Yoga in India: What your body is trying to tell you

Photo: Me with my friend Franck on Arambol Beach in Goa at the end of one of our self-led sunrise yoga sessions. One of the best ways to start the day.

Whenever I’m starting a new training course, which is frequent these days, I always feel a bit daunted. I’m given a stack of fresh new books wrapped in plastic, and as I crack their spines (love it!) and open them up I’m delighted and overwhelmed at the same time. I wonder, how the fuck is all this knowledge going to make its way into my brain, in a month?! How will I memorize all those funny sounding, foreign words that translate to how I bend my knees and where I place my hands?

Recently, I began on a month-long yoga teacher training course in Rishikesh, India–THE place to learn yoga. I will later give all the juicy details of this fabulous experience so far but for now I am just being introduced to this amazing metaphysical space that gives me the time, support and opportunity to know myself and my body better. It is so much more than learning how to do a perfect downward facing dog.

When I took my Thai massage course last year I ended up with about seven textbooks for a 10-week long course. I learned about anatomy, contraindications, the names of bones and muscles, where to place my hands, how to place my hands, why to place my hands, about the body’s energy pathways. But like everything, there was something that couldn’t be taught, something I couldn’t learn through rote methods, something not mentioned in any of the textbooks, something the teachers could speak about but something I could only learn by myself for having a passion for and true interest in what I was learning. Something learned through self-education, experience, patience, discipline and love. That was how to listen to the body. And I still don’t really know how to do this; I haven’t had enough practice yet.

Knowing how to listen to someone else’s body is difficult when I am only just learning to really listen to my own, after years of forcing my body to do things that didn’t come to it naturally, for the sake of physical fitness (read: a flat belly and an ass you could bounce a quarter off of–which never actually came to fruition anyways, but was always a goal!) I’d push and push and push myself with little regard for what my body actually needed in favour of what I wanted, what I thought was good for my body. Running, for example because I knew it was a good, fast, effective activity to get into and stay in good physical shape, even if it left me with stiff, achy joints, even though I knew it was one of the worst activities for someone with a bad hip. But oh the endorphin rush! It was like emptying an entire packet of M&Ms into my mouth all at once washed down with several shots of rich, dark espresso. And at the ends of each of those drug-like runs, I would promptly smoke a cigarette before my heart rate even returned to normal.

Now think of your body as a house. Not your house specifically but one that you borrow for a little while in order to experience some time alive on this planet. Like an Air BnB rental. Are you the kind of guest that leaves a big mess? That smokes inside and extinguishes her cigarette on the coffee table? Do you leave the drapes closed and dusty, a pile of dishes in the sink? A stiff pile of laundry sitting in the corner? Do you slide your dirty, used dishes under the sofa for someone else to clean up later and then check out, leaving the place a disaster? Or do you clean up after yourself, put out the trash, change the toilet paper roll, wipe the counters, collect the soiled linens and leave the place as you found it? Your body is no different when it comes to respecting and caring for the environment that you are in. For some people this comes very easily because they understand that the body is a synergistic temple of energy affected by what we feed it.

I was 28 at the height of my running addiction–because that’s what it was. All I heard in my body was, yippee–if I keep this up I’ll have that quarter-worthy ass in no time! My throbbing hip and starved muscles were relegated to the back corner of my mind, ignored and abandoned, like a pile of old, stiff laundry that only grows larger by the day. That was physical fitness for me in my “youth”: coffee shots and cigarettes and hard core runs whether my body desired it or not. A disrespect for my body born out of a superficial desire to have a nice-looking body. I was thirsty for a quick fix rather than patiently doing the work required to understand my body and give it what it needs. We all too often wait until it is too late to make changes and then wish we’d not been so careless.

I don’t know if it’s the body work training I’ve done, the fact that I’m getting older and thus my physical body having developed an ability to scream in my face when before it merely whispered from across the room, or something else, but I’ve started to appreciate and respect my body more than I ever have before. I’ve stopped fighting it to cooperate with my desires. Not because it is my ticket to a longer or shorter life–I’ll go when I go–but because what it tells me about what’s happening inside me is so interesting. I’m finally starting to slow down and connect the dots and see all that is bubbling under the surface, and whether I have killer abs or buns of steel makes no difference if my spirit is in trouble.

This yoga training is not just about my physical body and making it more bendy or about finally learning how to stand on my head or open my hips. This course is about learning to listen to my body so that I can better understand how it functions, why it functions the way it does, what affects it’s ability to function well. How it responds to everything in my immediate environment, the greater environment, the cosmic world, and most importantly, the thoughts that I feed–or don’t feed–it all day long. It tells me when my heart is broken before I even know with an visceral emptiness that craves cigarettes and alcohol. It tells me when I’m insecure about the next transition in my life with a fever and a penchant to overeat. It tells me when I’m grieving with a nagging ache in my hip. And it can be inverted too, work from the outside in. The ache in my hip may dig up old griefs. Too much alcohol and tobacco will exacerbate my broken heart. Overeating may very well cause me to feel insecure about my seeming lack of control over my life and what is happening next. The body becomes what we feed it and responds in kind.

One of the most important but oh so simple things I’ve learned in the first two days of this course is how to stand with my feet firmly connected to the ground. Try it. Stand with the mounds of your big and small toes and the heels of your feet on the ground and connect. Power, right? I’m pretty sure this is where the term “grounding” comes from. If I can stand with my feet firmly planted on the ground then I will surely make it in this course, this body, and this life just fine.

 

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