Friday, September 14, 2012

Intellectualizing the Body

Yoga, as practiced in the West, is a physical practice. I have expressed before my difficulties coming to terms with this vision of yoga. After all, yoga in its origins is so much more than a physical practice. The very beginning of the Yoga Sutras tells us that Yoga is a calming of the mind. Less than five of the yoga sutras are dedicated to the physical asana practice.

And yet over and over again I am reminded that one of the greatest benefits of yoga is the physical practice. As the first of the koshas, the physical body is the entry into our deeper selves. It is through our bodies that we enter our souls. As we learn to understand our bodies, our vehicles for this Earth, we understand our deeper being-ness. But in order for it to be that entryway, we must actually feel it. We must experience it.

That’s the tough part!

If it is not abundantly obvious from the fact that I decided to go for an additional year of law school to get my master’s degree and from the fact that I write a blog about yoga (which is arguably not necessarily doing yoga), I love learning and thinking. The very first time I ever went to see a non-western doctor (healer, energy worker, pick a term), he informed me that I live about 97% in my head and about 3% in my body. I have no idea where he got those numbers, and I have not seen him in over 8 years, but his statement stuck with me.

I over think everything. Rather than truly experience, I want to understand with my mind.

As humans, there are a few things that set us apart. Our prefrontal cortex is on that list. It is, after all, that which takes us out of our reptilian instincts and provides us with rational thought. We honor great thinkers, and the greatest number of likes on the Is Yoga Legal facebook page always come from interesting and insightful quotes. The shorter the better, of course. We like to think, but facebook is not the place for deep thoughts, apparently.  

More than just thinking, in the modern world, we actually try to not feel. We take pills when we feel pain. We take pills when we feel sad. We drink caffeine and alcohol “to get through the day.” When we suppress these experiences, they need to become more and more pronounced until we are finally forced to pay attention. A small headache becomes chronic tension headaches. A cold becomes pneumonia. As our bodies try to get us to slow down, and we ignore them, they finally force us to stop completely.

That issue is well documented. Even western doctors are finally discussing the problems associated with chronic stress and ignoring early warning signs. But there is another issue. And this one may be harder to grasp.

Our minds are not the only way we can understand. Our bodies create a different type of understanding when we are willing to truly experience. For example, in yoga teacher training, and in many of the classes I currently attend, I have learned about the inner spiral of the thighs. This helps protect the pelvis and stabilize the lower body. On an intellectual level, I get it. I can tell when participants in my class are doing it. But guess what? I have not been doing it appropriately. The same is true of a variety of minute details of postures. I can intellectually know I am not doing something, but until my body feels what it means to do it, I do not fully understand.

And therein lies the problem of trying to understand a yoga posture, of trying to make meaning out of pain. Sometimes, what we must do is simply experience. The experience has something to teach us. The body has something it wants to show us. We may never understand it on an intellectual level, but if we learn to fully experience it, the body will show us what we need.

Thus, the asana experience, although a small portion of the yoga sutras, has something unique to teach us. In its own way, it is about quieting the mind. While certainly there are moments where we cannot focus on the mind when we are so focused on the body, what the asana practice is finally beginning to teach me is that the mind is not the only understanding. Getting out of the mind and into the body is not just a way to de-stress; it is also a way to understand who we are. And perhaps that is the greatest wisdom.

What have you learned from your physical yoga practice? Are there even words to describe it?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.

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