One of the most challenging aspects of yoga practice seems to be learning how to rise above our cultural ideas about the body. It is also one of its greatest rewards. We all grow up with ideas about what the human body should look like. In U.S. culture, that usually means thin and lean, and in yoga practice, über bendy. Often we strive to measure up to the images of “advanced” yoga practitioners, and when we don’t, we suffer—and so do our bodies. Instead, I’d like to propose practicing body gratitude.
I’ve said this in many different ways in many different posts. But it seems to bear repeating, probably daily. We all come into the world with different genetics, different talents and different challenges. Our physical structures are wildly diverse. The very idea of an “ideal” body disrespects this reality. Comparing ourselves to someone with completely different genetics is pointless. Comparing ourselves to someone who’s been cultivating habits that are foreign to us is equally pointless. Ultimately, our bodies are not simply vehicles to be looked at and judged. They’re so much more.
What Are These Bodies For Anyway?
Our bodies are our vehicles for interacting with the world around us. Our senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch—allow us to experience our environment, the Earth and its inhabitants. It doesn’t matter what our bodies look like. It doesn’t even matter if one or more of our senses are not in proper working order. We use the senses we have to interact with our environment. On that basis alone, we should practice some body gratitude.
Do our bodies have quirks? Are they sometimes uncomfortable to live in? Of course. But we can be grateful for the pleasures we find in everyday living. Simple acknowledgment of the ways in which our bodies serve us can be powerful. Here are a few things I’ve discovered over the years.
2 Ways to Practice Body Gratitude
Practicing body gratitude involves a shift in perspective. First, we have to stop thinking of these bodies as objects to be “perfected.” I recently wrote about the importance of partnering with the body in yoga practice. This can go a long way toward helping us shift our understanding. But here are a few more points that might be helpful.
- Cultivate awareness: This is probably the most important practice for developing body gratitude. In order to stop objectifying the body, we must relate to the body internally. Practicing mindfulness of the body helps us to ground us in the experience of living inside the body, rather than looking at it from the outside. I’ll explain mindfulness of the body in the next section.
- Practice body gratitude: The late Vietnamese Zen master and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, led a body gratitude meditation that I love. It’s quite simple. I’ll explain more below.
Mindfulness of the Body
- Begin by sitting in a comfortable position, on a meditation cushion or bench or in a chair.
- For most people, it’s best to close your eyes for meditation. This helps focus your awareness internally.
- Now notice if there are any sounds in your environment. If there are, open your sense of hearing, allowing the sounds to come and go. Notice if you feel the vibration of ambient sound elsewhere in your body.
- After a few minutes, begin to feel the points of contact between your body and what you’re sitting on. Feel the sensations of pressure in your legs and glutes, your hands and feet. Simply tune into what you’re feeling. There’s no need to interpret what you feel. Just feel it.
- Feel the movement of your breath in your body. You need not breathe any particular way. Just feel your breath as it is, and how it is moving your body.
- Expand your awareness to take in the entire body. Notice feelings of temperature—are certain areas warm and others cool? Notice feelings of pressure or tension, pulsing or vibration.
- Thoughts will come. That is the nature of the mind. When you notice that your mind is elsewhere, simply redirect your awareness to body sensations.
- Stay here for as long as you like—5 minutes or more.
A Body Gratitude Meditation
You can practice this meditation in a seated position or lying down in Savasana (Relaxation Pose). You could also practice it while walking in nature. My instructions will be for a sitting position, but you can adapt them to other positions.
- Take a minute or two to tune into the internal experience of your body, as in the meditation above.
- Now tune into your eyes, feeling them resting in their sockets. Reflect on all that your eyes do for you every day. Your sense of sight allows you to negotiate the world, and to move through the world with ease. They allow you to take in beauty. Then, as Thich Nhat Hanh would say, “Smile to your eyes.” Feel a sense of gratitude for all they do for you.
- Then tune into your ears, nose, mouth, throat; your heart, lungs, stomach, liver, intestines, etc.; your arms, legs, hands and feet. In each case reflect on the part each structure plays in keeping you alive and allowing you to interact with your world. Smile to each part of the body, expressing gratitude for its gifts.
- Continue until you feel done. Then reflect on whatever feelings arise.
Both these meditations will help you make the shift from seeing the body as an imperfect object that needs to be made whole, to experiencing your body as a living, breathing entity that you can inhabit with gratitude. You can practice them separately or in sequence.
Feel free to play with them in other formats. For example, if you’re walking in nature, be mindful of the act of seeing, and remember to appreciate your eyes. Remember to appreciate your legs that are allowing you to experience nature. Listen and appreciate hearing, and the feel of the sun or breeze on your skin. You can even tune into the internal sensations of your daily tasks such as washing dishes or brushing your teeth.
Shifting intention from the objectification of the body to the internal experience is key to living a more peaceful and grateful life. The gift of yoga is that it gives us techniques we can use to transform the way we experience ourselves, and therefore, the world around us. Enjoy the inward journey.
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