Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Body as Teacher

I have mentioned before that I went into yoga teacher training hoping to go deeper into yoga teachings. I used to scoff, somewhat, at the role asana plays in yoga. Sure, I thought, postures are important, but the real yoga is meditation and the changes it brings to our spirits, not our bodies.

But yoga teacher training changed all that. Not only did I learn about the koshas, and how yogis have always described how our bodies are one pathway to learning about the deeper aspects of ourselves, but I also experienced it myself. Sure, I always had known that our hips hold our emotions, and working with hips will often bring people to tears of laughter or tears of sorrow, but I had never, somehow, equated this to acknowledging the deepest potential of asana, or the postures.

(Ok, a quick aside – the real reason is because I got caught up in the feeling that the 100% asana-focused practice of modern, American yoga is not real yoga, so I had to rebel against that. I have since softened my belief structure around that, and I know, and have always known, that we can never remove the body from the rest of our being, but yeah, I got caught in that American yoga vs. “real” yoga debate.)

In some ways, it is silly that I never acknowledged this deep connection. After all, I have always understood how the body is one of the first indicators of our deeper sanity and being. I still believe the breath is our greatest teacher, but the body is like its right-hand man. And if you want proof, look at your colleagues. Look at yourself. I would wager a fairly large bet you already know this.

I’m going to use myself as an example these past few weeks. Prior to the past two weeks, the last time I was sick for more than a day, maybe two, was two years ago, and that lasted about three days. It turns out it was a cold or allergies. I cannot remember the last time I got the flu, if ever, and I had not experienced stress-related stomach anxiety since the bar exam. (To be honest, I do not remember that, but someone else does, so knowing what I know about memory, I will go with hers.) Prior to that, the last time I felt it was in college. Growing up, my stomach was a pretty solid indicator of my stress levels. And I had a lot of stomach issues. I was, apparently, a stressed-out kid. I will spare you the details of my last two weeks, but let's just say, my body has informed me that I am a wee bit stressed.

So once again, yoga and the law have taught me the same lessons as two sides of the same coin. Yoga helped me move beyond the stress-response in my body, and I was rarely, if ever, sick, and the law brought me right back to what was always underneath it all. I have learned three things from this, and I think they are worth sharing with anyone out there who notices these issues.

First, I really do love my job. It is difficult, scary, and stressful, but I get to do work I hope is useful, and I work with some of the most amazing people I know. Not only do I like them, but I truly and deeply respect them. I work in a system that needs serious healing, but it is also a system in which everyone there is working to make it better. It may not be perfect yet, and probably never will be, but everyone cares, and that is a huge step in the right direction. Why does loving the work matter? Because I am willing to find ways to work within it rather than run away at 100 miles per hour and never looking back. 

Second, the body is a teacher. Yes, I knew this. Yes, I was listening. And yes, I was also ignoring the signs. I had work to do. And the downward spiral began. It ended in the same stomach anxiety I had not experienced in years. It resulted in headaches and a sore back. These are all the complaints of modern America. But these are complaints I had not been making myself for years. And that brings me to the third lesson.

Yoga works. Yep, it has been all over the news that yoga can cause physical pain. And guess what? I agree 100%!!! There is a reason I never teach headstands in my classes or even shoulderstands unless I know the students and know they are safe doing them. There are many, many days I do not do either because I know my body is not up for it. So, yes, yoga can cause harm . . . when done without care and attention. But when we tune in and listen, yoga works. We can use the body to calm the mind and the mind to ease the body. The back pain, headaches, and anxiety can begin to be calmed. Are they going to disappear forever? Probably not. When I was a camp counselor, our boss once said, we could easily prevent all the children from ever getting hurt by having them sit inside in a circle all day. But would that be camp? Nope. So we had to find a happy medium – keep the kids as safe as possible, but also let them be kids.

Our own lives are the same. We could do nothing and be safe, calm, and pain free. Or we can live life and learn to live it in a way that is as safe and calm and pain-free as possible each moment. The body is a great indicator, and one that yoga can help. When the body is in a state of pain, it is in a state of dis-ease. By learning to recognize the signs early, hopefully we can keep ourselves free of deeper disease.

How have you noticed this in your life?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 


  1. Thanks for writing, Rebecca! Asana is a tool, not a goal ... a meditation for the body. Do you align yourself with one style of yoga, in particular?

    1. Thanks, Rebecca. And I do not subscribe to any particular style of yoga. I try to do what feels right for me and the students at the moment. How about you?