Body Positive Yoga – Why Yoga Really is All About the Body
“It is through the body that everything comes to the mind. It is through and with your body that you have to reach realization of being a spark of divinity. How can we neglect the temple of the spirit?” — B.K.S. Iyengar (Sparks of Divinity, Rodmell Press)
When I first read this quote years ago I interpreted this way: It is through our practice of asana, at those times when we lose the struggle and become the asana, that we see into our true nature, the undefined spaciousness that connects us all. This still rings true for me. Asana, if we practice with complete commitment to being fully in each moment, can offer a glimpse into the the free and settled mind that is intrinsic to all of us.
I’m reminded of all this because of the many recent blogs both extolling and excoriating modern yoga as a body-centered practice. Asana is a body-centered practice, but it has nothing to do with the age, weight, flexibility or general appearance of the bodies we bring to practice.
The body positive yoga conversation is an important one. I’ve enjoyed watching it unfold, and I’ve added my two cents to it. It is important that no one feel excluded from practice because of his/her age, weight, body type, injuries, genetics, flexibility or inflexibility, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. As I wrote in my body-positive piece, anyone in a body who practices yoga is living in a “yoga body.”
It’s a positive development that the larger yoga community is starting to question the popular images of Yoga as the domain of young, white, thin, bendy, fashionable women. The reduction of popular yoga to Madison Avenue-friendly images has only served to reinforce our already ingrained cultural neuroses about physical appearance, the completely arbitrary guidelines as to what is or is not officially attractive that have caused so much suffering for so many people. Isn’t the purpose of Yoga practice to free us from the ideas and beliefs that imprison us?
Important as it is, I sometimes wonder if the body positive yoga conversation is still not quite connecting with the deeper relationship between yoga practice and our bodies. Despite all its positives, the body positive yoga conversation explores our relationship to the physical appearance of the body rather than our direct relationship to the experience of living inside our bodies.
Which brings me back to Iyengar’s quote, which can be understood not only as a philosophy about practice, but as a practice instruction. I also read the quote as a call to mindfulness. The first of what are called the “four foundations of mindfulness” is mindfulness of the body. Sometimes meditation practitioners misinterpret the body as being subservient to the mind. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to realize that awareness of the body is the key to the freedom of the mind.
The body is not just a gross vehicle that transports our minds from one place to another. The body is the window to everything we experience—everything. We perceive the world around us through our bodies, through sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Everything we encounter, whether or not we’re conscious of it—registers as a sensation in our bodies. If we are ever to be mindful, we must drop below the level of thinking about our experience to being directly present with our actual experience. In order to do this, we must direct our bare attention to our bodies.
Here’s another point: Our bodies are always in the present. They can not be otherwise. If you want to be present, tune into your body.
It Ain’t Easy
It’s incredibly simple, but I will never claim that it’s easy. Most of us have practiced thinking, either consciously or unconsciously, our entire lives. As anyone who has sat down to meditate knows, our minds are constantly flitting from one thought to another like the Buddha’s metaphor, a wild monkey leaping from tree to tree.
It’s mindfulness of the body that provides the anchor for awareness. We can tune into the sensations in our bodies and propel ourselves right back into the present, even when the thought tapes are running at full volume. When you notice you’re lost in thought, try this: Don’t try to banish the thoughts. Just let them be. Instead, redirect your awareness to your body. Then notice what happens to the mental drama that was so compelling just moments ago.
If You’ve Got a Body, You Can Be Present
Through our sense experiences, we connect directly to each moment. In each moment that we fully connect, we are temporarily free of the thoughts and beliefs that disconnect us from the measureless infinity that we are. All this because we live in these bodies. And the best thing about this is that we all have one; living in a body is not just for the privileged few. It doesn’t matter whether we’re old, young, small, large, healthy or unhealthy.
In his classic book, Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a body awareness meditation based on these phrases:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.
Here’s a link to more info about this wonderful practice.
Reflect on how fortunate you are to live in the body you inhabit. It carries you from one place to another. It gives you access to everything that is without and everything that is within—the beauty of this Earth, the pleasure of music and art, the practice of interpersonal relationships, the joy of a satisfying asana practice, the passing joys and sorrows that teach us about living in this world. And here’s the great thing: You can enjoy all the wonders your body gives you access to no matter what it looks like. Through the moment-to-moment experience of inhabiting your body, you might realize you are a spark of divinity.
Hi Charlotte, your rt. on…I find that the mind monkey thing comes up even more when I am practicing pranayama..
I find what helps is noticing where my closed eyes are looking. if anywhere but down, my thinking process has gone wild, so catch myself and refocus..yes also aware of sensations of the inhale exhale pauses…
We can’t control what madison ave. does to yoga image and to the public, but as teachers we can do our part to emphasize what your message is…
What i see out there, teachers/studios that market yoga classes to the public using the beautiful body centric message, ie, tight buts, loose wt., stay young, use these styles of clothings, you get my drift….they say oh we have to do this to stay competitive, get them in then later we introduce the higher purpose…well i find that in general they don’t go beyond the youth, flexi, beauty messages…
So i feel conscious teachers/TIT are the ones responsible to send the correct message….Be well.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. The monkey mind is everywhere! Interesting how you’ve related the eye position to it. There are so many factors. My monkey mind is more active if I’m even slightly leaning forward–millimeters.
I’m not sure I agree with the bait-and-switch tactics of advertising yoga in a way that attracts body-beautiful seekers and then teaching them something else. That doesn’t seem honest to me. I know that teachers/studios justify it by saying that ultimately more people will benefit, but it doesn’t seem quite right.
The only way Yoga will lead to lasting happiness is when we transcend the idea that chasing after pleasant experiences and material things will make us happy. Happiness is beyond the body and beyond the mind, even as we attain wisdom through what we experience in the body and the mind.
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