Meditation is all too often viewed as a task of mental control. We may think that sitting and quieting our mind requires wrestling our thoughts out of sight. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Meditation is about noticing, observing and accepting whatever arises within us rather than controlling or rejecting what is coming up. And whatever arises – whether it be thoughts, sensations, or emotions – comes directly through the body. As Naomi Judd points out, “Your body hears everything your mind says.”
Yet, we can live completely disconnected from our bodies and even fearful about what lies within. We can bypass the body even as we attempt to get present through whatever contemplative practice we choose.
But sometimes, our bodies ask us to wake up and take notice. As I head into my 50th year, I have noticed that my body is not what it once was. I’ve experienced more stiffness and pain, the hallmark signs of aging. Rather than judging these sensations, I sit nightly in my meditation practice, noticing the changing sensations in my body with as much curiosity and kindness that I can muster. Yet, I hit a point recently in which I recognized that self-compassion (and my existing self-care routine) was not enough. I heard an internal call to action to attend and try to mend to the discomfort. But like so many of us who desire change, I couldn’t figure out how to get from Point A to Point B.
A group of friends have sworn that the YouTuber yoga teacher Adriene is superb. They love her gentle style and short yoga segments. I wrote down the recommendation almost a year ago and have glanced many times at that piece of paper sitting on my desk. Recently, in a spontaneous moment of inspiration, I pulled up one of her videos up on YouTube. And then I moved on to something else.
And here is what happened. The next morning was Saturday. I grabbed my tablet to bring it to the basement for my morning exercise routine. As I was walking downstairs thinking about what video I would watch while I exercised, I remembered that I had a Yoga with Adriane video pulled up. I stopped. “Hmm. Is this a good time for yoga?” I asked myself. I took stock of what distractions might get in the way. My son was on his computer upstairs. My husband was at the grocery store. I had nowhere to go that morning. And a magic wind seemed to push me onto my yoga mat. There was Adriene cued up and ready to gently bring me back home.
I did that 30-minute session and reveled in the beauty of it. I remembered the muscles and poses that I hadn’t connected with for so many years. And that was all I needed. Just a few moments to remember my body in a nuanced way. I felt surprised, inspired, and ready.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had inadvertently set myself up for success. Shawn Achor, author of the Happiness Advantage, describes what I did in terms of decreasing my “activation energy,” which he refers to as the amount of effort it takes from maintaining the status quo to doing what one hopes to accomplish. Decreasing activation energy might take the form of laying out workout clothes the night before a desired morning workout or printing out three new recipes and shopping for the food in advance. In my case, I pulled up the video I needed before I was ready to watch it and I had my yoga mat laid out and ready for use. I was clearly ready for this step. So this process easily stuck. I’ve been doing yoga with Adriene for 14 straight days now, reveling in the experience of feeling my body, moving with my breath and releasing my burdens to the ground. As this practice is becoming part of my routine, I’m noticing with gratitude the shift that I am feeling in my body and mind.
Mindful movement is an inherent part of many meditation traditions. In the Vipassana Meditation tradition in which I was trained, there is always a period of sitting followed by mindful walking, repeated again and again, during silent meditation retreats. This pattern allows the practitioner to go more deeply into conscious awareness by alternating between a focus on the breath and a focus on the feet touching the earth. It is a constant reminder that the body belongs. After all, the body is the gateway to presence.
As I write in Meeting the Moment with Kindness, there are many ways up the mountain of mindfulness. The yogic, somatic connection of breath and body can be a powerful primary practice, just as sitting and walking meditation can lead to significant presence and insight. I’ve been finding lately that the combination of the two is allowing me deeper connection with my body and breath and everything that flows from there.
But that’s not all I’ve gained. I’ve experienced a number of moments that I otherwise would have missed out on had I not begun to practice yoga. A few nights ago, I asked my son if he’d like to join me. To my surprise, he said with a sigh in his skeptical, pre-adolescent voice, “okay, mom.” I set up our mats next to each other and reveled in the moments that I could hear his inhale and exhale as he moved through his poses. Yoga means “union” or “connection,” referring to mind and body and what is larger than our small self. I can’t help but extend the word “connection” to describe what I experienced in those shared mindful moments with my son.
Another treat came this morning as I was finishing up my yoga session, lying in savasana or corpse pose on the mat. Our 2-year-old terrier, Pillow, bounded down the stairs to see what I was up to. She noticed me on the mat, slowed down her pace (as if she felt the calm energy in the room), walked over to me and ever so gently, licked my face. Connection.
I was struck recently by a quote from Pema Chödrön's book The Places that Scare You. She writes, “It's hard to know whether to laugh or to cry at the human predicament. Here we are with so much wisdom and tenderness, and—without even knowing it—we cover it over to protect ourselves from insecurity. Although we have the potential to experience the freedom of a butterfly, we mysteriously prefer the small and fearful cocoon of ego.”
Here’s the thing. If we don’t slow down to notice our bodies, hearts or minds, we can’t possibly experience freedom from the grip of pain or fear that aging and other discomforts bring. If we can’t truly meet our moments with awareness or kindness, how can we move beyond our ego cocoon and attend to ourselves with care? And if we don’t tend to ourselves with care, how can we be truly available to others? There are a lot of gifts that can come out of being present and awake in our breath and bodies. And here is a big one if you are willing: Our earth would not be suffering the way it is if we were more awake in our bodies. If we were able to truly feel what is happening within, we would have more capacity to feel what is outside of us. We would sense the needs of the Earth and know how to tend to our global body. It’s not a small thing. And our future may just depend on it.
So we practice any way we can. Sitting, walking, doing yoga poses. And in between the in-breath and the out-breath, we notice the quality of our mind, body and heart. It is from this place of presence that our wisdom and tenderness make themselves known. And the connection we long for may come directly to us, in the form of a lick or a sigh or simply remembering what it is like inhabit our body.