by Karina Guthrie.
Yoga’s spiritual teaching is that our separateness is an illusion; that the purpose of practice is to lead us to the remembrance of our wholeness. And yet, so often we feel separate, both from ourselves and from others, and from this essential teaching of yoga.
Consider this: your wholeness is not an idea. It’s an anatomical reality.
In a very real sense one of the defining features of an organism is its ‘irrepressible tendency towards wholeness’. What I mean by that is, that regardless of the stressors we experience, regardless of the struggles of early development, regardless of injury, or circumstance, or how the body is disturbed, an organism continues to work tirelessly to maintain itself as a complete and unified whole.
There is something like 75 trillion cells in the human body. The number itself is astronomical but even more impressive than this is the fact the activity of these cells combines ‘just so’ to create this thing called ‘me’. I came across the following way of describing this, which really hit it home for me:
Each of us is like an orchestra comprised of myriad instruments (75 trillion to be exact) large and small, simple and complex and with a musical range beyond our wildest imagination. In this orchestra, each and every instrument simultaneously plays its own unique melody (without repetition and without a musical score) as it also plays its part in supporting the orchestra’s collective melody. It does this in the same way that a jazz musician riffs off other musicians.
Our body and every cell inside it riffs off the changing environment, the food we eat, the thoughts we think and the experiences we come into contact with. We are an organism that both skillfully creates local freedom and global cohesion. If that doesn’t blow your mind, nothing will.
Our common way of understanding the body couldn’t be any more different. More often than not we seek to understand the body by breaking it down into parts, a process that leads us to speak of the body as if it were assembled like a car. However, none of our cells, except for the original one, have ever been separate. Tom Myers says it beautifully: ‘we are grown from a seed, not put together in parts’. Our nervous system has never been separate from our circulatory system, our circulatory system has never been separate from our musculoskeletal system. We make these separations in our minds.
Our poor languaging around the body stems (in part) from the fact that during the last 500 years, when dissecting bodies, our desire has been to understand the role that individual muscles play inside of us. We talk about their origin and insertion points, which makes it seem as though we’re stapled together at our joints but our muscles don’t attach to our tendons, they become our tendons, and our tendons don’t attach to our bones, they become our bones. In addition to these end-point connections our muscles have many other connections too, it’s just that they’re often scraped away in the dissection process.
Is it helpful to ask what role an individual muscle plays in the movement of a living body when we know that in a living body no muscle works individually? This is not to say that it’s wrong to learn individual muscles. It’s simply to say that the brain and body don’t think that way. Each cell, each muscle fiber, each muscle group and each organ is surrounded by, and glued together with fascia; a non-beginning, non-ending structure that joins everything in the body together. This is why an injury in one part of the body will ‘refer’ to another part of the body; because none of the stuff inside of us is actually separate from anything else. We are now, and can only ever be, whole.
The shape that our body takes is influenced by many things: gravity, our genetics, the environmental switches that turn genes on and off, the ways we touch the world (for example, if we regularly sit at a desk our body will shape itself around that desk), the dance between water and fiber within the body (that is to say, we are predominantly water; the structure provided by fiber is what stops us from being a puddle on the floor) and, importantly, our emotions (particularly those we don’t express because repetitive emotion becomes stuck, physically, as a holding pattern in the body).
Every shape we take has a different physiology and a different psychology. This observation is supported by the teachings of both Yoga and Buddhism, which say that every thought we think and every emotion we feel sets up a corresponding pattern of tension in the body. When we think and feel repetitively our body shapes itself repetitively too.
There is research to support this too. For example, research shows that we find it easier to recall happy memories when we are smiling and in an upright posture and we find it easier to recall unhappy memories when we are in a closed or slumped posture. The mind-body connection is real.
In fact, we experience this relationship all the time. When our body is tense or strained, for example, our breathing becomes shallow, our mind becomes agitated and wisdom and joy seem far away. Conversely when we are filled with joy and communion with life, these feelings permeate our entire being. Our breath opens, our muscles relax and our thoughts and emotions become calm. With this in mind it’s easy to see how, within yoga, a posture includes not only physiological holding patterns, but psychological ones too. Our body is characterized not by separateness, but by the relationship between its parts.
As both teachers and practitioners of yoga, a great opportunity lies in this because it suggests that if we can improve our kinesthetic literacy we can improve our emotional literacy too.
We will begin to see how our lives and histories are contained within the body.
We will begin to see how, over time, our thoughts and emotions become physical holding patterns in the body.
We will see that as no part of us has ever been separate and so that feeling of isolation we experience is, in fact, an illusion (created by the ego).
We will come to see that the work of yoga is not in distancing ourselves from our bodies but by diving more fully into them with the task of redefining our relationship to the feelings and sensations we find.