Posted by: Brie | March 29, 2012

Body Image Meets Embodiment – It’s not how you feel about your body, it’s how you feel in your body

My eyes blink open to rays of light streaming into my bedroom through the sides of the curtain.  I roll over and scan the wands of the clock: 8:30.  Yes!  I’m awake in time for a 9:15 am yoga class.  This is  cause for celebration in my world – especially when I can learn from one of the practiced senior teachers at Carmel Yoga Center:  Diana Balesteri. I glug back a litre of water, slip into a hot shower, throw my hair into a ponytail after yanking on last night’s comfy clothes and am out the door in my bare feet, mat in hand, before you can say Om.

A light rain is falling as I scoot through the door of the yoga center, lay out my mat and begin to breathe, recalling the dream from which I was roused earlier this morning.  I am flying through the air, loving the exhilaration before opening a big wool Carmel Yoga Center blanket to use as my personal parachute.  We’ll be working toward Hanuman pose, today.  Diana’s clear, steady voice brings me back from my riverie and I delight in the theme and its connection to my dream.  Hanuman is the flying monkey in yogic lore.  The breath connects us to the present moment says Diana, leading us to sip our breath through the vocal cords at the back of the throat as we quiet into an Ujayi breathing chorus.

The moment is not new to me.  Since its discovery in a Zen monastery, I have been chasing its elusive-if-not-acknowledged ways, and there is an organicity about returning to noticing breath and body as a touchstone for my practice.

Body movement was not always this way for me.  In the days of long ago when I was a top Canadian runner I left the moment for the alluring realms of the mind.  Seduced by implausible beauty ideals, I smothered my life in a non-life-affirming nest of views.  A voice turned on in my head shouting at me in full blast to lose the fat newly forming just below my navel, as well as the coating lining my inner thighs, psychically assaulting the soft layer of me most deeply and essentially female.

I did not then realize that my mind had become my lying, tyrannical master and I its faithful servant, regardless of the profanities it hurled at me.  I ran harder, longer, faster against an increasingly diminishing caloric intake.  My muscles dwindled and a strangely undiagnosable exercise-induced asthma set in.   My heart rate plummeted to 36 beats per minute.  It took a very committed family to corral me into therapy and when they did, suffice it to say, the real games began.

At 16 I learned to question the inner dictator ruling my world.  At 17, on a Panama City Beach in Florida, awash in fears of not being thin and beautiful enough, an event transpired that initiated a new way of being, washing away my ancient pursuits in a burst of golden glow.  My eyes were grazing a line in my current self-help book, Your dream is God’s gift to the world through you, when suddenly it happened.  The skies opened up and took my heart with them.  Bathed in a light whose source – the sky or my heart – I could not tell, I was overcome with a love I had never before known.  Grace had overthrown my inner dictator with her higher wisdom and fierce light.

When all this happened I don’t think I even knew what yoga was – besides some vague pretzel-style Olympic feat concept.  But when, two years later as a university student I was to find myself on a mat in a room of 100 at the downtown Montreal YMCA, I would soon learn what it was to practice making of my mind a faithful servant.

It was not through a forced mental clearing that I relinquished the totalitarian régime inside my head, but rather, through a tried, true and consistent dedication of finding my mat or sitting upright on my Zen cushion.  Bending my body every which way, massaging organs in spinal twists, and balancing on one foot, I began to notice that yoga was doing more than teaching me to think positive, healthy thoughts about my body through its first limb, ahimsa, which means ‘do no harm.’  It was changing what it was like to be in my body.

photo by Emily Nathan

More than a transformation of self-image, something was happening internally that was to have a lasting effect on the fabric of my experience.  My shoulder blades were melting down my back when I stood.  My eyes felt bright.  Energy felt like it was coming from inside my body.  My mind naturally began to feel like a still lake.  I spent many hours on my yoga mat and many more wall-gazing atop my Zen cushion to embody the shift that lights my days.  And I am beyond happy to share that I am no longer intersted in the swirling fantasies of the mind, no longer interested in a never-ending story of lack or self-abnegation, no longer interested in berating my body for not living up to an unhealthy socially constructed ideal.

Now moved by the precious tender possibility of recognizing moment-to-moment that my life is not separate from the lives of all beings, I am moved to feel the breath, sit up straight and open to the magic of reality.  Because reality, when directly experienced, free of our stories and nest of views, is a wonderful place to be; and this body, its ever giving vessel, is a miracle to behold.  This has been the gift of making the shift from body image to embodiment.  When we give ourselves permission to release the thoughts, surrendering them one at a time, when we recognize that we already have everything that we need, life itself becomes the gift that keeps on giving.

I am brought back to my yoga mat in Diana’s class.  I have just performed Hanuman pose – the splits – with not one but two bolsters beneath me against the crazy tight psoas muscles and relentlesss hamstring tension from running endless miles and perhaps not quite enough stretching to match.  I smile.  I am in Hanuman, the yogic flying pose.  I love how Diana’s classes move slowly, so slowly that we are continually invited to drop into the spaces between the thoughts, the moments of silence between inhaling and exhaling.  I love how palpably sun and moon find their perfect union as our palms find anjali mudra at our hearts.  I love Diana’s transmission, born of years of dedicated practice.

After class, I drive Harriet, a 94-year old yogini who has had operations on both hips to her Carmel home.  Harriet considers her secret to aging gracefully to be going upside down every day for three minutes.  She is a role model extraordinaire.  Like Diana, who is my mother’s age.  These are the women I aspire to emulate.  Women who are showing up powerfully in the world.  Women who are an example of radical self care and inspired teaching.  Women whose practice ripples out to touch all beings.  I place my palms together to say good-bye to Harriet as she moves her  body, eternally in a forward bend, out the car door.  Namasté I say, grateful for the women who have come before me, graceful ambassadors of  this light that lives as all beings.

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