The Tribulations of Embodiment; or Body Image in Yoga

This Mental Health Awareness Week is focused on Body Image and I have to admit I was going to ignore this theme and just focus on mental health in general. Unfortunately this is a problem that I struggle with a lot and some old toxic habits have reared their ugly head recently.. So it all just felt a bit raw and I was going to steer well clear of it.

But then suddenly yesterday I realised that instead of staying stuck in my own emotional quagmire, I could zoom out a little and look at the big picture, and examine it through the yogic lens. It would seem obvious that yoga and the body go hand in hand, and I’m sure there will be plenty of articles this week about the rise of instayogis and idealised imagery that we are supposed to live up to and expensive leggings we’re supposed to buy and how damaging that is to mental health…. That’s fine but I’m more interested in what yoga philosophy can tell us about the meaning of the body, what are the implications of being embodied and how the physical aspect is only one part of our experience.

Society’s love affair with the body

We are bombarded all the time with images of idealised, impossible to achieve (or maintain) physical standards, which, as visual creatures, we can’t help but fall in love with. Economically speaking, these are very useful – they drive the massive industries of fitness, beauty, fashion, even the food and drink industries. (charcoal smoothie, superfood salad, anyone?) It would be useful for us to remember that these have no bearing on reality and frankly should have nothing to do with our own self-esteem. Or you could call for more regulation of advertising and stuff.. But actually I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon simply because the way our society is driven by this carrot and stick game of chasing after perfection and buying stuff to make that happen.

Even more than that, we are hard-wired to glorify a physically attractive body. From a survival perspective, a healthy, strong, virile body is what will keep the human race alive. Clearly it was the more fanciable cavemen and women who propagated and here we are, our very survival instinct tells us to go after attractive specimens of humanity (and by return, to try and BE one of them so that we will survive).

Even though humanity is far from the danger of extinction, this impulse is deep inside and we can’t resist it. But now, the ideal of beauty changes depending on what’s going on in society – during times of plenty being skinny is the thing, during times of lack a lovely juicy big bottom is desirable.

Isn’t it interesting how our standards of beauty change all the time? It’s funny how we don’t notice how arbitrary it is.

Body Image and Self-Worth

Humans are social animals and subscribing to these random rules of beauty (big eyebrows this year, glossy lips last year) is one of the ways that we bond ourselves as a clan. When we try to live up to these standards we are really striving after a sense of belonging – of survival, of love. For that reason, ideals of physical beauty are always going to be a part of the human narrative and the way our society works. What makes this relevant to mental health awareness week and why the real problems begin is when the judgement of our physical bodies spills over onto the rest of ourselves. It becomes about more than shedding a couple of pounds, and more like – ‘because my body doesn’t look a certain way, I am a bad person’.

As we’ll see later (in the yoga part of this blog) – the body and mind are interwoven completely, one could say that they are expressions of each other.. And yet – based on everything we’ve just said, surely it seems crazy that we would judge our validity as a human being on something as arbitrary as a form of physical beauty?

Not only that, but it works in the opposite direction as well. When you are feeling bad about yourself emotionally and mentally, it can express itself through physical self-loathing. My own issues of body image and disordered eating flare up not when my body is not looking right (whatever that may mean) but rather when something else is going badly in my emotional life.

This is, I suppose, what body dysmorphia is all about. No wonder we look at our own bodies and see not just skin, muscle, blood, pulsating life – but a catalogue of places where we don’t measure up. Not only do we have unrealistic standards projected all around us that we can’t resist the urge to try and live up to, for evolutionary and instinctual reasons, but because of the complexity of our human emotions, our self-worth becomes entangled in this value system, and manipulating the way our body looks becomes a way of controlling the way we feel and how we cope with the world.

So, can yoga help with all of this??

The body-mind-spirit discipline of yoga is an excellent tool to tackle this massive problem. And indeed, a lot of the insight and self-awareness I have now has come to me through yoga practice and conversations we have in this world.
However, yogis are still people and we are still participating in modern society and unfortunately the yoga world is not immune to beauty standards and practices of judgement..

Unfortunately I’m sure many people come to the practice in order to change the way their bodies look  – and on a bad day I also do this. “Ohmygod I haven’t practised today but I ate that extra thing, how am I going to burn it off” (How awful that looks written down but unfortunately that sh&t is in my head).

Fortunately the yoga world is actually holding a fairly useful dialogue, inspired by ladies like Jessamyn Stanley, about the ridiculousness of the idealised yoga body which is invariably white, skinny, blonde and wrapped in overpriced leggings.

However in yoga there’s another danger – one of the ways the practice has helped me battle my own issues is that I started focusing on how fun it was that I could do the postures, rather than how my body looked. I realise more and more that this is another form of toxic judgement – we shouldn’t have to be able to touch our toes in order to be a valid person.

Again, people are talking about this more and more – but I think that in order to get to the heart of the problem we need to go deeper.

Yoga’s view of the Body

Historically, yogis saw the body as something abhorrent, an obstacle to the spiritual path. The Maitrayaniya Upanishad refers to the “ill-smelling, unsubstantial body which is nothing but a conglomerate of bone, skin, sinew, muscle, marrow, flesh, semen, blood, mucus, tears, rheum, feces, urine, wind, bile, and phlegm – what good is the enjoyment of desires?” and it wasn’t until Tantric times that the body was seen as a spiritual vehicle, and expression of the divine. By the time Hatha yoga was being practised, the body was seen as an instrument which could be fine-tuned in order to experience enlightenment as a full-body event.

This understanding was based on the view of the body laid out in the Upanishads of the self made up of five ’sheaths’  which constitute our body, mind, and soul:
Annamaya kosha – the physical body
Pranamaya kosha – the energetic body
Manomaya kosha – the mental/emotional body
Vijnyanamaya kosha – the intellectual body
Anandamaya kosha – the bliss body

Far from denying the importance of the body, this system explains how you can’t get anywhere without it – and how necessarily interrelated the levels of our being are. Then we are given a map to work gradually from the visible and tangible physical self towards the subtlest level of being, pure consciousness.

The tantras describe how the beginning of any action is the first impulse of will (iccha-shakti), which is wrapped around by knowledge, (jnana-shakti) and finally takes form as action (kriya-shakti). This process describes the divine acts of god and nature – but the same principle takes place in our own bodies. Any action that we take must necessarily begin with an impulse of will. First an idea or an external trigger causes ripples in our nervous system > we respond to this with emotion or sensation > a movement arises in response > the body creates tissues around the movement, so that our actions and habits are cemented by our fascia, muscle and bone.

In this way our bodies are literally an embodiment of our thoughts, practically speaking – concrete forms made of the way we live. Whether our actions are eating cookies so we lay down some extra adipose tissue, or practising yin yoga so our fascia is lengthened, or running marathons so our heart is strong, or carrying our bag on our left side so our shoulder is droopy, or working a stressful job so we have high cortisol levels, or texting a lot so our thumbs are very dextrous, everything we do makes us how we are. When my students bemoan tightnesses in their bodies I say – but these are just souvenirs from life. Your body is literally what you do and where you have been made tangible in the form of flesh.

For that reason, then, our bodies are mutable – if we can change the way we live, then we can change the way our bodies are – on an individual scale, and as a society. After all we saw above how the ideals of beauty change depending on the cultural and economic values of a society..

This constantly adaptable and responsive physical entity is what the Bhagavad Gita calls the Field of Action (kurukshetra). Our embodied self is where spirit takes form, and the way that consciousness (whether you think of it as a universal spirit, or the individual soul), experiences the world.
All of our senses, nervous system, the ability to move, speak, pick things up and put them down – all of these are our spiritual tools to explore the world and interact with the people and things within it.

“AS a man casts off his worn-out clothes
And takes on other new ones in their place
So does the embodied soul cast off his worn-out bodies
And enters others new.”
BG II.22

If our bodies form around the way we live, then it means they are exactly the way we need them to be for us to learn the lessons that life has to teach us. Things that present a challenge to me might be easy for you, simply because our experience and our knowledge are different because of where we’ve been. Similarly our bodies all respond to the yoga postures in different ways, depending on our genes, our lifestyles, all of our actions.

Through our bodies, then, we can open ourselves up, always learning, on own personalised route back to peace.

Despite what the early yogis might have said, we necessarily are existing in the world.  Donna Farhi says “Where else but the body can we experience consciousness? We have to go through the body, we cannot go around it”.

“The liberation that is attainable by the shedding of the body – is that liberation not worthless? Just as rock-salt is dissolved in water, so the Absolute (brahmatva) extends to the body of the enlightened yogin.” –
Yoga-Shikha-Upanishad

How to be embodied

Yoga is a practice of witnessing, so let’s witness.  To practice mindfulness is to see things as they are. And the closer we look at the body, maybe by studying anatomy, maybe by practising asana, maybe just by paying attention to the way our bodies are created by our living, the more we realise there is nothing to be upset about. As Michael Stone said, “You can know the body as a body – the more intimate you are with the breath the less personal it is.”

We are embodied –  and that’s great! But we need to zoom out a little and notice the big picture.  Body image is not going to be sorted by thinking positively, ‘I’m beautiful’ or ‘I’m ugly’ .
The more we pass judgement (negative OR positive) on our own and each other’s bodies, the more we get caught up in the game.
What happens to me is I get drawn into the body-fixing trap, eat less, overexercise – get into shape, and feel good. Oh, nice! I feel like everything is okay… until another bad day and suddenly my body image is all skewed again (because after all it doesn’t really depend on how you look) .

Buddha found when he practised asceticism that there was no limit to the attempt to purge ourselves physically.. This kind of war with our body will only end when we die.
Zen Mind, Beginners Mind – Shunryu Suzuki

What we really need to do is change our perspective on the whole thing – zoom out, and understand what the body really is – an expression of the ALIVENESS of nature.
If we can all realise that, just like the clouds or earth, like birdsong or the beating of the heart, our bodies are beautiful simply because they ARE.

Mental Health Awareness Month – how yoga can help; and when it can’t

The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US, and next week (13th-19th May) is the annual Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, as hosted by the Mental Health Foundation since 2001.

We all have Mental Health

The dialogue on Mental Health is growing in support and engagement all the time and thank goodness – not only is anxiety and depression a growing problem worldwide due to the ever more hectic pace of life and the pressure of comparison we all feel due to traditional and social media – never before have we had so many images of perfection around, never have we been just so well informed of the intimate details of what people we hardly know are up to (or rather, of each other’s highlight reels – cause who cares to hear about our bad days, detail of our struggles?)
Not only is the cacophony of notifications increasingly draining away our attention, but no one is immune to this.

To leave aside demonising social media for a moment – Mental Health is relevant to everyone, as more and more people are acknowledging. Yet there is still a stigma and shame overshadowing conversations about mental wellbeing – for some reason admitting you are struggling feels like admitting defeat. But, you would never feel guilty for going to the doctor with a broken leg..

This is how I like to talk about it – if you think about your physical health, we are all on a constantly fluctuating scale. One day your head hurts, another day you have an upset tummy, on the third day you cut your finger, one day you have to miss work because of a virus, and unfortunately the scale goes all the way to serious afflictions that can put your very life in danger.
The exact same is true of your mental state. On one day you feel invincible and joyful, on another you are a bit irritable and tasks are less appealing – on another day you can’t cope with the world at all.
Now this is not to say that we are all in the same boat – because we can’t compare a runny nose with cancer nor can we equate a bad mood with serious mental illness – but this is simply a reminder that we are all human, we are all susceptible to problems of mind or body, and should never be ashamed of admitting that something isn’t right.

Yoga can help

More and more, mental heath charities, support organisations and even the NHS are recommending yoga and other mindfulness practices to help relieve mental health issues. And this is awesome! So – like any good yoga and mental health article, this piece should list some of the benefits, hey – so here:

  • calming the nervous system – the mindful linking of breath, attention and movement encourages the parasympathetic nervous response of the autonomic nervous system, which means ‘rest-or-digest’ mode rather than ‘fight-or-flight’. Biologically speaking, then, we slow the heart rate, we reduce blood pressure and inflammation, improve the resilience of the nervous system and all of these allow for better functioning of the body in general, increasing a sense of wellbeing, lowering cortisol (stress hormone) levels, increasing serotonin, and gradually slowing the incessant stream of thoughts.
  • being in the moment – even the physical practice of asana is a mindfulness practice as we focus so closely on the breath, concentrate our attention onto the body and the often weird shapes we’re doing (try balancing on one leg and worrying about your to-do list at the same time. not gonna happen, my friend) . Anxiety and depression in particular are ‘big picture’ stress responses – when we focus on the here and now, we can hold our overarching problems a little at arm’s length, at least until we slow our breath down and our brain works a little better to sort things out.
  • working with the subtle body – yoga builds our awareness of our mind, our emotions, and our body, and also of how all of these things are connected. Notice when you are feeling joyful or dejected, you can feel it in your physical body, in a particular place and as a particular energetic force. Excitement often is a lift of bubbly light at the top of the chest, depression a sinking feeling in the belly or across the shoulders. Subtle anatomy explains these sensations by describing the various energetic seats in the body – it will be no surprise that the heart is the centre of compassion, the navel the source of confidence and will. But also, the base of the spine is our centre of groundedness and safety, the hips emotional storecupboards, the lungs the seat of grief, the heart the abode of joy. In yoga, we can use posture and breath to work with these centres, to release and activate our emotions and our powers and become more in tune with what we are going through.
  • body image – this particular point is the theme of the Mental Health Foundation’s initiative next week. 30% of people describe feeling overwhelmed by stress over body image, and no surprise. I already talked about the overabundance of artificially perfected imagery, add to that the massive food and drink industry and the fitness and wellbeing business always pushing this or that on us. There are more and more ways to feel Not Good Enough. Food and exercise have such a massive effect on the way we feel and live and they can unfortunately form part of a toxic toolkit of self-punishment, restriction, and grasping at control in a chaotic world. I have gone through this myself, and I’m sad to say that it’s a struggle that I haven’t completely overcome, but in this ongoing challenge, yoga is my ultimate touchstone. At first it was a way of refocusing my attention from how my body looks to what it can do, and how it can feel. Magic! And yes, I’ve got stronger, but more than that I feel how temporary the body is, and I’ve managed through Yoga to catch a glimpse of something deeper, radiant, and eternal.

Maybe Yoga Can’t help?

Having listed all the amazing benefits and sold you yoga to the max, I now have to get a little real.
I’m a fixer. Whenever anyone tells me about a problem, my brain immediately goes OK, Right! Let’s seee… whether it’s a yoga posture for improved digestion, pranayama for lowering blood pressure, or an ayurvedic root for grounding (let’s hear it for shatavari my friends, <3)
Obviously there are benefits to this – but in real life it can not always be a helpful response, in particular if the problem is something that is out of your hands, like illness or disbalance – and especially if the problem is one of a racing, anxious, and bullying mind.

Unfortunately this article (as I’m sure you’ve already realised) is coming from my own personal experience of mental and emotional struggle.
Now, the way it goes in my head is this: but you do yoga every day! asana, pranayama, study, meditation, journalling.. my vegan diet is ayurvedically balanced, almost completely local and organic, jeeez. Why, then, do I still feel bad?
That’s when I start to feel like even more of a failure.
(See how I said we shouldn’t judge people for suffering mental struggles? That’s easier to do with others than yourself…)

I start to think – how can it be, that my beloved yoga isn’t solving everything?
But then I realise that it’s not that yoga isn’t solving things – it’s the fact that I’m applying the same neurotic mindset to my yoga as I am everything else. The yoga technology, like anything else, is a tool – a container for our humanity, complete with the rollercoaster of all of our frailties.
Thankfully the system has made provision for this with arguably the most important practice (and one which I have clearly neglected) – vairagya – letting go.

OK Yoga does help actually

Vairagya – dispassion, is the practice of releasing your grip on the results of your practice, of stepping back, and instead of pushing and willing things to change, you just let it be. Let yourself be.

The times when my anxiety and fear have loosened on me and seemed to step back are exactly when I have stopped fighting them. When I realise that it’s OK to not feel OK, when I stop trying to find the answer, and instead rest in not knowing, then my heart starts to open.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but equally, you wouldn’t continue to work, to rush around, if you were sick with the flu – you have to give your body space to rest and recover.
Your mind needs the same – space, peace, ahimsa (compassion). The more you beat yourself up for feeling bad and not being strong enough, the less likely you are to feel resilient again.

So please, (and I’m mostly talking to myself here), give yourself a break. Practice ahimsa and vairagya and some self-love – feel your feelings and know that the people around you are just fighting the good fight just like you.

I WISH YOU ALL PEACE DURING THIS MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS MONTH

Yumi Sakugawa, There is No Right Way to Meditate

NEED HELP? just talk to someone, a friend, your GP, even your boss – I’m sure you will be surprised at how much understanding and compassion you will meet. Otherwise:
breathingspace.scot
www.wellbeing-glasgow.org.uk
www.mentalhealth.org.uk