By Suma Varughese
Our bodies are repositories of all we have undergone from the moment of birth. Yet in our intellect-oriented modern lives, we have neglected them, thereby losing out on body’s precious wisdom. Re-establishing this connection, so that we are in communion with our bodies, is essential for achieving our true potential as human beings
Try this exercise: Pretend you could move out of your body and someone new could move in. What tips would you give the new occupant about what it’s like to live there?
1. What care does it need in the following areas—rest, feeding, watering, light / outdoors, physical activity, touching, soothing, stimulation, healing?
2. What are its rhythms—daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal?
3. How do other people respond to this body?
4. How does this body learn a new physical skill?
Groping for answers? Rest easy, you aren’t alone. Most of us don’t inhabit our bodies. The force and momentum of our thoughts trap us in the mind and alienate us from our bodies. We sit without awareness, move without awareness and fling our body around as heedlessly as if it were a sack of potatoes.
This is no mean loss. The body is not just the repository of our organs, flesh and blood. It is the container of our emotions, our memories and our highest wisdom. The body knows everything we feel and have felt; it has memory of every experience we have endured throughout life, and it has the wisdom to put us in touch with our highest potential.
For the truth is, the body and mind are one. The body is the material part of the mind and the mind is the invisible part of the body. Lack of awareness and appreciation of the bodies we inhabit creates imbalance and ill-health. For wholeness, radiant good health and the full realisation of the awesome possibilities of being human, we have no option but to be in loving and appreciative communion with our bodies.
Heal the body, heal the mind
Prameet Kotak is a 25-year-old health and fitness professional who combines weight-training, yoga and meditation. Says he: “Five years ago, my body awareness was very low. I had a paunch and my posture was faulty. Karate and yoga changed all that. My constipation disappeared, as did my infections, and I healed from a skin tear that used to plague my palms. Best of all, though, I have grown within. I’m certain about what I want to do with my life. I know when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’. And I have pretty good control over myself.”
Kotak illustrates a key holistic principle—heal the body, and the mind heals itself. Control the body and the mind follows suit. Nothing new, except that in our mind-dominated world, this fact is yet to sink in.
Ashwini Mehta, a cranio-sacral osteopath, agrees: “I had at one point turned to psychotherapy, but after coming in touch with cranio-sacral osteopathy, I find that it is far more effective in handling trauma. The emotions are registered in the body, but civilised people are too tuned to the intellect.”
Ashwini illustrates her point with her own dramatic accident on a beach in Goa. A giant breaker lifted her up and flung her to the ground with such force that her back was severely damaged. When she underwent cranio-sacral therapy (which successfully redressed the problem), she relived all the traumatic emotions connected with the event. “I felt that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that accompanied the fall.”
We can keep no secrets from our body. The story of our lives, from the moment we take birth, is etched in three-dimensional form in our bones, muscles, membranes and organs. Our lives shout out their stories in the way we sit and stand, hold our necks, or tilt our heads. There is eloquence in every droop and curve and gesture.
Our life’s story
Donald Vanhowten, author of Ayurveda and Life Impressions Bodywork, has termed the uncanny ability of the body to sculpt our worldview as ‘life impressions’. Our experiences and the emotions they elicit leave a permanent impression on the body, he asserts, which can only be removed by the conscious act of awareness and the use of touch therapy. He says: “We have such a strong identification with our physical form: the ‘hard copy’ of who we think we are, the printout of our inner beliefs and attitudes. If we can melt away the historic imprints held in the flesh, the ideas that hold them in place can also be updated and we can slowly peel away the layers and return to ourselves.”
Vanhowten exemplifies this with a case study of a man called Dave. As a young child, Dave had been devastated when his dog was run over by a car. To protect himself from the trauma, his ribs closed up. As a teenager, he fell in love with a girl who had to leave town with her family. Once again, Dave clamped down on his feelings, which further contracted his ribs. When Dave eventually met the love of his life, his contracted ribs gave him no access to his feelings. Only a willingness to experience that suppressed grief and loss can restore Dave’s emotional health.
Thomas Hanna makes the same point in his book, The Body of Life, which is about a somatic therapy called Functional Integration founded by Moshe Feldenkrais. The constant stress of modern life distorts and cripples our bodies in a number of ways, he reveals. In his practice, he has encountered many who have little or no mobility in their torso. Such a fixed stance is indicative of a rigid way of life. He says: “As our search for a vocation settles into a fixed ‘job’, as our search for a mate settles into marriage, as our many expectations settle into a finite number of fulfilments, as our aspirations settle into steady certitudes, and as our broad range of potential movements settles into a narrow band of habitual movements, we will inevitably find ourselves looking in fewer directions and moving in fewer directions.”
He gives the example of a first-rate journalist, Beatrice S., who came to him with severe pain on the right side of her neck. Hanna discovered that she favoured the right side of her body overwhelmingly. After setting right the balance, Beatrice found creative writing and poetry streaming into her mind. When she began to use the left side of her body, her right brain, which is the seat of creativity and intuition, flowered.
Uday Acharya, a Vedanta teacher, illustrates the mind-body connection from his own experience. “A few weeks ago, I was in a state of despondency. I felt I was going around in circles, that nothing was working out and that I was tied down and lost. The feeling was so strong that the next day I had body aches that almost paralysed me.”
The intimate connection between body and mind is no more a subject of alternative therapy lore and anecdotal evidence. Scientists are increasingly mining convincing evidence on the subject. Hanna points out that scientists have proved that “thinking is movement—actual physical movement of the living body”. For instance, when subjects were asked to think out a problem in multiplication, the muscle of the dominant hand began to move as if the subject were writing.
Robert Malmo of McGill University, Canada, proved through 30 years of research that the muscular tension in the body increases and decreases with the level of emotion experienced. As Hanna says: “The kind of thoughts we think determines the quality and effectiveness of our lives… If we turn the same anxious thoughts over in our minds day after day, then it is certain that we are tensing and activating certain contractions in our bodies day after day.” Science is finally catching up with the Buddhist truth articulated 2,500 years ago in the Dhammapada: “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.”
Latest findings in genetic science endorse the mind-body connection. Writes Dr Earnest Lawrence Rossi in his paper Behaviour State-related Gene Expression and Psychotherapy: “Classical genetics have explored biological determinism… The new interdisciplinary approach of behavioural state-related gene expression, by contrast, is beginning to explore how behavioural states modulate certain patterns of genetic expression… Genes and behaviour are related in cybernetic loops of mind-body communication.”
Root of our alienation
If alignment with the body is crucial to our well-being, how come so few of us are body-aware?
Modern civilisation can take the rap for this alienation. With its artificial lifestyle, emphasis on sedentary work and preference for the intellect, it has driven a wedge between body and mind. The origin of this duality must, as all else, be attributed to Messrs Descartes, Newton, and Co., whose dissemination of the separatist, fragmentary, mind-oriented philosophy shattered the unity of life into innumerable shards. Newton’s theory that the universe was composed of tiny atoms that had no essential unity between them, and Descartes’ belief that only sensory evidence was real, gave rise to the scientific industrial revolution, but also created all the abnormalities of this way of life.
Says psychiatrist Dayal Mirchandani: “We are no longer in tune with our natural rhythms of eating when hungry and sleeping when tired, because the invention of the electric light and the many edible temptations that are vigorously advertised keep us in a constant state of stimulation.”
Thomas Hanna writes: “Contemporary culture is, for most citizens, an oppressive pall that hovers over them throughout their lives… If, in addition to a person’s job, he has the daily experience of reading the newspaper and the nightly experience of watching the evening newscast, he has enough disappointment and apprehension and foreboding to guarantee that the residual muscular tension in his body will not drop a whit.”
While there can be no easy solution to changing present-day culture, it is all the more reason for us to take our lives in our hands and restore that much-needed balance between body and mind.
Listening to the body
Coming in contact with the body, listening to it and being sensitive to its needs gives us access to its powerful intelligence.
Brendan Bays, author of The Journey, talks about healing from a football-sized tumour when she made contact with the cellular memories of an emotional trauma experienced at age four. A deep-core massage from a practitioner skilled at helping access to cellular memories in deep relaxation helped her uncover a shattering incident. The moment she came to terms with it, the healing began. No sooner had she come out of the session than she began to feel her rock-hard tumour soften. From that very moment it began to reduce in size and in six weeks, it had disappeared.
Says Shameem Akthar, yoga teacher and Life Positive columnist: “My taste-buds are very acute. I can actually distinguish all the different seasonings and spices used to flavour a dish, and I can also recognise if something is a bit off sooner than others can. Pain is not a problem any more. I can exactly locate it and distinguish if it is a serious pain or only discomfort. If it is the latter, I go right ahead with my tasks and chores. Earlier, any pain would have immobilised me. Today, I can separate myself from the pain.”
Shameem narrates an incident when she was walking on the road in Pune with her husband and child. Two men on a two-wheeler tried to snatch her bag. Undaunted, she allowed herself to be dragged several yards but did not relinquish her hold on the bag. “For someone who has always been physically weak, it was a miracle! I was conscious all the time. I knew exactly what was happening,” she says. Although she sustained severe injuries on the shoulder, she recovered her composure sooner than her shaken husband. “There were no scars, either,” she exults.
Dr Nitin Nayak, the Pune-based radiologist who now practises New Age therapies including deep-tissue healing and rebirthing, had a paragliding accident that fractured his ankle bone. When the pain and swelling did not subside for months, Nayak tried alternative methods. None worked until he signed up with Paula Horan for her 21-day bodywork course. While undergoing rebirthing and deep-tissue healing, Nayak’s swollen ankle healed. “I also realised that the emotional issue behind my ankle problem was that I was afraid of going forward. I was tired of allopathy but was scared to take the plunge into alternatives. When I resolved the issue, the ankle healed,” he says.
Elsa Gindler was a physical educator in Berlin, Germany, in the early part of the 20th century. When diagnosed with TB and told to go to an expensive sanatorium, the impecunious Elsa decided that she would instead control her breathing to the extent that she needed only one lung, thus allowing the diseased one to rest. She began observing her internal sensations, and differentiated the movements of her throat, rib cage, diaphragm, and stomach until she could both sense and control each lung in breathing. And behold, her TB disappeared.
Elsa made a discovery that yogis would endorse—the more human beings are aware of their internal sensations, the better they can function. Awareness heals and hones. Her teaching has created much awareness of the mind-body interrelationship in the West and has given rise to therapies like Sensory Awareness popularised by Charlotte Selver.
Most alternative therapies acknowledge and avail of the body-mind-spirit relationship to effect total healing. Among these, many use the body as the dominant pathway to healing. These include all types of massages and bodywork, kinesiology, rolfing, chiropractic, functional integration, cranio-sacral osteopathy, and many other approaches. All of them work on the insight that the body has its own intelligence and that it is the storehouse for emotional memories, blocks and stops that manifest as disease. Many of them report commendable success in helping clients heal on the physical and emotional level.
Says Falguni Harkisandas, a yoga and Thai Yoga massage therapist and teacher: “When I give my clients Thai massage on their emotional centres, which are the upper part of the feet and palms and the sternum, they experience a lot of pain, but the relief is considerable. Some people going through a painful divorce found that they could think in a more balanced and detached way after the massage.”
Donald Vanhowten uses a combination of ayurveda and Life Impressions Bodywork to effect some spectacular healings. He writes: “I was in Alaska, working on a client’s abdomen, and I noticed something starting to happen under my hands. I thought ‘…I’ll just follow until it unwinds and see what happens.’… I got a call from her ‘…My ovarian cyst went away’. I didn’t know she had one… The membrane restriction that may have held that pocket of material in a cyst-like form was given enough slack and enough fluid to unwind itself.”
While the above therapists worked directly on the body, there are other healing modalities that access the wisdom of the body through observation and attunement. One is vipassana meditation, a technique believed to have been discovered by the Buddha. Here the practitioner scans the body relentlessly for sensations and when discovering any, stays with it. As the sensations get released, subtler sensations arise, until finally comes the moment of insight, when the body no longer appears like a solid material object but as a host of vibrations that ceaselessly rise and fall. Although the goal of the technique is primarily spiritual, this concentrated focus on the body heals and clears away many illnesses.
Says Falguni: “Earlier, I used to get mouth ulcers during menstruation. After doing vipassana, they have cleared up.”
Healing the psyche
Interestingly, one form of psychotherapy uses body wisdom to heal the psyche. Known as ‘Focusing’, it was devised by a psychotherapist and university professor named Eugene T. Gendlin, who was dismayed to note that many patients did not respond to conventional therapy and those who did, could be spotted in the first two sessions. What made the difference, he found, was their ability to go within themselves and come in touch with what he calls the ‘felt sense’ of the issue concerned. This ‘felt sense’, which is essentially an awareness in the body, a transfer of knowledge from the body to the mind, conveys the whole feel of the issue. When experienced and stayed with, it could yield remarkable insights that changed a person from the inside.
Gendler soon found a way to teach this method so that even those who do not have a natural aptitude for it could use it. The advantage of Focusing is that you don’t need a therapist. You can do it yourself or with the help of a friend. With each insight, there occurs a body shift, a sigh or a sense of relief, which tells the practitioner that he is on the right track. Gendler likens the body shift to the sense of release and relief we experience when we forget something and try to recall it. When we finally hit upon the right answer, the relaxation we feel courses through our body. Best of all, according to Gendler is that it is effective in helping one access troubling issues that lurk in the unconscious layers of the mind and body.
While the body’s ability to heal the mind is considerable, it is equally a pathway to the spirit
There are six steps to Focusing.
Clearing the space: This indicates that instead of allowing our problems and issues to crowd us, we put them on one side so we reach that deep inner space of the felt sense of whatever issue we are working on.
Felt sense: Try and get the whole of that felt sense. What is it all about?
Handle: Get a handle on the sense. Is there a word that describes it aptly? Let the word come up from the felt sense. It might be a word like ‘tight’, ‘sticky’, ‘heavy’, and so on.
Resonating: Go back and forth trying to fit the handle with the felt sense. Do they fit? You might get a slight feeling of release if it does.
Asking: Ask what there is in the problem that makes this quality. Feel the felt sense again. Stay with this question until you get an answer that feels right, that is, your body shifts.
Receive: Receive whatever comes in a friendly way. There will be other shifts with other insights but stay with this one for a while.
(Don’t try to focus based on these instructions. Pick up a copy of Focusing by Eugene T. Gendlin, Bantam New Age Books.)
The inner body
While the body’s ability to heal the mind is considerable, it is equally a pathway to the spirit. Indeed, the ability to move into the body is a sign of spiritual maturity for it means that the domination of the mind is diminishing. Yoga is one of the oldest and most respected ways of using the body to access spirit. The eight-fold path outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a progressive passage towards the divine, through the practice of yamas and niyamas (dos and don’ts), asanas, pranayama, pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (one-pointed concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (union with the divine). As the mind stills through the practice of breathing and physical exercises, the practitioner moves into progressively rarefied zones of the mind until in utter stillness, it unites with the Unmanifest.
The body’s ability to convey intuitive signals is also well-known. In her book Divine Intuition, Lynn A. Robinson says: “Intuitive impressions may also be experienced kinesthetically. These impressions might be felt as emotion, a sense of direct knowing, a hot or cold sensation in the body, or a gut feeling.” When she was toying with the idea of becoming a psychologist, her body sense warned her against it. “Everything felt heavy… That sense of heaviness indicated to me that counseling was not a good choice for me.”
Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has this to say about the body’s role as a bridge to enlightenment. “Do not fight against the body, for in doing so you are fighting against your own reality. You are your body. The body that you can see and touch is only a thin illusory veil. Underneath it lies the invisible inner body, the doorway into Being, into Life Unmanifested. Through the inner body, you are inseparably connected to this unmanifested One Life—birth less, deathless, eternally present. Through the inner body you are forever one with God.” Tolle offers an exercise to help us connect with our inner bodies.
Inner body meditation: “Direct your attention into the body. Feel it from within. Is it alive? Is there life in your hands, arms, legs and feet—in your abdomen, your chest? Can you feel the subtle energy field that pervades the entire body and gives vibrant life to every organ and every cell? Can you feel it simultaneously in all parts of the body as a single field of energy? Keep focusing on the feeling of your inner body for a few moments. Do not start to think about it. Feel it. The more attention you give it, the clearer and stronger this feeling will become. It will feel as if every cell is becoming more alive and if you have a strong visual sense, you may get an image of your body becoming luminous.”
Do not fight against the body, for in doing so you are fighting against your own reality. You are your body. But underneath it lies the invisible inner body, the doorway into Being, says Eckhart tolle
In the flow
Athletes are among that group of people who are most in touch with their bodies. As they ceaselessly push their bodies to the cutting edge of excellence, they enter the domain that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow, that area of optimal experience when we are in effortless mastery of our powers. This sense of flow is nothing short of a spiritual experience and many athletes report having experienced it.
In his book Playing in the Zone, Andrew Cooper gives some fascinating examples. Here is an account by Yuri Vaslov, the great Russian weightlifter: “At the peak of tremendous and victorious effort, while the blood is pounding in your head, all suddenly becomes quiet within you. Everything seems clearer and whiter than before, as if great spotlights had been turned on. At that moment you have the conviction that you contain all the power in the world, that you are capable of everything, that you have wings. There is no more precious moment in life than this, the white moment, and you will work very hard for years just to taste it again.”
In his pure, whole-hearted striving for excellence, the athlete often crests past the ego and enters the free limitless zone of self-transcendence. Pele, the football great, describes a similar moment in his autobiography My Life and the Beautiful Game. “It was a type of euphoria; I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their team or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically. I felt I could not be hurt. It was a very strange feeling and one I had not felt before. Perhaps it was merely confidence, but I have felt confident many times without that strange feeling of invincibility.”
There is far more to the body than we are capable of comprehending, but a beginning can be made right here, right now. We can begin by a simple thanks to our body for doing all that it does so uncomplainingly, despite all the abuse we heap upon it. That could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
In her pure, whole-hearted striving for excellence, the athlete, while working with the body, often crests past the body and ego, and enters the free limitless zone of self-transcendence.
Heal your body, mind and spirit through these pathways to the body:
Kinesiology: This is a way of identifying any imbalances a person may have by monitoring their ability to hold their muscles against light pressure. Each muscle is related to an organ and also to an energy pathway called a meridian. Together, the muscle, organ and meridian form a circuit. If there is chemical, emotional, structural or energetic stress affecting the circuit, the muscle tested will feel ‘spongy’, indicating an imbalance.
Once an imbalance is found, the kinesiologist uses the muscle test again to get feedback from the person’s body about factors causing the imbalance and what will help restore balance. Each time a relevant factor is introduced, the muscle’s response changes, a bit like a switch. So imagine a spongy muscle as being ‘off’; if the person then thinks of an emotional stress and the muscle is suddenly able to hold against the pressure, that is, it switches ‘on’, that indicates that that emotional stress is involved in that imbalance.
Similarly, if a particular nutrient, when placed in the mouth, causes the muscle to switch ‘on’ we know it will be helpful. The same process can be used to find related structural problems and energetic factors.
Founded by a chiropractor, Dr George Goodheart, in 1964, today kinesiology is a course of study taught in many universities in the West. For more information, check the internet.
Rolfing: Rolfing is named after Dr Ida P. Rolf. She began her efforts more than 50 years ago to create a holistic system of soft tissue manipulation and movement education that organised the whole body in gravity. She eventually named the system Structural Integration. She discovered that she could achieve remarkable changes in posture and structure by manipulating the body’s myofascial system.
Rolfing creates a more efficient use of the muscles, allows the body to conserve energy, and creates more economical and refined patterns of movement.
Functional Integration: This is a method of somatic education that changes the entire human being. One’s personality, direction, intentions are all modified. The practitioner first checks out the person exerting pressure through his hands, thereby arriving at an understanding of his character and personality and the kinks and blocks that prevent free movement and free thinking. Then he introduces into the system new patterns of movement that rebalance the individual and restore to him the flexibility and choice required for optimal living. The movements follow the principles of physical mechanics, kinesiology, and neurophysiology.
Life Impressions Bodywork: It is based on the premise that habitual holding patterns leave a historic imprint on the membranes of the body. These membranes store our repetitive actions and experiences, along with our solidified emotions and ideas, as life impressions. Life Impressions Bodywork is designed to release safely these historic imprints through the use of the Touch of Awakening, which liberates healing memories and removes the conditioning that restricted the individual’s physical prowess as well as his mental and spiritual well-being.
Other therapies include Cranio-Sacral Osteopathy (Life Positive, May 2003), yoga (Life Positive, March 2003), and Alexander Technique (Life Positive, July 2003).
Rediscover your body While the body’s ability to heal the mind is considerable, it is equally a pathway to the spirit
Try these exercises to help you get in nodding acquaintance with your body.
Rediscover your hands
(You can get someone to read this to you, leaving you free to do the exercise)
Sit comfortably at a desk, with your eyes closed and your hands resting on the desktop or on your knees, palms down. Notice your right hand. Is it relaxed, stiff, or a bit of both in different areas?
Notice the fingers (still with your eyes closed, you get more information this way). Are they straight or slightly bent? Can you feel the entire length of the fingers or just the part in contact with the desk? How does your palm feel? Does it rest flat on the desk, or is it pressed in one corner with the other edge slightly lifted off the surface?
Lift only your right index finger 1/16th of an inch and then let it down. Do this several times. (Just notice how it moves; don’t try to make something happen. You are adding information to the system, not trying to fix anything. Change often comes from the increased awareness of what you do, but please wait for that to emerge.) Let the hand rest and notice any changes. Now, lift the middle finger many times, only 1/16th of an inch. Rest and feel any change. Then move the ring finger, the little finger, and finally the thumb.
Now imagine there is a ball in your palm. Keeping your fingers at rest, slightly lift the heel of your hand as if you were going to roll across the ball toward your index finger and back, slowly and only a very short distance, several times. Rest, then roll the imaginary ball toward the middle finger several times. Then the right finger, the little finger, and then the thumb.
Compare your hands. Move them around gently, feel the lightness. Place them back on your desk or lap. Again, with the right hand, imagine the ball in your palm. Begin to roll around the ball outwardly, slowly and many times. Allow your right shoulder to participate in the rolling. Reverse the direction and roll a number of times. Can you feel any movement in your ribs?
You have completed one hand. Notice the changes, not just in the hand, but also in the whole self. Slowly move your arms, your neck. Open your eyes and walk around, noting the difference in how you feel. Compare the two sides of your body. Try the other hand.
Through using yourself in a different way, you are creating more awareness of your options and changing the pattern and consistency of the tissues of your hand. You may have reduced your historic imprinting in that simple exercise. Whatever change you did note, the growth has begun; you now have more options in your brain and body.
Making new pathways
Put on a pair of shoes with laces. Walk around and notice your whole self: how your feet feel, how your legs move, where you feel restricted. How about your hips, lower back, neck? How do your arms move as you walk?
Get in your normal position to lace the shoes, and direct your attention to the right shoe and foot. Notice: did you bring the foot to yourself or did you bend over to the foot? Whichever way you did it, now try it the other way. What about both ways? Could you bring the foot toward you and bend toward your foot? Making new pathways in the brain, the membranes create new ideas of how to use your body and provide access to your membrane bindings.
Try all the different ways you can imagine to get in position to tie your shoes. Do it with your eyes open, and then do it again with eyes closed. Do all movements gently and slowly. Don’t go all the way. Just start the pathway and move back and forth, creating a new groove in the brain and tissues.
Now repeat the exploration while grasping the laces. Come from the front of the shoe, both hands coming in from their respective sides, feet resting under the knees. Repeat this action slowly back and forth several times. Now do it with the feet crossed at the ankle. Come to the point of grasping the laces, then back away. Do this many times with each approach. Put your feet close together, parallel, and proceed slowly. Try it with your feet as far apart as is comfortable. Now move to a staircase.
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