In the Workout Within blog series, I ask you, reader, to take time to consider one question. I ask you to go within to sense, feel, and think deeply about this question. Contemplate, meditate, and be with the question in your own way to see what you can learn about who you are.
QUESTION: How do you relate to your body?
This is a question I first encountered, consciously and viscerally, when practicing Bikram yoga. I was looking in a mirror at myself– that is, my body, while my mind was interpreting what it sensed, primarily through vision. I learned a lot over the years talking with people about what their experiences were like with looking at themselves in the mirror while practicing Bikram yoga. I think relating to the Self, through the body, is the yoga. I also believe that this process of relating to oneself, the embodied self, is the heart of the psychotherapeutic process.
As I remember listening to people talk about their experiences relating to themselves, to their bodies, in the mirror, I recall there being much more shame, denial, and negativity than positivity; lots of “I am not this type of person; I am not that. I am so inflexible, fat, in pain, limited in this way or that.” There was predominantly criticism about the attractiveness and of the aesthetic experience of their body which involved fragmenting it into parts, separating, a dissection and measurements according to external conventional expectations or ideals. This is the opposite of seeing oneself as whole, as a synergistic and vital organism. To acknowledge our limitations is reasonable and healthy; self-rejection and loathing is not.
People also often conveyed well-practiced defenses of their relationship toward their body and their position on “the body” in general. There was also the common criticism of how Bikram yogis are barely dressed, i.e. not defended or hidden or covered up; that Bikram yogis are almost naked, sweaty, and smelly– which was usually conveyed with a very visceral disgust, and reactivity.
There was so much resistance associated with “the body” among a great many people I spoke with as a fellow student before I was a teacher and with even more people when I became a teacher, especially new people who came to try the yoga for the first time. To many, many people who came to try Bikram yoga, bodies repelled them, including their own. Some stayed long enough to transform their relationship to their bodies, to their Selves; others tried, and after giving it a fair number of classes did not return; others fled from the room before the end of their one and only (incomplete) class.
Trial and error, i.e. learning, happens uniquely for each individual. There are multiple factors influencing how and why people think, feel, and behave in the ways that we do. Each person has their personal history, their story. I happen to believe that It may be better, and far more interesting, to remain in the (maybe uncomfortable) realm of possibility than to automatically pursue the anxious desire to reach conclusions about other people.
So, I have always wondered, why did these people show up at the studio in the first place?
I arrived there by accident, with a load of reluctance to the Western yogini stereotype and only a shred of openness to some thing unknown to me, and although I had a positive relationship to my body as a mother of four, an athlete, and someone who has always enjoyed movement and being in good physical fitness, I had a long and arduous journey in learning to relate to my body, myself, my Self.
I spent many classes narrowly hyper-focused on the clothes I chose to wear, how they looked in the mirror and how I felt they looked on my body. I focused on what others thought of my body; intrigued with how I believed they saw it– how they saw and measured me. All of the socially conventional ways I understood who I was and how to appraise my body, my self.
Slowly, over time, with a lot of emotional, visceral experiences and pain and psychological discomfort, my relationship with my body transformed into something far more positive and healthy; something unconventional, more sustainable and fulfilling; more meaningful on more levels– physical, psychological, spiritual. I became more integrated and whole through this yoga practice, relating to my body as myself. No more parts– just me.
My hunch is that for others, curiosity may have had something to do with why they arrived to the Bikram yoga mirror as well as some inner need for courage– an intuition motivating them, maybe consciously but probably subconsciously, to try to face their disgust, rejection, limitation, fear, and denial related to the body. Perhaps to tend to their fragmented sense of self; their inner drive for wholeness, integrity, unity and community. Perhaps all of the stories within that they were projecting outwardly were the beginning steps along the way of the larger process of change, part of their larger journey. Who knows?
The sages and scientists say that the human organism is built to pursue mastery; always moving forward, not just for survival but to propel ourselves into the future– that this is actualization and vitality. And, of course, obstacles serve their purpose on our paths, as they are just part of the deal of vitality and meaning. Bikram Yoga has been my obstacle. Some go around the obstacle, some through, some stop and turn back, some see the obstacle as the way.
So, some people hate their bodies; they may have a strange relationship to it, a non-existent or weak connection with it. Perhaps they feel betrayed by it, embarrassed. Whatever such negative cognitions, these thoughts become embedded in their perceptual and visceral repertoire long before they entered the yoga studio for the first time. For these people, their visual experience of their body was apparently irrelevant because such negative thoughts about their bodies were so deeply embedded into their neurology, so patterned and automatic, that they went unquestioned as fact or truth. These individuals literally could not see themselves in any other way. Such is the power of procedural learning, the power of the mind and minds shaping other minds early in life and over time. Indeed, we can become rigid and inflexible in our mental life– toward the assessment of our own bodies, our selves, and others and all quite unconsciously so.
Hope for plasticity and change!
My own experiences paying attention to my body in the mirror as it moved through the Bikram Yoga series of postures taught me that my perceptions of/about my body changes ––between postures, within a posture, or sometimes over the course of a class or each day or a week, so I knew that there was hope for those people with their rigid, inflexible, automatic negative thoughts about their body and what it meant to them. I knew it was possible for them to change how they perceived and categorized their bodies, themselves as a body, thus how they related to their body and related to themselves.
They say in Bikram yoga that the practice can cause you to fall in love with yourself. I believe this to be true. We all have that potential to love ourselves all over again.
I know that change, even the very thought of change, scares some people, even though I see the potential for change and change processes as hopeful, healthy, and the key to a meaningful life. Noticing change and that the change process is about possibility (rather than rigidity and inflexibility) is hopeful. Consciously engaging in change, flowing along with it, no matter how challenging and scary that is, is healthy and meaningful. There are opportunities for change in each and every moment, each and every day. I want to encourage you to be curious and a little bit open to learning about change, to pay attention to and try something different, new, novel— to slowly and kindly explore the unknown about yourself. Maybe start with how you relate to your body.
I know as a parent, teacher, and mental health counselor that people appreciate you and your presence when you show them that you understand what they may be experiencing in relationship to change and in relationship to learning about who they are, the way they are, the way they think and feel, even when they cannot articulate it for themselves– when they are scared to think, feel, sense and know for themselves.
And I also know and am so grateful for the most amazing experience in the world which is to be there for and with another person as they learn, which is the same thing as saying– when they grow and engage in the self-realization and human actualization process. This has been the privilege of my life for which I am most grateful. My own learning and others’ learning is what I live for and what fuels and nourishes me in mind, body and soul.
To see that even the most deeply automatic processes within someone can be transformed to promote growth and wellness is inspiring and hopeful. To directly witness and feel in my own body the rigidity and inflexibility of another person becoming softer and more supple and resilient is a gift, a mind-body experience, that money can’t buy. This is my definition of success, of meaning, and of worth. It makes me feel most alive.
So, how you relate to your body is a story. Your story. Contemplate how you created your story.
Everyone has a story. Everyone also has a story about their body and what it means to them and how they relate to their body. These stories are influenced by other people’s stories and the stories from history, and the stories that happen in times and places, in cultures. Those cultures can be your family, the culture of your peer group, the workplace, online within social media at large or within your snap chat groups; the stories of groups can come from your church or a church from thousands of years ago that embedded the stories into our civilization and Western culture at large. You see, you don’t just make up the stories yourself about how you relate to your body and the story YOU tell yourself and others about it; you internalize stories and thoughts and ideas about who you are and who your body is and what it means from others.
So, in contemplating the question, we have 3 things at work: We have thoughts (that occur within the mind which is in the brain which is in the body), emotions (sensations interpreted as meaningful) and sensations of the body (taste touch vision hearing etc) that all contribute to how we relate to our bodies, how we relate to ourselves. And the three are not separate, despite their categories and distinction. Thoughts about the body, emotions related to these thoughts about the body, and feelings and sensations in the body when thinking such thoughts about the body and experiencing the emotions about the body are all happening, all the time.
It’s a good idea to learn about and directly attend to this process in your own experience to know who and how you are– to know yourself, as a mind-body being. Because knowing your body is knowing your self and that is foundational to wellbeing. Take some time and contemplate the question: How do you relate to your body?