Befriending the Body

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A Journey Toward Trust

 

As Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy professionals, we look to the client’s body to tell its stories, to teach the client about how she lives. Yet if our client doesn’t know her body, if she doesn’t have a healthy relationship with it, how can she expect to trust it enough to listen to it? In Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, befriending  the body is about  building foundation.  It is about building trust.

I have a sensation in my back that has been growing for the past two months. It is warm and irritating and penetrating. If I focus on it, the air in my lungs catches and I find it hard to breathe. I reach an almost immediate edge – my chest tightens, pulse quickens, and I feel uncomfortable electricity, charged for battle, scratching just beneath the surface of my skin. It is just beyond the reach and comfort of any of my limbs, stranded in a sea of skin and bone, muscles, and memories. It is deep and superficial. It is new and lifetimes old. It is tension, apprehension, fear, doubt, exultation, freedom, and the call of potential. It is complicated and so simple. 

This sensation that I have requires attention that I do not always choose to give. It stirs edges that I don’t always want to face. And it ebbs and flows. It is a quickening, a widening, and a rehashing at the back of my heart. It is my heart – speaking, growing, churning. It is uncomfortable, but it does not frighten me. I know it needs attention and care, but not yet. Something still needs to be learned, faced, experienced before I’m ready to attend to it. So I watch, and wait, and listen. I listen for the moment when I am ready to go a little deeper.

Starting With the Body

In his many writings on the subject, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy founder Michael Lee coined the phrase “befriending your body” to describe the process by which we commit to learning about our bodies and listening to their stories in order to be able to respond differently. Turn Stress Into Bliss, Lee’s book on Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy’s 8-week program to reduce stress, helpfully reminds readers, “It is through your body that you will learn the most, and through your body that you will change everything in your life that needs to change. …The only person who can change your relationship to your body is you.”[1]

Lee’s concept of befriending the body is the first step toward learning to go deeper. It is the precursor to awareness, acceptance, and choice. It is what will allow us to stay within resistance rather than run from it or shut down. It is what will ultimately help us hear and actually listen to our authentic truths, to act upon those truths, to let go of what has earned a right to retire, and to move toward transformation. Developing a trusting relationship with the body – one in which we are able to witness thoughts, sensations, emotions, and memories as markers of information rather than dismiss them as fanciful hyperbole, fear, pain, or nonsense – is what Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioners mean when they speak of befriending the body.

Imagine the part of yourself of which you are most critical. Bring all of your awareness to that part and notice what happens to your breath, your body, your emotions. Perhaps you become aware of judgment, maybe anger, resentment, fear, maybe disgust, resignation, or sadness. It’s likely uncomfortable, edgy – sensations that point to flight, denial, or contention.

Now imagine that all that you notice is not simply a collection of thoughts but information your body is trying to share with you.

Listening to a Galaxy

In her book Molecules of Emotion, acclaimed psychoneuroimmunologist and body-mind pioneer Candice Pert details how the intricate network of  “information molecules” (ligands, e.g., hormones and the receptors to which they bind) play a key role in the way that we view and respond to ourselves – the “what” we find when we start learning to befriend our bodies. Binding, occupying, bouncing from and locking into cells, each chemical package that flows in our body combines with every other to create both an in-the-moment reaction and lasting results. Pert states that these are “minute physiological phenomena at the cellular level, [that] can translate to large changes in behavior, physical activity, even mood.”[2]  In other words, at both the micro and macro levels, what we receive on a surface or experiential level sends a chain reaction that reverberates into our core. This also changes how we then react or behave, i.e., action stored as memory, physical pain, repression, etc.

Now imagine that you can listen to this galaxy of information that we continually revise and renew and compound moment-to-moment. If Pert is correct in her assertion that our body speaks to us at all times and that our molecular interpretation of life’s events translates into physical sensations and emotions which we store (and vice versa), then “each of us is a dynamic system with a constant potential for change in which self-healing is the norm rather than the miraculous … [The knowledge that our] body has wisdom … calls for a new kind of responsibility … [We] have the potential to consciously intervene in the system … to take an active role in [our] own healing. [We are] both more powerful and more responsible in creating the health that [we] experience…”[3]

Learning to Explore

The connection that Pert makes between our biology, actions, emotions, and outcome is at the core of why befriending the body is such a valuable tool for self-healing. If we can attune to our body and mindfully witness what we learn, we are poised to take an active role in our own wellness and healing.

Yet when our bodies talk, we rarely take the time to listen, much less interpret and respond. I am a dancer and have been around dancers my entire life. At first glance, they would surely be the ones who know their bodies intimately. They spend hours honing their athletic prowess, years perfecting technique, lifetimes talking to their bodies. But from firsthand experience I can say that using the body, even knowing it intimately, is not the same thing as befriending it.

Befriending the body is a process of learning to explore all parts of ourselves and to develop a trust that helps us cultivate deep, whole body listening. If we trust that the body always speaks in truth, we create space for real questions, real answers, real change, and real healing.

And yet how can we expect to believe what the body speaks if we don’t have a trusting relationship with it?

Even though it ages and changes, the body is our constant companion, absorbing and attuning and sensing motion, emotion, vibration, and sensations around us every moment. If the body is an intricately woven tapestry of our life, each thread represents a moment in time, an experience or sensation, however fleeting, in our personal history. As the threads are woven together, they begin to create patterns. Some are familiar and easy to see. Others may be more complex, difficult to interpret, or even hidden. Like the threads, sensations we feel such as stress, chronic pain, or anxiety are often connected to patterns, behaviors, and issues that are present in our life. Building trust in the body and our ability to listen to it mark the first steps toward using the body as a gateway. Through the body we become aware of what’s happening in the moment:  physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, memories, images. With this, we can step back and gain greater clarity around what’s happening in our life. Nothing in our body is out of place. It may seem to arrive as “news” or feel unwelcome or edgy or shocking, but knowing that everything we hold in our body is valid because it was created from our experiences helps us to create the space to trust our body when it speaks

Building Trust

Certain specific practices help with our building trust with the body. In my experience, cultivating and living out ahimsa, which Nischala Joy Devi describes as “embracing love and reverence” for self rather than the more traditional translation of non-harming or nonviolence, is a first step.[4]  It starts to open up space.

Another key practice is aparigraha, which I like to think of as cultivating balance rather than non-hoarding. According to Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Mattews, there is “an imperative for all living things to balance containment and permeability, rigidity and plasticity, persistence and adaptability, space and boundaries.[5]  In other words, we are constantly trying to find balance within a set of extremes, which gives us parameters for framing what we notice. It sets the stage for our stories. Phoenix Rising deep listening asks us to remain open to a larger, more inclusive balance – one in which all experience is welcome, no matter how we frame it for ourselves. Listening without “hoarding” thoughts or attaching to one extreme over another is a process of learning to witness what’s happening in the moment: our stories, the parameters we are using to frame our experience, or anything else that may arise. The practice of this larger idea of balance allows us to move more fully into the realm of trust. [6]

Let’s be clear – trusting the body is not the same as loving it all the time or being happy with every part of it. Neither is trust the same as acceptance. Befriending the body does not mean that we have to accept everything about it. It does not mean that we have to like what we find or even be able to decipher the messages the body sends. It does mean, though, that we listen to what it has to say.

Like building any relationship, befriending the body is a process, often fraught with setbacks or missteps, but whose ultimate goal is to build a safe container in which trust can grow. In the same way that we can learn to trust our families or lovers or friends to speak honestly so that we can grow, we can learn to trust our bodies as safe arenas to explore and in which we can listen to the truths it has to share.

Cultivating Relationship

In his book Grace Unfolding: The Art of Living a Surrendered Life, Paul Ferrini discusses the importance of cultivating trust in a relationship with others. He asserts that “trust should not be blind. It must be cultivated over time. Then it becomes conscious and reliable. When trust is progressive…each person gradually reveals himself. There is a deepening of knowledge and sympathy.”[7]

What Ferrini says is true of our relationship with the body as well. In essence, befriending the body is a process of forming a relationship with self – or perhaps seeing our current relationship more fully and making choices to reshape that relationship. It is a commitment to learning about ourselves, just as we are, without a need to fix or change. Then, as we become aware of our desires and fears and learn to hold them compassionately, we can more easily and with more trust let ourselves sink down to a place in our hearts of perfect peace. There, we know we are safe regardless of how many fears come up. We know we are worthy, even though we have wants or needs that aren’t being met.[8]

Through spending time cultivating this compassionate and spacious relationship with the body, we gain experiential knowledge that it will speak its truth to us. We come to know it will tell us when to wait rather than explore, when to tread lightly rather than drill into its muscles, when to sit with the discomfort rather than ignore it. We come to trust the body as much as any well-informed advisor, doctor, confidant, healer, or friend. In short, through learning to befriend the body, we’ve learned that we carry inside of us our own wisest teacher.

Finding our Wise Teacher

The most effective teachers are guides. They are those pillars of strength and wisdom that create and hold a safe container in which students can explore, falter, fail, and triumph. In order to help us grow and learn on our own, they may push us past what we believe we are capable of and share only parts of the puzzle to enable us to fill in the gaps with our own experience, taking a more embodied and holistic approach to our own learning.

Though at times we look outside for sources to guide or teach us, somewhere deep inside we know that we must slow down, reconnect with ourselves, and listen to our own inner voice. [9]  The Phoenix Rising approach to yoga therapy understands that each of us is our own wisest teacher. It understands that we already possess all of the knowledge needed to support ourselves in living a healthy, fulfilled life. But, as with any wise teacher, building a foundation of trust is key to being able to unlock that wisdom. And in Phoenix Rising, that foundation of trust starts with befriending the body.

There is an assertiveness in my need to wait that is clear, learned, and often hard won. It’s the product of a long and ongoing journey of cultivating trust with myself. This trust allows me to know that the sensations of my body are both echoes of the past and signposts of the future. In the opening paragraph, I describe a particular sensation as being “at the back of my heart,” not so subtly implying that there is an emotional resonance connected to this physical sensation. I speak of it in this way because my body speaks of it to me in this way. And over the years, I’ve learned listen to what my body speaks. I’ve learned to trust it as a wise sage, a gentle comrade, even an irritating and necessary harbinger of things to come or things that have already been. Even when my body seems like foe, it is always friend. It always reveals what is truly happening to it, while never withholding the wisdom that lets me more fully become who I actually am.

To read more about what you as a Phoenix Rising professional can do to support a client who has little or no relationship with her body, visit the Web Exclusive area of the Professional Portal at www.ijpryt.com.

1. Michael Lee, Turn Stress into Bliss, (Fair Winds Press, 2005), 38, 41.

2. Candice Pert, PhD, Molecules of Emotion, (Simon & Schuster, 1999), 24.

3. Ibid., 262.

4. Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga, (Three Rivers Press, 2007), 180.

5. Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Mattews, Yoga Anatomy, (Human Kinetics , 2011), 2.

6. This practice moves us more into the realm of trust by freely offering each of our experiences a valid place within the scope of our awareness.

7. Paul Ferrini, Grace Unfolding: The Art of Living a Surrendered Life, (Heartways Press, 1998), 38.

8. Ibid., 41.

9. Michael Lee, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy website, accessed June, 2012.

 

About the Author

Renee Dumouchel

Renée Dumouchel is a certified Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy individual practitioner, yoga teacher, and group facilitator, with over 8 years of combined practice and teaching experience. She also has over 15 years of dance, choreography, and movement studies training and is an active performer in New York City. Renée earned her bachelor’s degree in studio art and English literature from Williams College and is a graduate of Jacob’s Pillow and ADF. She is also the Associate Director of External Affairs for the Guggenheim museum.

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