Body-Positive Yoga: How to Deepen Your Practice with Mindfulness
“It is through the body that everything comes to the mind. It is through and with your body that you have to reach realization of being a spark of divinity. How can we neglect the temple of the spirit?” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar (Sparks of Divinity, Rodmell Press)
When I first read this quote years ago I interpreted it this way: It is through our practice of asana, at those times when we lose the struggle and become the asana, that we see into our true nature, the undefined spaciousness that connects us all. This still rings true for me. Asana, if we practice with a complete commitment to being fully in each moment, can offer a glimpse into the free and settled mind that is intrinsic to all of us.
Since practicing asana became popular, there’s been much debate about how the practice has become Westernized, that asana has become mere exercise. Many longtime teachers and practitioners emphasize that yoga is not all about the body, at least not in the way we’re interpreting it these days. Asana practice is just one of the eight limbs of yoga. It’s not about being über flexible and fashion model thin. This is true. But asana is a body-centered practice, but that has nothing to do with the age, weight, flexibility, or general appearance of the bodies we bring to practice.
The body-positive yoga conversation is an important one. It is important that no one feel excluded from practice because of his/her age, weight, body type, injuries, genetics, flexibility or inflexibility, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Anyone who practices yoga is living in a “yoga body.”
It’s a positive development that the larger yoga community is starting to question the popular images of yoga as the domain of young, white, thin, bendy, fashionable women. The reduction of popular yoga to Madison Avenue-friendly images has only served to reinforce our already ingrained cultural neuroses about physical appearance. These completely arbitrary guidelines as to what is or is not officially attractive that have caused so much suffering for so many people. Isn’t the purpose of yoga practice to free us from the ideas and beliefs that imprison us?
Important as it is, I sometimes wonder if the body-positive yoga conversation is still not quite connecting with the deeper relationship between yoga practice and our bodies. Despite all its positives, the body-positive yoga discussion explores our relationship to the physical appearance of the body rather than our direct relationship to the experience of living inside our bodies.
Mindfulness And Body-Positive Yoga
This brings me back to Iyengar’s quote, which can be understood not only as a philosophy about practice, but as a practice instruction. I also read the quote as a call to mindfulness.
The first of what are called the “four foundations of mindfulness” is mindfulness of the body. Sometimes meditation practitioners misinterpret the body as being subservient to the mind. But as the years have passed, I’ve come to realize that awareness of the body is the key to the freedom of the mind.
The body is not just a vehicle that transports our minds from one place to another. The body is the window to everything we experience—everything. We perceive the world around us through our bodies, through sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Everything we encounter, whether or not we’re conscious of it—registers as a sensation in our bodies.
If we are ever to be mindful, we must drop below the level of thinking about our experience to being directly present with our actual experience. In order to do this, we must direct our bare attention to our bodies.
Here’s another point: Our bodies are always in the present. They can not be otherwise. If you want to be present, tune into your body.
It’s incredibly simple, but I will never claim that it’s easy. Most of us have practiced thinking, either consciously or unconsciously, our entire lives. As anyone who has sat down to meditate knows, our minds are constantly flitting from one thought to another like the Buddha’s metaphor, a wild monkey leaping from tree to tree.
It’s mindfulness of the body that provides the anchor for awareness. We can tune into the sensations in our bodies and propel ourselves right back into the present, even when the thought tapes are running at full volume.
When you notice you’re lost in thought, try this: Don’t try to banish the thoughts. Just let them be. Instead, redirect your awareness to your body. Then notice what happens to the mental drama that was so compelling just moments ago.
How To Practice Body Appreciation
Through our sense experiences, we connect directly to each moment. In each moment that we fully connect, we are temporarily free of the thoughts and beliefs that disconnect us from the measureless infinity that we are. All this because we live in these bodies. And the best thing about this is that we all have one; living in a body is not just for the privileged few. It doesn’t matter whether we’re old, young, small, large, healthy or unhealthy.
In his classic book, Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a body-awareness meditation based on these phrases.
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.
Reflect on how fortunate you are to live in the body you inhabit. It carries you from one place to another. It gives you access to everything that is without and everything that is within—the beauty of this Earth, the pleasure of music and art, the practice of interpersonal relationships, the joy of a satisfying asana practice, the passing joys and sorrows that teach us about living in this world.
And here’s the great thing: You can enjoy all the wonders your body gives you access to no matter what it looks like. Through the moment-to-moment experience of inhabiting your body, you might realize you are a spark of divinity.
Reprinted with permission from Hugger Mugger Yoga Products.
Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.