“I don’t understand why I’m so bad at this,” my client said. “Why can’t I do it?”
“Have you ever done this before?” I asked her. “Why do you think you would be an expert at something you’ve never done before?”
Perfectionism shows up in our movement practice much as it does in the rest of our life. Many of us have incredibly high expectations of ourselves: not only should we be able to do this thing, but we should be the best we can possibly be. Anything less than 100% success is an utter failure– and failure is not an option.
Yet it’s this perfectionism– this need to be the very best– that prevents us from learning, keeps us from enjoying new activities, demands that we only do things at which we already excel. We lack tolerance for the frustration that accompanies learning, and will often quit (or refuse to participate) before we can fail.
Perfectionism can be experienced as ‘the inner critic,’ who sees all that we do, judges us harshly and frequently finds us wanting. Sometimes that critic speaks with the voice of someone we know, or maybe it feels like your inner mean girl who won’t let you ever just live your damn life. Your inner critic can seem like your biggest enemy.
Yet perfectionism can be a protective adaptation. In always being “the best,” we ensured that we were admired, accepted, or even loved. This might have been something that was necessary for parental approval or peer acceptance. In this way, our perfectionism kept us safe. The idea of not being perfect– of failing– is synonymous with rejection. This can be incredibly painful.
When we see perfectionism in this light, as a habit, or a persona that has protected us from harm throughout our lives, our relationship with it may begin to shift. How wonderful that we have this part of us that has wanted to keep us safe! Instead of being angry at our inner critic, we can say, ‘Thank you for caring about me.’ And then perhaps we can begin to choose another way of working with ourselves, knowing that failure does not mean that we are unloved or unworthy.
Learning to fail is a healthy and normal part of the human experience. If we never had the opportunity to learn and grow in this way, then our movement practice is the perfect place to explore how failure is not final, nor is it fatal. Not being “the best” doesn’t have to mean that we’re rejected or uncared-for. Our perfectionism, once our best protector, can step to the side and make room for a more creative and curious way of being in the world.
Have you been told that there is a right way and a wrong way to do a pose? Maybe you were taught one “proper alignment” or principles that should apply to all bodies. Like so many yoga folks, I used to think that there were rules about how yoga should look– but I couldn’t make my body conform to them. Learning to let go of yoga alignment rules set me free to really enjoy my yoga practice, and to help others to do the same.
Okay, journey back with me in time, many years, to an advanced yoga teacher training program* with an experienced instructor. We were breaking down each asana (pose) to learn the proper alignment for each.
When we came to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Upward-facing Dog, I hit a moment of truth. The proportions of my body (more on this in a minute) mean that I cannot experience this shape in the same way that someone with longer arms can. With my arms straight, my hips rest on the floor, and I don’t get a chance to fully extend my spine into a backbend. Because I had been told that in Upward-Facing Dog my hips needed to be off the floor, I was not “doing the pose right.”
There I was, attempting to make my Up Dog look like someone else’s, and failing, naturally, because my body can only do what my body can do. One of my fellow teachers turned to me and said, “Can’t you just lift your hips?”
As a matter of fact, I could not “just lift my hips.” If I did, the pose became more like a push-up; my spine was no longer doing a backbend.* She and the others stood there, stymied, at a loss to understand how my body could not do the proper alignment for this pose.
If we take a look at the two people in the picture above, we can see that the person on the top left has her arms straight in her Up Dog; her hips are several inches above the floor. Now, if she were to change her shoulder position a bit by shrugging her shoulders down and back, her hips would come a little closer to the floor, but we can be reasonably sure they wouldn’t touch.
The person on the bottom right also has straight arms, but her hips are clearly on the floor. If she were to push her hands into the floor, she might be able to lift her hips, but I can tell you from experience that’s a pretty awkward thing to do, and you lose the element of the backbend (spinal extension) in the pose.
If both of these people were to sit side by side in Dandasana (seated staff pose), and place their palms on the floor, we’d have a better look at their arm to torso position. You can see an example in the pictures below.
This is just one of the many ways in which our bodies can differ– and one of the many reasons why our yoga poses can look different, while still being “correct.” Can you see how it might not even be possible for these people to do this pose in the same way? And, looking at the proportion, can you imagine how it might feel different in their spine when they do the pose? Now, imagine these folks were to wrap their arms around themselves for a bind. How might their arm length affect their ability to grab their own hand? What if their torso is wider? Are they doomed to a lower state of enlightenment?
Below, you can see a picture of my own expression of Upward-Facing Dog. I’ve added a block under each hand to artificially lengthen my arms. Because I’m able to lift my torso higher in this way, my spine can extend (backbend) more– and it feels really, really good. I’ve also got my toes tucked under, because I came forward into the pose from Down Dog– but the extra height and stretch under my feet feels nice, too. Why not?
When we let go of our ideas about how a yoga practice should look, we make space for a greater range of experience. We normalize body variation (because despite what we see online and in clip art, yoga is not just for thin white women). We give greater agency to each student to choose the variation that makes sense for them– and we start by not calling them “modifications,” since there’s no right way to “modify” in the first place.
*I don’t know where all of those teachers are now, but I hope they (like me) went on to learn more about anatomy, body proportions, human variations, and how to see the various parts of a pose!
**Also, any time someone says, “can’t you just…” that’s a big old red flag to me that this person is looking for a simple answer to a complex situation.
One of the things that I hear from folks quite often is that they find it hard to get motivated to exercise. “I know I should, but it’s just so hard,” they say– often in an embarrassed tone.”
It’s important to understand that our species did not evolve by “exercising.” While we often think of exercise as something that must be done in order to achieve health, happiness and social standing, the truth is that our ancestors didn’t exercise at all.
Sure, our hunt-and-gather forebears had to forage to find their food, but how intense was this movement? Based on anthropological studies of (the few remaining) indigenous groups that live a hunt-and-gather way of life show, hunting-and-gathering actually only takes a few hours a day. It’s done at a reasonably slow pace and may even include seated time (digging up tubers in a casual way, for example). Once the food is gathered, these folks enjoy time sitting and resting.
“Despite stereotypes of non-exercisers as lazy couch potatoes, it is deeply and profoundly normal to avoid unnecessarily wasting energy. Rather than blame and shame each other for taking the escalator, we’d do better to recognize that our tendencies to avoid exertion are ancient instincts that make total sense from an evolutionary perspective.”
The truth is that humans evolved by being very, very efficient with their energy. Consider for a moment that calories for our ancestors were a more precious commodity. When we weren’t using energy to perform necessary tasks (food, shelter, socialization, sex), it makes sense that they would do as little as possible. So, rest easy– literally. It’s really normal that you don’t want to exert unnecessary energy. That drive you feel to sit on the couch and do nothing is a very deep instinct. You’re not lazy, you’re just human!
The concept of exercise is a modern answer to our modern problem of not moving functionally as much as our bodies used to do.For many of us, calories are easy to come by. Contemporary hunting-and-gathering involves a car trip to a grocery store, where we park as close to the entrance as we can. However, our bodies are designed to function more optimally when we’re getting a certain amount of movement; all of the systems of our body rely on movement in order to stay healthy.
The concept of exercise is a modern answer to this modern problem. We go to the gym, get on our treadmill, or roll out a mat, and spend an hour sweating in ways that our ancestors couldn’t possibly have imagined.
That’s great if you’re the kind of person that really enjoys those things– maybe you like the endorphins, or the socialization aspect, or you’ve found a routine that just really works for you.
But what about the rest of us– those whose natural desire to avoid unnecessary energy expenditure would keep us on the couch? How do we get motivated to do this thing that would make us feel better? Here are a few quick ideas to get you thinking.
First, drop the shame and the blame, remembering that humans are innately “lazy.”
If you don’t like the idea of exercise, stop calling it exercise and start getting more movement in throughout the day. Studies show that in some ways, moving throughout the day is more beneficial than sitting all day and then getting up for an hour of intense exercise. Schedule a twice-daily walk around the garden, your block, or your office. Park a little further away from your destination. Schedule interruptions into your daily schedule for household tasks (water your plants, make the bed, wash the dishes) or to refill your water bottle, stretch your back, visit a co-worker. It all adds up.
Movement can be play, or a game, or just plain fun. Frisbee or ball with the kids, the dog, or the neighbor. Dancing. Jumping rope. Find some great music, a podcast or an audiobook and head out for a walk.
Let go of “all or nothing” thinking. This is the biggest problem I see in some folks– they think if they’re “exercising,” they need to be doing the most, best, training-for-a-triathalon-type-of-training possible. When that fails (often due to injury or burnout), they are back to doing nothing. What can you do today that moves your body, feels good, and will leave you wanting to do more again tomorrow? That’s the thing to do.
Rather than exercising to change your body (i.e., weight loss), try movement that feels good right now. This is so important. When we’re working toward a goal that involves some future version of ourselves, we’re deferring our pleasure in the moment, and reinforcing the idea that your body right now is less worthy of pleasure and appreciation.
Consider a coach. I have learned (the hard way) to hire experts to help me. From taxes to legal to plumbing to how to lift a kettlebell, I have found that just googling it or thinking I can figure things out myself will often end badly. One-on-one support through private sessions is a really wonderful resource to address individual concerns that can’t be met in a group or online setting. In my own practice with clients, I use strength, yoga, and creative movement to help support nervous system health (i.e., stress and anxiety) and to create a greater sense of capacity to handle challenges.
What do you think– does this resonate? Drop your thoughts in the comments below and let me know how you work with your own human “energy conservation” tendencies!
This post was originally part of a newsletter that went out to my folks (if you’d like to get on that list, click here)!
What do you feel when you read the word “tension?”
When we speak or hear about tension in the context of a yoga class or a massage treatment, we might think of tension as something to be eradicated, soothed away, released, dissolved. We’re encouraged to smooth our forehead, relax our jaw, soften our shoulders. The unspoken understanding is that tension is a problem.
The truth is much more complicated. Not only do we tense (engage) our muscles in dynamic patterns to move our body into different positions and to travel through the world, each of us is literally held together by tension. Our myofascial system is suspended around our bones through what is termed tensegrity. Without the tension of the soft tissues of our body, our skeleton would collapse in a heap on the floor.
Okay, you might be thinking, but that’s not what we’re talking about. The BAD kind of tension is what gives us headaches and makes my shoulders and back tight. It’s the furrow of the brow and the wrinkle in my forehead and the way I clench my jaw. I need to get rid of that kind of tension, don’t I?
It’s really natural to feel that this tension is bad. It doesn’t feel good and yes, it often does have negative effects. I can attest that jaw-clenching, tooth-grinding, shoulder gripping, and tension headaches are all really unpleasant.
Let’s zoom out for a moment and take a look at why this tension is present. Much of what we think of as negative tension is the result of an ongoing or habitually unresolved stress cycle in the body. When our bodies are under threat, our nervous system reacts by creating muscular tension (to run from danger or to defend ourselves). We armor ourselves in a protective way: tailbone tucking, abdominal muscles and pelvic floor gripped. As a result, breath becomes shallow and we breathe with our accessory breathing muscles (neck and shoulders). It’s an incredible physiological process designed to keep us safe. You can read more about why your stress response is your superpower here.
When defense systems become overwhelmed or we are unable to complete the stress cycle, we can get “stuck” in these patterns of tension. However, attempting to soothe away the tension will only have limited results. Your nervous system is often holding that tension there because it is trying to keep you safe.
If you’ve ever had the experience of enjoying a really relaxing massage or a relaxing restorative yoga session, only to be swept up in a rebound of anxiety, stress, or panic afterward, then you’ll understand what’s meant by “relaxation-induced anxiety.” This can happen when we artificially relax ourselves to override the stress response– our natural survival resource in the body. Attempts to soothe away tension with deep breathing, touch or other stimulation to the vagus nerve can trigger relaxation that temporarily interrupts the stress response. When the body recognizes that we are still “in danger”– that is, the stress has still not been resolved– it tightens us right back up to deal with the perceived threat.
Rather than treating our tension as some sort of wrinkle to be ironed out, we can recognize it as a useful and protective adaptation, and find ways to discharge the stress energy (through movement, for example) so that our nervous system feels safer. At the same time, we might work on ways to create more of a sense of felt safety in our own body by integrating mindful strength work. Core strength, posterior chain engagement and hand/grip strength are just a few of the ways that we can increase our sense of internal capacity. When the body feels more capable of dealing with threat, the nervous system has less of a need to armor against it. We can use our internal systems of tension to support us.
So, you’ve decided you want to make a change. Maybe you’re working on recognizing and changing a bias you carry. Or you’re trying to use learn a new skills, like Indian clubs (see video below). Or you want to start using your non-dominant hand for more activities. How long does it take before you feel frustrated? What happens then– do you give up?
As we learned in our last blog, changing patterns takes time. Every time you’ve previously chosen to do something your “habitual way,” you’ve reinforced the likelihood that you’ll do it again the same way next time. Overall, this is a good thing. These shortcuts in our brain (central pattern generators) minimize the effort we expend so that we can easily (and mindlessly) do things the way we always do. Imagine that every time you had to accelerate or slow down your car, you had to stop and think about how you did it, just like when you were a new driver. That would be terrible, right? It’s good that our brain has these reflexive shortcuts.
But sometimes we’ve decided that we need to do things differently; we want to learn a new pattern. If you can recall the last time you tried to learn something new, this can be incredibly difficult and frustrating, especially if you’re really, really used to doing something a certain way. Here’s the fantastic news (and the point of this blog): that frustration is a good thing.
When we decide that we need to change our behavior, our brain has to engage in top-down processing. This means that our big, smart human forebrain (see more about the brain here) is suppressing the automatic response from the limbic system. When this happens, norepinephrine (adrenaline) is released in the brain. This functions to make us more alert– it’s a way that our body gets us to pay attention to what’s going on. However, we tend to experience this as agitation and stress.
At the same time, our brain is also being flooded with another chemical, acetylcholine. This has the effect of increasing our focus so that we can pay closer attention to whatever is happening and make corrections as needed.
So, let’s say you’ve decided you want to vacuum your house with your non-dominant hand, and you quickly discover that you don’t have the same amount of dexterity or strength that you typically do. That feeling of irritation or stress that comes over you– that’s just these neuromodulators (chemicals) doing their job to say, “Hey! Pay attention! We’re trying to do a new thing.”
At this point, you might make a second decision, which is that you don’t care about being able to vacuum with your non-dominant hand, and you move back to the other. But maybe you don’t have a choice– perhaps your dominant hand is injured and it is imperative that the house be vacuumed (sometimes these examples get dumb, don’t they? Just go with it). So, you continue to vacuum in your clumsy way.
But then, something interesting happens. As you persist with the task, you begin to improve. Here’s where it gets super cool. When your brain recognizes that you’re starting to be able to do the task better, you get an infusion of a third chemical– dopamine. That’s right! Now you get a shot of feel-good. You start to think, “Hey, maybe I’m pretty good at this after all.” That dopamine is your reward for sticking with it, and it keeps you on target to continue the effort.
But– and this is key– the frustration was the gateway to getting there in the first place. We need to experience that stress or agitation of being really awful at something before we get the bliss of a dopamine hit.
If we walk away when we become frustrated, we’re re-wiring our brains to both continue our habitual/reflexive habits, and to give up the next time we become frustrated.
Stress isn’t always a bad thing, especially if we want to continue to learn and grow. If we can familiarize ourselves with this stress as the precursor to change, we can even come to welcome and appreciate it. It’s a little bit like the way some folks can associate the discomfort of an intense massage or foam rolling with pleasure (I don’t think we’re born believing that a deep jab in a tight muscle feels great), so that they even enjoy the discomfort. This may be one of the secrets to a growth mindset— recognizing and even appreciating learning discomfort as a necessary part of the process.
If I asked you to balance on one foot right now (and that is something your body is able to accommodate)– which foot would you pick up?
When you reach up to open a cabinet, which arm do you use?
Do your shoes wear more on the inside, or the outside of the soles?
These aren’t likely things that you have to think about, but patterns that are long-established in your body. For example, my brain feels more confident stepping with my right leg and reaching right arm– they’re stronger and more dextrous. It also knows that my balance is stronger on my left foot– since breaking my right big toe 25 years ago, my right foot doesn’t have the same strength or mobility.
These engrained patterns of movement occur through simple pathways in the brain stem called central pattern generators. Their job is to generate reflexive movement– that is, movement you don’t need to think about. You might think of these as neurological or physiological shortcuts– the easiest way for our body to get from A to B with the minimal amount of physical and mental energy expended.
In repeating the same patterns, I’m reinforcing those deep neural pathways, making it more likely I will continue to use them in the same way. I’m also denying myself the experience of other patterns. In my body, this means that my left leg is likely to continue to be weaker than my right; my left arm less dextrous than my right (and my left latissimus dorsi does not stretch as comfortably or easily as my right!); and my left foot will always be my go-to for demonstrating a balancing pose.
Our familiar patterns aren’t necessarily bad, but we there’s a consequence to limiting or movements. Over time, sticking to our familiar patterns can mean that our body starts to shut down access to other patterns. This can be neurological or physiological– neuronal pathways close down, or the tissue itself changes so that we’re not able to move in as many ways. This often happens so gradually that we don’t notice we’ve “lost” a movement until we attempt it. “I used to be able to do that,” we think, or, “man, it sucks getting older.”
Changing these reflexive patterns takes time and a certain amount of diligence. Sometimes it’s a case of having to remind ourselves to do something differently– for example, I have to make an active effort to open a cupboard with my left hand. If we’re dealing with physiological changes, we might have to engage in more physical effort to create tissue change as we “rewire” the brain. There are many ways to approach this (with my clients, I use the Functional Range Conditioning System/Kinstretch to teach the body and brain how to work together to create the desired movement).
In our next blog, we’ll take a look at the frustration that comes from trying to change patterns, and how we can leverage that to our own advantage. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Can you think of an engrained pattern in your body– perhaps it’s something that’s just a habit, or the result of a long-ago injury? Have you tried to change it? What was that experience like?
I’m really excited to give this recipe a page of its very own! This is my absolute favorite, best-ever, chocolate chip cookie recipe. I adapted this from a Food 52 recipe and my friends and family rave about it. There are two “secrets” to making these excellent: First, you must let the dough rest overnight in the fridge. Really. This gives the batter time to mellow and age in a way that creates an incredibly complex, almost caramel note. Second, use the best chocolate you can find. I like to chop up a good chocolate bar for some fun chunks, but chips are also great.
2 cups flour (I have never made these GF, but let me know if you do!)
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups dark chocolate chips
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon canola, grapeseed, or any other neutral oil
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
a splash of vanilla extract (1 teaspoon would probably be about right)
In a large bowl, combine first four ingredients– whisk thoroughly. In a separate bowl or large measuring flask, combine sugars, oil, water and vanilla. Blend well, and then add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined and no flour lumps remain. Add in the chocolate, and don’t worry if it doesn’t seem to be integrating well– it’ll be fine. Cover tightly and place in the fridge for at least 8 hours and for up to two days. You can also freeze at this point for a month or three.
When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350. While it’s heating, scoop out balls of the dough onto your cookie sheet (if you have parchment paper, use it). Don’t panic if the dough is crumbly or it feels like it’s not sticking together– just mush it into a ball and set it on the sheet. It’ll be fine.
In my house, the guys love them a little underbaked, but I’ll let you determine how far you want to go with it. 10 minutes is about right for these, depending on the size you choose.
Let them cool on the tray for a minute, then transfer onto a cooling rack until ready to store or eat.
You may not have heard the term, but you are already an expert in healthism. As invisible and pervasive as the air we breathe, healthism underlies and intersects with all other aspects of our culture. For many of us, some aspects of healthism will feel like absolute truths, while we may be unsure about others.
Healthism says, “Your health is in your hands!”
A core belief of healthism is that each of us is responsible for our own health, and that health is within our grasp if only we do the right things. It says that each of us simply needs to care for ourselves with the magic combination of foods, supplements, diet and exercise, and that if we are failing to be healthy, it is our fault. This type of thinking is prevalent in many fitness and health communities, and is (unsurprisingly) espoused by the purveyors of fitness and health products such as yoga studios, supplement manufacturers, and “detox” programs.
But is this really true? Can each of us actually manage our own health through behavioral changes? Let’s assume that it is possible to manage one’s health perfectly through diet and exercise alone (I don’t believe this, but for the sake of argument, we’ll move forward). Even in wealthy countries, many people do not have the means or access to “healthy” food, physical/mental health care, or gyms. Assuming they could overcome these barriers (“It’s easy to eat well on a budget!,” or “You can always work out at home!” the voices of healthism cry), there are often cultural, physical, educational or time constraints.
Healthism is the voice that says, “No excuses!” while ignoring the role of oppression, poverty, racism, sexism, trauma, violence, environmental factors, and naturally occurring disease or variations in the human genome.
Healthism also assumes that mental health is within our control, perhaps with the right combination of diet and exercise, or a daily pill to manage any troublesome symptoms. In this way, it reinforces stigma and silence around mental illness and prevents us from seeing it as a normal part of the human experience.
Healthism says, “Healthy people are the best people.”
Because it places such a high value on health, healthism says that healthy individuals are morally superior to unhealthy individuals. After all, they’re the ones who have managed to take their health into their own hands, showing us all that it’s possible! This is what we’re all striving for, right?
This is the principle that allows insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. It says they are not healthy enough to deserve healthcare.
This is why we consider thin, “fit,” able-bodied people to be the “norm,” and others to be deviations. A quick look across the tabloids or a flip through social media will tell you which bodies are most valued in our culture. Celebrities are shamed for “letting themselves go.” People using mobility aids are missing or invisible. It’s no coincidence that the featured bodies are the ones that hold privilege.
Because if you recall, in reality, health is not something that everyone has equal access to. This means that privilege determines who is healthy, and who is considered morally superior. Those with financial privilege, educational privilege, white privilege, thin privilege, cisgender privilege, able-bodied privilege are at the top of the pyramid.
When we buy into healthism, we reinforce the structures of racism, ableism, sexism, and white supremacy (among others).
How does healthism show up in your life?
Healthism makes us feel guilty when we are sick, as though we’ve done something wrong.
Healthism is at play when we hear things like, “Covid-19 is only dangerous for the elderly or people with underlying conditions.” Healthism has created the implicit understanding that their lives are less worthy because they are not healthy (and therefore inferior).
Healthism says, “I don’t want my hard-earned money to pay for someone else’s health-care,” or, “Why should I pay for people who don’t take care of themselves?”
Healthism doesn’t take into consideration the amount of work that each of us may have to do. It positions self-care as mandatory and shames us for not “finding the time.”
Healthism judges others, saying “She just hasn’t been taking care of herself.”
Healthism ignores those that are missing from our wellness spaces (brown bodies, black bodies, disabled bodies, fat bodies, trans bodies). Rather than asking why these spaces are so white, it says, “Yoga is for everyone!” and, “If everyone would meditate daily, they’d be healthier.”
Healthism assumes that the fat person at the gym is there to lose weight.
Healthism shames us when we are tired, under-resourced, or unmotivated to exercise.
Healthism is selling you:
Products to control your weight
Products to manage your time
The idea that you would be better if only you could control your health.
Most of us have been so indoctrinated in the church of healthism that we may not even recognize it. Do you believe that health is the most important thing? Do you believe that each of us has to take responsibility for our own health, and that some of us deserve better care? What would it be like to imagine a different type of of community wellness?
As I’m writing this, my dogs are barking fiercely: the lawn maintenance company is trimming some hedges around the house, and as the workers move past each window, it is FULL RED ALERT CRISIS TIME. You couldn’t have a conversation in here if you tried.
This ability to perceive danger or threat is called neuroception. When something feels dangerous or wrong, my dogs react. Their senses heighten, their posture stiffens, and they’re ready for fight or flight. The hair on their back stands up, and their tails are alert. They vocalize their reaction (loudly) with barking, to scare off the predator and alert the rest of the household.
Our Bodies Are Always Watching
Just like dogs, humans use neuroception to scan for threat. Our bodies are constantly monitoring the environment and each other. When we perceive a threat, we react.
You might have experienced this if you’ve ever encountered a dangerous animal– a rattlesnake, a bear, a frightening dog. But our neuroception works with other humans, too. Encountering a stranger who feels scary, your body reacts: perhaps you confront them, or move away, or reach for the safety of a crowd or a phone call for help.
Neuroception is always happening, even in casual conversations. When we are with our doctor, or a friend, or in a learning environment, we’re scanning to see if we feel safe, or comfortable. We’re looking for signs that this is a person we can trust. We’re subconsciously monitoring their body language, word choices, and other cues, and reacting to them.
Meditation vs Embodied Awareness
Meditation is one way in which we can learn to become more familiar with the ways in which we habitually react to others. Over time, the practice of sitting quietly creates a sense of spaciousness around our reactions and patterns. Our brains are able to create new responses. This means that, although we’ve responded 1000 times before in the same way, it is possible that on the 1001st time, we can make a different choice.
Meditation has been crucial in helping me to recognize my own patterns when they occur, and in helping me to change them. But it is often taught from such a top-down approach (in which the brain is “in charge”), that it doesn’t take into consideration the almost subliminal ways that our bodies are responding, moment by moment, to the world around us.
A somatic, or embodied approach to meditation invites a greater awareness and understanding of the ways in which we are working with neuroception and our attempts at human connection, below the surface, at all times. Rather than simply noticing our thoughts and patterns, we can learn to be aware of how our bodies are responding to each other. Think for a moment about the last time you spoke to someone and disagreed with them. Or, imagine someone you don’t like is speaking on social media or TV. Can you notice heat in your body? Tightness or tension? A subtle (or not-so-subtle) desire to move away? Are you making a face? What are your hands doing? Do you feel the urge to speak rising up in your throat?
Holding Space for Ourselves First
Being aware of these natural embodied reactions, combined with our mental awareness of patterned behaviors, gives us a greater understanding of how we might learn to be with others in a nonreactive way. If we are not aware or mindful of our bodies’ physiological response to others, then we may act on it. This might mean that we use body language that pushes them away, or respond in a way we may regret later.
This technique of dual awareness– being aware of and caring for what our bodies are experiencing inside, even as we are present with the situation outside– is the key to holding space for others.
If you are someone who is a caregiver, a teacher, a healer or works with other human bodies, it is essential to practice being with others in a nonreactive way. As Lama Rod Owens says below, “not reacting to the material in my experience means that I have the space to focus on other things as well.” Our ability to truly be present with and care for others is contingent on our ability to notice and care for our own experience first.
Holding Space for Political Disagreement
This is vital for communicating with others who may hold opposing viewpoints– something that is so important as we move forward in this country in the post-tr*mp era. We hold space first for ourselves to be sure that we are cared for, and then we are able to engage with the other.
This doesn’t mean that we have to approve of or like them or their behavior– it means that we can acknowledge the situation as it is and choose an appropriate response. Ruth King offers the following mantra for equanimity in her book Mindful of Race: “This moment is like this, and it doesn’t have to be different right now. I can allow what is here, and offer what is needed.” This may mean we need to leave the situation or confront the individual, but that we remain within our window of capacity as we do it.
I frequently have conversations with others who disagree with my political views, and they have often gotten heated. Being aware of my embodied response allows me to see whether I am able to engage with them, or if it’s best to step away.
Love & Trust In Our Bodies
What I find most fascinating about neuroception is that it’s always happening, whether or not I pay attention to it. I am a highly sensitive, empathic human, which means that I am always very attuned to what other bodies are doing and saying. I used to wonder why I was so tired after being with other people, or why certain folks would leave me feeling so unhappy. When I learned to pay attention to my body’s vigilance, the answers became quite clear: I had been responding to others in ways that I wasn’t aware of, which can be incredibly exhausting. There will always be people that are more challenging to be around– our bodies perceive them as more dangerous or difficult, and even though we are not reacting outwardly, the effort takes a toll.
When we are able to spend time with someone who is themselves present in their own experience and able to be with us in a nonreactive way, there is less material for us to react to, and we can feel more comfortable to be authentically ourselves. We feel a sense of settling in our bodies, at home with ourselves and this other. Then, the potential for connection and collaboration is so much greater. As Resmaa Menakem says, this is visceral, not cognitive. Meditation is helpful, but embodiment is crucial.
One last (really important) note: learning to be present with our own embodied experience is not always simple or easy, especially for trauma survivors, or those living with the effects of traumatic stress or systemic oppression. Meditation can also be challenging. It is important to go slowly and seek out support (a mental health care provider who takes an embodied approach, or a trauma-informed movement/meditation coach, for example) if you find yourself becoming overwhelmed.
One of my earliest yoga experiences was with a local man, who we’ll call Ed (why not) . Ed taught a Saturday morning donation (pay-what-you-can) class outside by the community pool at his condo. I’ve written before about how magical yoga felt to me in those early days– like falling in love, or coming home, or having a curtain pulled back and suddenly seeing the world in such a clear and lovely way.
As far as I was concerned, Ed was the Real Deal. He burned incense, he anointed our wrists with essential oils, he read from Meditations From the Mat, and, on special days, he even played guitar during Savasana. I mean. What more could you ask? (As you can probably tell, I fell a little bit in love with Ed, too, during that first yoga honeymoon phase).
I came to each class feeling a little bit brave (my social anxiety made any outing feel a little brave), but also a little bit like I was Doing Something Really Special. If you have ever been in love with yoga, then you know that feeling. I looked forward to it all week. I didn’t always understand the postures, or the yogic spiritual teachings that Ed thoughtfully shared, but I had a sense that something special was unfolding and I wanted more of it.
The easiest way into yoga for many of us is through the physical postures– the asana. I brought all of my best work ethic to my mat. I pushed through the pain in Pigeon (oops), I held my leg up in front of me until it burned, I fell out of Crow pose over and over and over. It was the only way I knew to feel as though I could progress, or steep myself more in this practice that was transforming me and my life experience.
One day, Ed didn’t show up for class– instead, he sent a substitute teacher. Let’s call her Cassie. Cassie was tall and thin, with flowing hair and a breezy yoga outfit that looked as though she’d stepped off the cover of Yoga Journal magazine (which, let us not forget, largely features thin white women, so that’s not super surprising).
Cassie was also INCREDIBLY mobile. Her poses were effortless, with a range of motion that could easily have qualified her for Cirque du Soleil. She could do things that my body couldn’t, and for the first time I thought I saw where I wanted this yoga practice to take me.
After class, I approached her and asked, “How long will I have to do yoga before my body can do things like yours?”
Cassie looked at me, and laughed self-deprecatingly, even waving her hand a little bit in front of her as if to brush away the idea. “Oh, I was just born this way.”
I felt a little bit as though I had been running full-speed and encountered a clothesline– that was the force of my reaction to her response. I didn’t know what to say. Did this mean that I wouldn’t be able to do the things she could do? Would I never put my leg behind my head? Was I simply lacking the gift of mobility? Was my yoga practice all for nothing?
It would take me another decade to recognize that Cassie’s response was actually full of wisdom. During those ten years, I continued to work hard, undeterred. I knew that the physical practices of yoga were changing my body. I became stronger in many ways, and more mobile in others. I did indeed find a way to get not one, but both legs behind my head. I worked so well that I inevitably injured myself, and found that my practice wasn’t really as balanced or healthy as I’d thought it was– but that’s another story.
The truth is, though Cassie dropped it like an offhand remark, that there are some things that our bodies are just born with, and that we will not be able to change. There are poses that I struggle with and always will. I can’t change the shape or the length of my bones.
I didn’t yet recognize that the yoga postures were the least important thing about the practice. What changed my life wasn’t improved external hip rotation or the perfect arm balance, but the quality of awareness, vitality and presence that followed me from the mat into the rest of my life.
Cassie was born her way, and I was born mine. We’re all born this way– whatever “this way” means in your body/heart/mind. The practices of yoga (beyond the postures) allow us to witness the truth of our circumstances and to work skillfully with them.
Occasionally I get a question like the one I asked Cassie so many years ago. I understand the excitement and attraction of wanting to change our bodies, to make them do challenging things or to get out of pain, and I never want to take away from that experience– it’s how I got to be where I am, after all. So I tell them their bodies will probably change and be able to do different things, and they might feel better, but along the way each of us will have our own challenges and limitations. And– if they’re able to hear me– I tell them that they may come to find that the most important things they get from the yoga practice have nothing to do with their bodies at all.