled in fear, contracted out of shame, or tightened out of hurt.  It carries the shapes of the thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves and our place in the world.  All the ways we feel as though we need to hold ourselves in order to be good, OK, successful, safe, loved and more are revealed in the shape, tone and condition of our muscles. If you want to know the truth about yourself, ask your muscles.

The Pink Forest

Out on a bike ride, I caught myself wondering how many miles I had gone and for how many hours I had biked. The underlying message being that there was some external measurement that would let me know if I had done well or poorly. If my efforts were something I could be proud of, or were reason for feeling less than because I had not done enough.

Only…as the fates would have it, I was right in the middle of “the pink forest;” one of my favorite stretches along the road. That’s not its official name. It’s the nickname I have for it because in this particular stretch of small and medium pines, when the light comes through just so, it seems to glow pink. And it was the pink that caught me and pulled me back in. It was the pink that said “This is it, this is the reason you are out here today.”

To back up a bit, I had gone out riding with an intention: I wanted to go further than I could running or walking and I wanted to travel somewhere I had never been before. This was my attempt to use the movement of my body, along with exploration, to create a new pattern in my body/mind. I had woken that morning with the realization that an old pattern of mind and body was getting in the way of how I actually want to be living. And there is nothing so powerful as a clear intention for change coupled with moving the body.

Everything that we have ever thought, and everything that we have ever experienced is housed in the body. Think about it. The body has been there for everything you have ever gone through; real or imagined. Ancient yogis identified the body as being a potential doorway to the realization of who we really are. Move the body into different positions and patterns emerge. As those patterns are worked with, energies become available to us. And that energy, known as the life force, is what animates us and propels us to our greatest potentials.

So you can see that based on what my intention for riding was, distance and time had nothing to do with my reason for being out there. As a matter of fact, an orientation around worrying about the wrong thing and using cruel external standards was exactly what had gotten me into my current pattern. So often we are so caught up in imagining how we are doing based on some external measurement, real or imagined, that we forget to be who we are. We forget to remember what it is we are going for. We forget to live a life that makes sense to us. So I ask you, “Do you remember to notice the pink forest? Do you have a pink forest?”