or, “How we can use our practice to live joyful lives and take care of each other and the world around us”.
Last week in Friday Featuring … I explored the concept of Embodiment: how we relate to our bodies interoceptively (from the inside), practices which help us to tap into our inner wisdom and how they can help us to self-regulate, respond appropriately to challenging situations, as well as to make better decisions and improve our physical and mental health.
We can use this wisdom to explore how we relate to the wider bodies of our community and our planet. If we ourselves are disembodied, unaware of our own sensations and inner intelligence, until some part or other of us is numb or screaming in pain, then how well are we able to relate to the experience of our friends? Those with whom we vehemently disagree? The seemingly unsolvable issue of human impact on our environment?
To put a point on it, if we are traumatised, depressed, anxious, ungrounded or constantly alert for threat, how can we muster the strength, energy and presence of mind to witness suffering in others and act appropriately?
I have found it increasingly difficult to read the news. Like many others, I fear that the shouting headlines of misery, death, crisis and generally horrible behaviour, rather than galvanising us into action, are overwhelming us (or worse, becoming normal). On the flip side, recent political events have shown me that surrounding myself with people with whom I generally agree and focusing on changes that I can make to my own habits (reducing plastic, meat, consumption etc) aren’t enough.
So, what can we do?
Firstly, Oliver Burkeman very helpfully suggests that we don’t compare ourselves to saints or even to more conscientious versions of ourselves. Instead, we are more likely to do something (and feel good, which is important) if we compare to what we might otherwise have done. If that’s nothing, then taking some small action is great. If you only have 2 minutes or £2, then use those and (here’s the key) don’t dwell on some fantastic world where you are able to give millions and solve the world’s problems.
If you don’t have an embodied practice (such as yoga, dance, martial arts, qi gong) take one up! When you do, cultivate your sense of exploration. Grounding ourselves in the present moment, being able to feel our bodies and becoming self-aware directly empower us to act with compassion and in accordance with our values, and face challenges with the capacity to regulate our responses.
Looking at the way we practice yoga in particular – deep relaxation, self-acceptance and non-striving are all important and useful practices, and are very much needed. But, I think, not to an end of checking-out or transcending our experience of the world. We aren’t side stepping guilt and anger, we are really feeling them in the moment of their arising, and using the tools and skill that we have cultivated to shoot the arrow straight, and act. Or not act.
Embodied Yoga Facilitator, Mark Walsh, makes a case for practicing yoga for much more than health and wellbeing (long hamstrings being a nice side-effect if you will), but rather for managing your life – your relationships, your work and how you are in the world.
He describes a yoga class as a container which we make “physically, financially, and relationally as safe as possible … (to) take psychological, emotional and existential risks”, moving beyond our comfort zone, into our learning zone, but with confidence that we won’t stray into a territory of fear. Mark suggests that we create “bridging” practices to link our experience on the yoga mat to our everyday life. He encourages yoga practitioners and teachers to be curious and to encourage self-enquiry, rather than to correct alignment towards perfecting a specific shape. For example:
Mark talks about embodiment as how we are, “the subjective aspect of the body as a lived experience” (being a body, rather than for example, having a chair), and about the efficacy of creating a felt experience of a pattern which is different from our habit. This isn’t thinking while doing yoga, but (like mediation) creating the space and conditions for insight to arise. He teaches poses for cultivating what you need – be that courage, action, boundaries or release.
Of course, it is great to do what you enjoy and what you are good at, and to deepen your skill, but, as Mark points out, it pays dividends to become aware and work on your stuff too, shifting towards what you need and what aligns with your values.
I think about this quite a bit, and I have hope that these practices of self-awareness might be one way to right the balance, tipping us towards a world where everyone has enough, where we can self-regulate our emotion well enough to act with compassion and consider the wider impact of the decisions that we take.
The Buddhists say that the amount of compassion that you are able to put out into the world is a direct reflection of the amount of compassion you direct to yourself. Read that again. Confronting, no?
Can yoga really save the world? Got more ideas about how we can avoid overwhelm, engage in political discussion, including with those who have opposing views? How do you practice embodiment? I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts. Comment below!
Breathe, make space, be compassionate.
Oliver Burkeman writes for the Guardian. His column is called, ‘This column will change your life’ and is always thoughtful and thought-provoking. The particular column that I drew from is called, ‘What you might have done in 1930’s Germany”.
I mentioned last week Brooke Thomas’ fascinating podcast series called Liberated Body and I drew on her interview with Mark Walsh for this article.
Mark Walsh is a Founder of The Embodied Facilitator Course and Embodied Yoga Principles. His impressive bio is here. He is the author of several ebooks, including Making Yoga Meaningful – A practical guide for getting yoga off the mat and into your life. This book is easy to read, and I drew on it for this article. It includes practical exercises and lots of links to further resources, including youtube videos. Mark hosts a Youtube Channel and The Embodiment Podcast. He is hosting a (free) Embodiment Conference which starts on 12 November and boasts 100 leading experts in embodiment and 100+ hours of learning and community.