The following post was written by Katherine Moore. Katherine has been teaching for The Perri Institute for Mind and Body since 2013. You can find her running all over New York City, working as a teacher, choreographer, freelance dancer, and writer. Relax with her at Steps on Broadway on Friday nights at 6:30pm for restorative yoga.
I recently listened to a Radiolab podcast that reminded me of a blog post I had written in 2013, Body Image. This podcast (Radiolab Live: Tell-Tale Hearts featuring Oliver Sacks) begins with the story of a woman and her experience recovering from major heart surgery. I won't spill the beans on the whole story, but after going through months and months of some unusual complications and resulting anxiety, this woman finally experienced relief when she was able to actually see her heart via an ultrasound image. By seeing her own heart pumping blood through her veins, she was able to acknowledge how hard her body was working to keep her alive. She felt gratitude and awe and, perhaps most importantly, love for her own body.
Many people recoil at the sight, or even the thought, of blood. There may even be evolutionary reasons why we have this instinctual response to seeing our own insides, a topic which this podcast later explores. It is natural to feel a sense of fear, sometimes even obsession, about what is happening inside our own bodies, especially when it seems that something is going wrong.
As teachers of movement, we often have students and private clients coming to us with a list of bodily ailments. From common aches and fatigue to injuries to major illnesses, the running tally of what students say is wrong inside of them can get a bit overwhelming. My work as a teacher and observer of human health and wellness seems to consistently throw in my face how unwell the majority of the population truly is.
At the same time, however, I also feel consistently supported by research and personal accounts indicating that our relationship to our bodies and our healing process drastically affects both outcomes and quality of life. Recent interviews by Krista Tippett with Eve Ensler and the late Bruce Kramer come to mind. Ensler, a cancer survivor, and Kramer, diagnosed with ALS, both speak of their illnesses almost as friends. Their experiences with what was going "wrong" with their bodies taught them how to grow and live and love in monumental ways. Kramer in particular suggested that instead of asking, “How shall we fight this?” we should ask instead, “How should we grow into the demands of what is beyond us?”
Language that equates illness and injury to a battle, that makes our relationship to healing a violent one, is often not only ineffective but can also severely diminish a person's quality of life. And while on average, we probably won't be getting a slew of terminally ill students in our open yoga classes, chances are high that almost everyone in the room has felt pain of one sort or another. Discomfort and disappointment and pain are an integral part of life and what it means to live in our own bodies. How we relate to the uncomfortable parts of life, in our minds and in our muscles and in our bones, is just as important as preventing them in the first place.
As yoga teachers, I think this gives us a unique opportunity, and possibly even a responsibility, to help people love their bodies more, especially when things are going wrong. From old school dance training to fitness "boot camps," people are constantly bombarded by the idea that the body can be beaten into submission, that working harder, faster, and stronger will make our bodies well. The "no pain no gain" mentality is rampant. The fact that so many people either hate their bodies or are simply unaware of them is a disheartening yet motivating force for me to continue teaching compassionate movement practices.
What we can offer as teachers is a way for people to experience their bodies in a way that is mindful, kind, and loving, which is surprisingly rare. We can begin by helping people treat their chronic illness, or their anxiety, or their old shoulder injury not as enemies, but as friends. It may sound like kooky yoga speak, but just as in a relationship between two people, there is a difference between loving and obsessing. In heartbreak there is a difference between experiencing pain and wallowing in it, or even fighting against it.
As a teacher I know that I am fearful of talking about love. I don’t want to sound like a hippie, and our society has been ingrained with the idea that talking about love will discredit our professionalism, and not without good reason. However, I think there’s a way and a need to teach a love for the body and the mind, and all the parts in between. The English language is famously lacking in other words for “love,” but at the heart of the yoga practice it is there, so we need to find ways of talking about it. We would be doing ourselves and our students a disservice by not doing so.
This time of year is often culturally associated with new love, and anatomically we often use the spring season to focus on heart opening. In a season of blooming, what better time is there to ask your students to invite love into their practices?