Image: Innards by Michele Parliament
Our bodies are always giving us messages about what they needs to be safe, to be healthy, and to thrive. Often these messages are subtle, and we can lose them in the hustle and bustle of daily life, in the running internal script of how we “should” feel and move and perform and…be. Sometimes we lose these messages by reflexively moving our attention away from discomfort, thus losing other valuable messages we might receive from that area of our bodies. At times these messages are simply inconvenient to hear, because acknowledging them would require action on our part that might be uncomfortable, outside of the flow of what others around us are doing, or even in opposition to what someone in authority is telling us to do. What does it look like to place the needs and messages of our bodies in deference to convenience, moving with the crowd, or the advice of another? Here are a few examples:
The yoga class opens, the teacher directs you to breathe, to fully arrive in the space and the moment, to set your intention for class. In some way, shape or form, your instructor invites you to honor your own needs throughout the class, even if that differs from the instructions given. You move through class, holding chaturanga dandasana 6 breaths beyond the point you lost support for your lower back, instead of lowering your knees. Your back is going to hurt for days, but the instructor told you to do it, everyone else was still up, and anyway you’re here to work, right?
After a fall two weeks ago, you’ve had neck pain that just won’t quit and real trouble turning your head, so you go see a massage therapist recommended by friends. Your therapist does a thorough intake, and then spends several minutes explaining to you that massage as a useful intervention should not hurt, and teaches you how to communicate with her during the massage about your experience of the intensity of the work. During the massage, there are points where all you can think is “omgOMGomgOMG, this hurts – just breathe – ow!” – but you don’t say anything as your therapist requested, even when she checks in with you multiple times. Surely harder is better and your therapist just thinks you can’t handle it - I mean, no pain, no gain, right?
A slow and inadequate healing to what seemed like a minor shoulder injury finally brings you into the Orthopedist’s office some months later. He dismisses most of your information about what happened, throws your arm around in 3 directions, names a problem and prescribes a steroid shot. He bristles when probed about the diagnosis and the possible effects of the shot, clearly wanting to give you the shot and send you away so he can tend to the next patient. You agree to the shot even though you haven’t had time to research it, and even though you don’t believe he’s discovered the true source of this nagging problem or even that he cares to. But probably he knows best - I mean, he’s the only one in the room who went to medical school, right?
In each of the above scenarios, a situation that was meant to enhance health and wellbeing actually degraded it. The yogi went to class feeling good and left with a minor injury and possibly a distorted association – that of “good practice” with pain and internally-directed aggression, or that of yoga with injury. The massage client came in for help in working with their body to reduce pain and increase function, and left having invited more messages perceived as threatening to the nervous system, and further irritating an already injured area. The Orthopedic patient left with a great deal of unexpected pain from the shot, the unhappy discovery that research didn’t suggest an improved outcome by getting it, and consequently a great mistrust towards doctors. In every case, there were clear messages in the body and in the mind that what was happening was not healthy or appropriate for this person in this moment, but they were either ignored or overridden with more or less rational explanations. Most of us can relate to these examples or something similar – we do this a lot in our lives, trained as we are from childhood to respect the status quo and obey authority.
But we miss out on a great deal of ourselves and our lives when we routinely and unconsciously give more credence to the advice and direction of others than to our own internal knowing.
How do we improve our ability to hear and follow the always-available inner wisdom we hold? We practice! In the simplest way, we start to notice how we are feeling in our bodies on a regular basis. We begin to notice what areas of the body are easy to perceive, and what areas seem inaccessible or blurry. We begin to notice what particular bodily sensations are, for us, the physical signals of fear, anger, joy, “yes” or “no”. We start to learn ourselves. To do this, we must allow what we observe to be, meaning that anything we reject from our awareness or deny will slow or stall our progress in self-understanding.
For example, if I’m committed to learning myself, I will notice when I am tired even when it’s inconvenient for me to be tired because I have lots left to do. I can simply notice that, yes, I am tired, and tired feels like ______ in my body. If I routinely deny myself the awareness of my fatigue when it's present, I may miss crucial information about where and when my tiredness arises. It may commonly follow interaction with a specific person, or thoughts about an issue that feels overwhelming to me. It may only occur when I've slept 4 hours less than usual. If I can let myself see what’s happening within me as it’s happening, I’ll ultimately have more understanding and greater choice in how I respond.
The more we practice in a quiet and controlled environment, and in non-critical situations, the stronger our connection with our inner wisdom becomes, and the more likely we’ll be to access it in moments of greater stimulation or while engaged with others. Regular practice makes ready. A simple way to start this meaningful conversation with yourself is to scan the body. To start immediately, you can use this guided body scan to begin tuning into your bodily sensations. My challenge to you: give it a listen every day for a month and watch your fluency develop.
Creating and maintaining a regular practice of yoga or meditation is an excellent and time-honored way of developing the ability to hear and respond to your inner wisdom. If you’d like help with either, contact me and we’ll develop a practice that fits your needs. However you choose to begin deepening your connection with your inner wisdom, self-compassion and consistency are the most valuable tools for the journey. Hold yourself lightly along the way.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, and be well.