It’s not easy in the modern world to inhabit a human body in a way that nurtures self-love, well-being and empowerment.
There are so many things – from abuse, trauma, illness, disability, discrimination to media images of ‘perfection’ or just a thoughtless comment – in childhood and later life that disconnect us from the essential, natural rightness and goodness of our bodies. Meanwhile, the declining sense of bodily coherence that has come hand in hand with the loss of movement as an integral part of daily human life often confirms our sense that we are not right.
So most humans do not wonder at the physical form that the little drop of universal energy that is them has taken for this lifetime. Instead, they have become disconnected from an intimate awareness of their bodies and tend to notice only the things they perceive as ‘wrong’. And their regular mantra of negativity towards themselves eats away at their sense of self-worth and feeds a downward spiral of health and well-being.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about this spiral and the modern human predicament of staying well in lives that are increasingly sedentary, mind-focused and detached from nature’s cycles. These reflections were further stirred during a May weekend spent happily among others passionate about exploring what it means to inhabit a human body – first with 60 movement and body workers at a workshop with Tom Myers, myofascial expert and author of Anatomy Trains, and then at the small-but-perfectly-formed exhibition of sculptor Anthony Gormley, famous for his explorations of the human body’s relationship to space, at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.
Humans: a domesticated species
Wild animals, it occurred to me on that weekend, surely do not suffer the same bodily malaise as humans. This reflects not only their lack of human levels of self-consciousness, but the fact that their very survival requires them to be at one with their bodily senses and to move in regular and varied ways throughout their day. So they are connected to their whole self and know instinctively how to be comfortable in and how to move in their lithe bodies with ease, efficiency and grace.
Us humans were undoubtedly once so. But as our brains have grown in size and complexity, not only has our capacity of self-conscious (and sometimes self-destructive) reflection grown, but – as our ‘activity’ has become increasingly mind-focused – we have devised numerous machines and gadgets to make our lives easier. From cars to escalators, from computers to remote controls, these have increasingly freed us from the necessity to move as part of our daily lives.
Modern life has turned us into a ‘domesticated species,’ said Myers. Many people in developed countries do jobs that do not require them to move much throughout the day. So, if they do want to stay in shape, they have to artificially build in periods of exercise (often involving a particular set of movements that stimulates their body tissues in limited ways). So we have lost the natural capacity for efficient and health-promoting movement. “We need to educate movement,” said Myers. “It did not used to be necessary – but today it is absolutely necessary.”
Holistic implications of sedentary lives
It is shocking to think that, as a species, we have forgotten how to move in a healthful way. It reflects the fact that, as our brain power has increased and our need for movement has decreased, we have come to value the activity of our mind and forgotten the wonder and value of our bodies.
This has serious implications for our well-being on every level.
For – whatever we have been taught by western medicine – we are not machines that were created from individual parts and that can be mended when they go wrong by fixing or replacing those individual parts. We are living organisms that grew outwards from a tiny seed into one connected whole.
This ‘whole’ goes beyond our physical body. In the Chinese Daoist understanding of the oneness of body and mind, there is simply no distinction between our physical body, our energy body and our consciousness body. They are all just manifestations of universal energy condensed to different degrees (like ice, water and steam). So any stimulus at one level directly affects the others.
This means that, as our organism continues to grow, develop and change as we live our lives, every thought, feeling, word, bite, movement, action, interaction etc is registered – for good or for bad – at each level, from the cells of our body to our spirit. As life changes our cells, so our tissues and organs change, our countenance and posture change, our vital energy changes, our thoughts and emotions change and ultimately our level of consciousness changes (and vice versa).
We can influence this constant state of ‘becoming’ through mindful awareness of these energy levels within us. For most people, this means tuning into and working with their physical body (the only level that they are readily able to access) and thereby influencing the higher vibrational levels.
Thus, our bodies are the foundation for any positive mental and emotional change and spiritual development.
If we become disconnected from our bodies, we lose the capacity to positively influence our well-being on all levels. And if we neglect the well-being our bodies, our overall well-being suffers.
The downward spiral of low self-worth
Movement* – or the lack of it – is, of course, just one of the ways in which we connect to and care for – or neglect and harm – our bodies. But it is, I believe, the crux. It sets the tone – positively or negatively – of our overall relationship with ourselves.
For, if we don’t move, we become increasingly numb to the sensations of our bodies – or, at least, to anything lower than our heads or deeper than our skin. We are shut off from the symphony of sensations of rest of our internal universe – and especially from the parts that are holding some piece of our story (eg the painful, traumatic, scary, embarrassing or unacceptable) that we have hidden well away for our conscious selves. When we don’t engage in mindful movement, the negative energy of these experiences have the time and space to settle and stagnate. This leads to physical, mental and emotional symptoms as they alter posture and function and close us off from essential parts of ourselves.
So, as our bodies close, we become unanchored from our true selves and our self-awareness is then limited to outward appearance and the judgement of others. With most people brainwashed by idealised media images of perfection, this is a recipe for plunging self-worth.
And so the ground is set for the downward spiral of well-being to accelerate, as we regularly address our valueless body in the most negative and unloving terms for not looking or behaving as we would like. We don’t feel worthy of self-care, so, on top of this intoxicating mental food, we feed ourselves equally harmful actual food and drink, allow our bodies to take full advantage of the lack of necessity to move, while giving ourselves little time for truly restorative nourishment and rest. And when some part of us sends us loud and painful alarm messages that all is not well within, we respond by trying to medicate it back into quiet submission.
Even if we do perhaps decide to do something positive, like moving more, we often do so in ways that impose intense and stressful movement on our system. We yank and strain our bodies to conform with movements, shapes and speeds that represent success in our minds – and chide our bodies for their uselessness when they fall short.
And so our sense of self-worth sinks a little lower still and our downward well-being spiral continues to turn.
Change your perspective to spiral upward
The only way to reverse this spiral is to embrace a different way of inhabiting our human bodies in the context of a world where human brains are indeed powerful and where these brilliant brains continue to come up with ever more ‘convenience’ inventions that further erode our need to move.
To live well in this world requires a change in perspective. A shift from seeing our body as secondary to our mind and from berating our body as ugly/burdensome/valueless etc to recognising ourselves as an integrated whole and celebrating our body as the gateway to coming home and to cultivating our well-being on every level.
If you embrace this perspective, you’ll surely find that, instead of feeling ashamed of or frustrated by your body, you are filled with awe and gratitude for all it has done for you during your life, to your legs for carrying you, your belly for nourishing you etc etc. And you will feel amazed that it is still going despite everything you have thrown at it over the years!
For our organism is always trying to return to health and to maintain the best possible balance it can in the circumstances. So next time you feel a pain somewhere, don’t admonish your body for failing. Instead, apologise for causing it so much trouble and ask what you can do to support its constant efforts to keep disharmony as far away from your vital organs as possible.
When you do that, you might find your spiral of well-being shifts towards a positive direction. And that self-love and self-care come naturally to you.
But achieving this change in perspective, I hear you say, is not so easy. Indeed not, if we try to force it at the level of our minds and simply make gritted-teeth resolutions to be nicer to ourselves. Such efforts will doubtlessly fail. However, if we cultivate this change by working with our body itself, the shift will happen naturally and will be there to stay.
Six body-centred tips for inhabiting a human body
Self-reverent, regular movement practice*
Bringing regular movement back into our lives is key to helping us change our perspective and to learning to inhabit our bodies from a foundation of self-love, rooted in an embodied awareness of our essential goodness as natural beings. Movement anchors us directly back into our bodies through sensory awareness and opens up closed spaces so we can feel whole. It also gives us the opportunity to positively influence our growth on every level, from the physical to the spiritual.
However, it is not just if you move that matters, but how you move.
In my own long exploration of movement, I have come to ask myself certain questions when considering the positive impact of my practice. If you already move regularly, you might like to ask yourself the same questions about your own practice:
– Does it flow from the inside out, making space for your own curious exploration of your inner world and for your expression of that unique world in your external form and rhythm?
– Does it help you sense and move your body as a connected whole?
– Does it create opportunities for a wide variety of movement?
– Does it let you approach your ‘closed’ spaces with self-care and -compassion, so you patiently knead open those that are ready with gentle movement, awareness and breath?
– Does it cultivate self-reverence, encouraging you to not only befriend your body again, but to fall deeply in love with it right as it is, with all its beautiful human imperfections?
– Is it, in your life-long process of becoming, growing you into the person you wish to be?
If you did not answer ‘Yes!’ to at least some of these, then you may be forcing yourself to move in ways that have little to do with you and that are unlikely to help you change your relationship with yourself so you can inhabit your body in a more positive way.
If you do not yet have any kind of movement practice, I hope these principles will help you seek out one that truly nourishes you.
The other key factor to establishing a movement practice, if it is to make a real difference to our well-being, is doing it regularly (ie at least a few times each week). I know that this is a great challenge for many people. But, remember, we are still just building ‘artificial’ blocks of movement into rather sedentary lives, so, the less we do, the less the relative influence of this positive movement on our cells and the whole of our being.
Initially, you may need to drag yourself to practise, reminding yourself that you are doing it because you are good and right and worthy of self-care. But with time, this ritual of caring for yourself will become unmissable.
Movement in daily life
To be truly at home in our bodies, the ideal would be to abandon our sedentary ways and return to a life where varied movement was an integral part of our day. But this is unrealistic for most people living and working in the modern world and is likely to become even more unrealistic in the future.
We can, however, become more conscious of how machines and technology are robbing us of our movement and choose to build it back into our lives.
We can leave the car at home and walk or bike instead, we can choose to always take the stairs, we can move around and change our height and position regularly when working, we can take to climbing trees or swinging on bars in the park etc etc.
With a bit of drive and creativity, we can in this way build lives that are not predominately sedentary and give our bodies the chance to rediscover their natural, efficient ways of moving.
Posture in daily life
Any bad habits of standing, sitting and moving become written into our bodies and structured into misalignments that then are echoed in our energetic, emotional and spiritual selves.
So, be mindful of how you arrange yourself in your daily life.
Take care, for instance, of how you sit. Always settle your pelvis – the stabilising hub of your whole body – in a way that allows you to feel centred. Sit up on both your sit bones, with equal weight on each, so you can easily extend your spine. Place both feet evenly on the floor and check that your knees are hip-width and slightly lower than your hips as you sit. Beware of sofas and car seats, which offer great challenges to good posture. They could wreak havoc with your pelvic hub, creating imbalances that might be felt throughout the whole of your structure and being.
If you spend much of your day in front of a computer, be sure to set it up well. Have the screen is at eye height (else you will strain your neck and continually collapse your spine and misalign your pelvis as your body sinks to follow the line of your gaze). And position the keyboard at the height of your comfortably bent arms. If you use a lap-top to work on all day, get yourself a laptop stand and an external keyboard!
If you wish to positively influence your relationship with yourself and your body, self-reverent touch is – in my experience of working with myself and many other women – perhaps the most powerful healing tool of all.
I teach simple self-massage techniques, but you can just start by anointing yourself with oil (grape seed oil is a good choice) after your shower or bath. If you already put on moisturiser, just use that, but slow the process down.
Cover your whole body steadily with your oiled hands, with a sense of curious exploration and a readiness to be awed by the wonder of your human form. Do spend some time on your breasts. Not only is this a wonderful gesture of self-love, but it also has powerful benefits for your hormonal health and helps to keep your breast tissue healthy.
Be sure to go slowly and mindfully, being really present and aware of each part of you that you are touching. Even if you have to fake it to start with (especially when you come to parts of yourself with which you perhaps have a poor relationship), make sure your touch is as tender, loving and full of gratitude as possible.
If you make this an unmissable priority in your day, you’ll quickly find that your gratitude become very real and that your sense of your own goodness and self-worth soar. On days when you are tempted to skip you it to get on with ‘more important things’, just gently remind yourself that you are doing it because you are worthy of self-care. And on days when you really do not have time, do take a moment to let your body know that you have not forgotten it.
In the noise of our daily life and with the easy distraction afforded by our electronic age, it is quite possible to pass our days entirely ignoring our own internal world. These distractions help us to keep a lid on any pain or emptiness we fear we might find inside, but they also shut us off from the signals of our body and the voice of our truest, wisest self.
Turning our attention inward and learning to lightly tune into the actual sensations – subtle and not-so-subtle – of our body without any judgement or analysis is both safe and vital if we want to reconnect with ourselves.
Make it a habit in your day to occasionally scan your body, noticing your general energy and any pockets of particular ease and tightness. Become familiar with the patterns of where you tend to hold tension and let any superficial layers go.
I recommend too that you make regular time in your life for consciously moving into comfortable and well-aligned stillness. Here you can spend more time listening in, letting your relaxed mind and your soft breath sink into your body and travel slowly through it, lightly noticing your layers of internal tension and pausing on any places of particular interest.
This simple practice will help you to reconnect, to tune into the subtleties of your physical and energetic body and to release blockages.
Embrace your cyclical self
As natural beings, we humans are cyclical beings. If we wish to inhabit our bodies in an authentic and wholesome way, we need to shed our linear habits and honour our cyclical nature in the way we live our lives.
These simple tips will help you be more grounded and anchored in the goodness of your awesome human body.
Remember, this is your body – the one that you will inhabit your whole life and the one thing that is truly yours. So don’t neglect it. Embrace it, honour it and nurture it!
You would be most welcome to join me at:
A Yoga class, Qigong class or 1-2-1 session in Cambridge or a weekend retreat in Norfolk
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