Have you noticed that collection of bones, skin, muscles and organs that you take everywhere with you? That’s your body! Having to drag this thing through life can be somewhat challenging. Perhaps you would prefer to be some-kind of inter-dimensional shape-shifting energy being, floating through the cosmos unconstrained by the limitations of the material world? Well unlucky, that’s not you. Right now, you are in a body.
Perhaps the reason we like to escape into the internet, movies, books and a million other types of entertainment is to forget for a moment that we stuck in this flesh-machine. Certainly, many religious traditions have seen having a body as something of a curse, and that we should reject it (or at least be embarrassed about it like Adam and Eve were when they realised, they were naked). Some Buddhist monks take this to the extreme of meditating while watching the decomposing bodies of their former friends, just so they don’t get too attached to their own bodies. Forget cushions, candles, incense and pretty statues at your local hipster wellness studio, grab a shovel and get down to the cemetery – that’s where the real action is! If this sounds a little extreme for you, perhaps there is a gentler way to view the body from a spiritual perspective. One way is to actually start becoming more aware of our bodies: the one you are sitting in right now, how does it feel?
We live in an age when we are constantly distracted. Many people spend their time in offices staring at screens, doing stressful things. In order to relax, we stare at smaller screens scrolling infinitely down until we’ve had our fix of jealousy and anguish. Sometimes we stare at really big screens (that we paid a load of money for) which provide entertaining adventures to distract you from the stressful life of those smaller screens. While is both cool and trendy to blame technology for all of our problems (there are plenty of Facebook groups about this) actually the problem is deeper. We are conditioned to be in a state of constant doing: always planning, calculating, worrying… either trying to improve our situation or just to stay afloat.
The effect of this is that we live in our heads and lose awareness of our bodies. Unfortunately, our bodies continue to exist and get dragged through our daily routines. They are put unnatural positions thanks to the joys of offices, cars, and sofas. Our poor bodies get stuffed with unhealthy food, eaten in a rush so any attempt at effective digestion is impossible. Some even get bombarded with drugs and alcohol as we attempt to forget about all the other stupid things we are doing. While you were reading this, did you notice you were breathing? You are still alive, so you must have been! Breathing is the most essential function of life, and we hardly notice it. A lack of awareness of the breath in daily life causes enormous problems. The stress and stimulation of daily life causes us to breath in a shallow manner which keeps us in a state of fight-or-flight anxiety. The resulting lack of oxygen causes fatigue, confusion, and even premature aging! Basically it isn’t good.
When we don’t notice our posture, our breath and how we are feeling inside, how could we think to correct these things?
The results of this are clear to see. Tension, pain, digestive problems, inability to sleep… an almost endless list of afflictions. In fact, most of the time when people visit the doctor with a problem, what they are really suffering from is the effects of living without awareness.
The spiritual traditions do make a valid point about transcending the body, we are not our body, it is more like a temporary vehicle (this is what those morbid monks are trying to realise when they watch the rotting corpses). But ignoring the body is certainly not the answer. Like how putting those unpaid bills in the bin doesn’t make them go away.
So what can we do to become more aware of our bodies? Since we are a Yoga and meditation school, you may be able to guess what we suggest: that’s right! Yoga and meditation (give yourself a pat on the back if you guessed correctly).
Some people think of meditation as a form of escapism: light those trendy candles, get into the Lotus position, close your eyes and float off into alternative dimensions. Maybe there are styles of meditation that achieve this, but normally it is the opposite. Meditation is actually very grounding because we become aware of our bodies. When meditating on the breath we really know we are breathing. This helps us to become more aware of our breath in daily life so we can actually start to breath properly.
The Yogic philosophy does not reject the body, but instead advocates putting it into alignment. This makes a lot of sense: it is much easier go into deep meditation, if we are not distracted by a million aches, pains and stomach cramps. In the West, Yoga is often seen purely as a form of physical exercise that results in sexy Instagram photos, but the yogic postures were actually invented to make the body more comfortable with sitting in meditation for prolonged periods. The Yogis of ancient India discovered that, if you concentrate hard enough, you transcend the everyday world and realise that you are, in fact, one with the entire Universe. Try this with an aching back, hangover, and a stomach trying to digest a double bacon cheeseburger, it is unlikely you will experience such oneness.
The benefits of Yoga are not just to be felt in meditation. Yoga teachers often ask us to bring our attention to specific parts of our body (normal those that are currently suffering from the terrible bendy postures they make us assume!). While this may seem like an ingeniously cruel form of torture, actually it is for our own good since we learn to be aware of the body. With bodily awareness, you will start to automatically correct your posture and avoid literally a lifetime of pain.
Once you become more aware of the body, it actually becomes a lot harder to damage it, as you immediately feel the consequences of what you do. After a while you may find you even prefer a Yoga class to a 24-hour alcohol and cheeseburger binge (only very advanced practitioners reach this level). But seriously, people who do practices that cultivate bodily awareness make all sorts of positive changes to their lives. As well as adjusting your posture, watching what you consume, and being aware of your breathing, you may find yourself making all sorts of lifestyle changes once you are able to listen to your body.
Like it or not, you are an embodied being (for the time being at least). Accepting this, and cultivating awareness of the body will help you avoid a myriad of health problems and make spiritual development possible. Long story short: practice Yoga and meditation, it’s good for you!
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