I remember my first yoga class. It was weird, and awkward, and it seemed as though the instructor was speaking a foreign language. He would say things like, “now breathe into your pinky toe” and “listen to your body”. As I continued to practice and teach yoga, the pinky toe breathing never really enlightened me, but the idea of listening to my body has had a profound impact on my life. This practice has brought me into a deeper understanding of myself on all levels; physical, mental, and spiritual.
Many of us live our lives completely disconnected from our bodies. We are living from the neck up and never using the intelligence of the body. Yep, you heard right. The body, not just the mind, has intelligence. Every experience, thought, and emotion will exist in both your brain and your body. Ever feel a “pit” or “butterflies” in your stomach when anticipating something scary or nerve-wracking? Or what about stress tension in your neck, shoulders, back, or elsewhere? Both of those are examples of how the physical is intimately connected with the mental and emotional.
This isn’t just hippie dippy talk, either. Emotions exist not only in our brains, but actually have a physiological response attached to them as well. When you’re under stress (mental, emotional, or physical), your adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones increase heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose as well as slow digestion- all to help you cope with the stressor. On the flip side, when you’re laughing and having a good time with your best friends, your brain is swimming in dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals make you feel content, relaxed, and are natural pain-killers. So even if you smile and put on a happy front, your body tells the real story. If you’re stressed, angry, afraid, or overwhelmed, your body will reflect that. The opposite is also true; when you’re happy and calm, your body is relaxed, you stand taller, and you experience less physical pain.
If our bodies reflect the true condition of our minds and spirits, then listening to them can give us incredible insight into our lives. Our bodies can tell us what we really need and want, and can even offer insight for making important decisions.
The first step is learning how to do this. Mindful practices such as mediation and yoga are great for this, but it can be even more accessible than that. Right now, wherever you are, notice your breath. Is it short and shallow or long and smooth? Do you tense your jaw, throat, or stomach when you breathe or are you relaxed? Next bring your attention to your head and face. Notice any sensations or tension, or simply just what your face feels like. Then slowly begin to scan your body from the top down, just noticing. I like to call this “taking inventory”. Bring your attention to your body one piece at a time, and just observe what’s there. Feel any muscular tension you might be holding, feel the places where your body connects with external objects, feel any emotion that a certain body part might elicit in you. Are there any parts of your body that you tend to disconnect with because they cause you physical or emotional pain?
If you do this several times throughout the day, and you will most likely begin to notice patterns. For example, you may notice that your jaw and temples tighten every time you sit in traffic, or maybe your stomach feels sick whenever you interact with your boss. You may also begin to notice what prompts you to relax and feel joyful- playing with a pet, being in nature, and exercising have this impact for many people.
The counterpart to observing these patterns is then honoring what your body is telling you. Remember that sick stomach that you experience every time you interact with your boss? This may be an interpersonal issue that needs to be resolved, or even a sign that it’s time to remove toxic people from your life. If you’re always exhausted and strung out, it may be time to honor your body by slowing down and prioritizing your personal health. Sleep is a big one- it’s easy to ignore our body’s need for rest by being continually on-the-go and/or abusing caffeine, but the long term effects of never slowing down are dangerous.
This practice will look different for everyone. The more you do it, the more connected you will become to yourself as a whole; mind, body, and spirit. Bear in mind that although rewarding, this process can be very uncomfortable. This depth of awareness asks us to face anything that’s been lurking; fears, insecurities, unresolved traumas, and dissatisfactions we have with our bodies. Stay with it, and have the courage to allow these things to surface, as this is where healing and growth happens.
Listen and honor. Your body never lies.