As always with words, due to their symbolic quality, their variation of meaning from culture to culture, and their representative nature, a statement like this can easily be read, misunderstood, and filed away without its true magnitude and implications ever taking seed. This blog is designed to empower you with one of the most profound awarenesses one can have in their yoga practice!
When taken in its most literal meaning, “to see” is to perceive with the eyes and discern visually. In that sense, how can feeling your body be the same as seeing your body? However, as we look deeper into the definition(s) of our common words, we see that one word can have many uses. Words are malleable in their meaning. For instance, “to see” may simply be used in the context of understanding or becoming aware of something such as “Oh...I see now...”. What is this kind of seeing that seems interwoven with understanding and awareness? And why is the same word used in description of the visual sense? Could it be that Seeing and Understanding are both visual on some level? If even in the minds eye? And if one is seeing, where is the separation between the seer and the seen? WHO is seeing? And WHAT is being seen? Are they even separate?
It is these questions that have fascinated me since the early days of my yogic explorations! And it is as if the question doesn’t need to be answered... just simply asked. “Who is the seer?” or another way to put it might be, “Who is the feeler?”
Well if you are looking for an exact finite answer to the question, you’ve already missed the point. One could answer “Well, my brain is interpreting the light coming through my eyes!”. And with that scientifically sound answer cheat themselves out of what may be the most profound yet tangible mystery one can experience in their yoga practice, or ANY practice for that matter. And here’s why...
We as humans quite literally, in whatever language and whatever spiritual or materialistic orientation, refer to the body as “my body”. For example, “My body hurts” or “I really like my body right now.” Just that we can say “MY body” indicates a perceived differentiation between the person speaking about her body and the body itself. And the question that I have been asking since the early days of my yoga practice has been simply, “Who is feeling my body.”... and even “What is feeling my body?”
When we go into a yoga stretch, for example, we are feeling it. This would be difficult to deny even for the most sedated and numbed out human being. Whatever the mechanisms may be for feeling the body on the physical level, we are indeed aware of our bodies through the sensations we feel. I often refer to this as natural biofeedback, or original biofeedback which is more commonly defined as follows:
biofeedback |ˌbīōˈfēdˌbak| noun: the use of electronic monitoring of a normally automatic bodily function in order to train someone to acquire voluntary control of that function.
Well, we are constantly experiencing biofeedback...all day long... consciously and unconsciously. It’s just that, ‘electronic monitoring” is not the medium for understanding such feedback. Rather, it is way more direct and valuable than the information that a third party intermediary can provide... in fact, it is sensation itself! And as we feel the body by intentionally moving out of our normal range of motion (which is what a yoga practice typically requires us to do) we are allowing ourselves to feel ourselves like never before. It’s like meeting yourself. In fact, it’s deeper than that. You could even say you’re embarking on an intimate relationship with yourself. Can you really feel anyone else’s hamstring stretch as well as your own? Definitely Not! You have an opportunity to be incredibly intimate with yourself! Even more so than you could ever be with someone else. (which, by the way, intimacy with others goes to a whole other level when you can be intimate with yourself)! How can you really be intimate with someone else if you can’t even feel/see yourself consciously?! And the yoga practice can be a bunch of different poses in a sequence that gets you all stretched out. But imagine where you can go when your yoga practice becomes a vehicle to connect deeply with your own body/self in a conscious and respectful exploration which honors the biofeedback of your body.
Most people’s yoga postures are nothing more than an im-POSE-ition. Like a one way monologue. Has anyone ever spoken to you and yet every time you try to talk they just talk right over you? And when you realize that it’s not going to change you start scanning the room for a way out of the ‘conversation’? Well, if you consider your yoga practice a conversation between you and your body, do you observe that you are ‘talking over’ your body...which is to say inflicting your mental image of what the posture should look like onto your physical body whilst you ignore your body’s contribution to the conversation? Most people’s yoga practices are, by default, a monologue.... NOT a dialogue. But in order to have a dialogue you must listen! In fact, the seed thought of this blog may be ‘to feel your body is to see your body’ but you could just as well say ‘to feel your body is to listen/hear your body’! And you can’t really see or hear your body’s feedback if you are constantly projecting a mental image of your self/body which is so often distorted due to the conditioning of society through our parents, schools, media, sciences, etc.
I’ll often say in my classes, your body is a mirror. Going into the posture is the equivalent of looking in the mirror. Allowing your breath to be deep while you’re looking in the mirror is like saying ‘yes’ to whatever appears. Don’t push the mirror. Don’t bend the mirror. Just peer deeply and remain open. Don’t impose what you want to see over what is actually appearing as you will rob yourself of the invaluable and wonderfully honest reflection that is not ‘over there’ somewhere but so close that it’s IN you! That’s intimacy! And that’s beautiful!
As another example... I’ll often guide my students into a certain posture and tell them to close their eyes. I’ll ask them to imagine suddenly waking up in their bodies blindfolded and challenge them to inquire “How do I know what position my body is in?” I’m not interested in a scientific answer.
Much like a Zen koan, the question itself IS the point. When one asks themselves this question with their eyes closed, “What position is my body in” the reason they could conjure up even the faintest mental image of their physical orientation is because of the sensations they are experiencing due to the positioning of their body within the gravitational field of Earth, without which we would need a whole new way to reference our position. It’s all non-visual sense information that in a sense allows us to “see” our body’s position in the mind’s eye.
Meanwhile, where does this sense information exist in space/time? You can describe the sequence of chain reactions that lead to the end result of the experienced sense. Such as the sequence of nerve signals to the brain that indicate pain, pleasure, soft, hard, and so on. But this doesn’t really explain WHERE the feeling occurs. WHERE is the feeling perceived? Is it in the legs that you are stretching? Is it in the Pathways of the nerves that carry the ‘signal? Is it in the brain? Is it a combination? Is it not in 3rd dimensional space at all? Does it even matter? One thing is for sure... You don’t need to be able to explain the biological sequence of what we call feeling in order to feel! So, let’s rule out the need to describe or explain the mechanics of feeling itself and agree that sensation is a real experience requiring no more intelligence than that already inherent in the organism... The person... You.
People almost automatically assume that yoga, or any other physical practice for that matter, is black and white. ie. You do one thing... You get one result. To make what I’m saying less vague I’ll speak in first person... “If I do this posture, I will get a specific kind of stretch. I either like this posture, or I don’t. If I don’t like the posture, I begrudgingly await the teacher to say when to change to the next as I bear with it. If I like how the posture feels then I am happy to stay in it.” This is just an example of an inner narrative during our practices that happens instantaneously at a preconscious level... not as literal written sentences as they are here. In either case, It’s as though we automatically assume that one action has one result.
We are not typically made aware that we are playing a huge role in what the experience is that we’re having within the pose. Please remember that point! YOU play an incredibly important role in what the pose feels like. What you feel is not fixed or static!! In fact the second you change your mind about it.... the experience changes... even the sensation can change. For example, you go into a forward fold. You normally are driven by wanting to touch your toes. That drive makes you strive and stretch creating a sensation that is less than pleasant but you are agreed that that’s what is needed in order to touch your toes. One day you ask yourself, ‘What am I doing? This doesn’t feel good. Maybe I’ll stop trying to reach my toes and just ease up a little. What is my body saying?’
And with this change in the narration you give yourself permission to stop pushing against your tissues and allow yourself simply to feel the stretch not as something in the way, but rather, more like how you would receive a massage stroke. As a luxury... as something that feels loving and good. I could be standing right over you watching as you go through this process and not see a change at all from a visual sense, but meanwhile, your experience took a drastic shift from one of struggle and discomfort, to one of peaceful and luxurious self love... all with a switch in the mind. All with a willingness to feel/see yourself and let it be a dialogue instead of a one way conversation.
By making the statement I did earlier, “People automatically assume that yoga is black and white”, what I mean is that the conventional narrative is “Either I am doing a posture... Or I am not.” Nothing in between those two. But herein lies the root of yoga injuries, yoga practices that lose momentum, or just the downright unpleasant experience that MANY people have in a yoga class. Neither the teachers nor the students have been equipped with the awareness of the very mechanisms we use to relate to our bodies.... And therefore we just take our experience, pleasant or unpleasant, at face value and either accept it... or we don’t. Essentially, your experience in your yoga practice is predetermined because you lack the simple awareness that you have a vast, even infinite array of possibilities at any given moment as you explore space and time through the human body. How do we go from Black and White to Technicolor in our yoga practice?
This is what I teach. Always ask yourself, “What am I really doing right now.” “What is my motivation.” “Am I honoring my body or imposing in this moment.” When we can ask questions like this, we begin to get very good at exposing the rigid and fixed tendencies of self relating. For example, if you are used to pushing yourself as though you pride yourself on being tough, you will rarely give yourself a gentle and sweet posture. To use the black and white analogy, to not do the posture at all is ‘black, let’s say... and if you decide to do a posture you take it all the way to the edge and then some (white) and you have nothing in between. As you begin to observe your tendency towards always having to be the best and how this is nothing short of an egotistical imposition on your silenced body, then you can become free to discover the vast spectrum of colors and flavors between black and white by easing up and having a dialogue instead of a monologue with your body.
My passion as a yoga teacher for years has been to shine light on the mechanisms of our relationship with our bodies... With ourselves. This is what I mean when I say “Yoga Practice.” The postures are just the occasion to bring to the forefront our habits of not only how we move our bodies, but also how we see ourselves, what motivates us to do what we do, and perhaps most importantly, the quality of this relationship with ourselves. Without this awareness, your yoga practice is seriously limited and predetermined... Perhaps even detrimental. We must make a point of observing ourselves as we explore the postures and the journeys between them because it is revealing through the Biofeedback or sense information what we are actually doing to ourselves in the present moment. And then we can change or enhance our experience to no end.
Many practitioners will require themselves to endure with sheer willpower even the most uncomfortable postures. Especially if they are new to opening their bodies, are relatively tight, and under the assumption that they are ‘behind’ everyone else. By automatically entertaining the latter thought in particular, the stage is set to be most certainly discouraging, uncomfortable and even painful/harmful. Think about it. You see others in the class moving into a posture way ‘further’ than your body is ready to.
Naturally you think ‘I want to get there too’ and you push in that direction to be met with not only the resistance of your tissues which are seemingly unwilling to oblige your aspirations... But also, and perhaps even more painful, the unpleasant feelings that accompany thoughts like ‘I’m so far behind....how long is it going to take me to get that flexible?...I’m never going to get there at this rate...yoga is just not for me...” and I could go on and on. But this is what many are experiencing. And many of the teachers are not doing anything about it. Often, the best you get is “keep practicing...you’ll get there some day”. And then they wonder why Steve hasn’t shown up to class in months.
The seed thought of this blog is “To feel your body is to see your body.” And to understand that this is even happening as a ground floor to your yoga practice, you are now equipped with the awareness which will allow you to observe what works and what doesn’t. What feels right and what doesn’t. This opens up a whole other realm involving the infinite possibilities of what one posture can show us. And I will have to unpack in a later blog... but for now... You can anticipate diving into self observation and trust what you feel/see as you journey through the vast inner universe of your body.