learning to love the body in sickness and in health

How would one learn the body better than to be sick? How would one know better to be merciful, loving, and tender with the body than to be challenged by an illness or an injury?” Clarissa Pinkola Éstes

Being kind to and looking after our bodies sometimes doesn’t come naturally. I have spent most of my adult life learning to treat my body and myself with the same love and respect I would treat a friend.

I have lived through sickness and had many appointments in the doctor’s surgery, to-ing, and fro-ing between specialists, getting this test or that and doing endless research to try and find answers, ultimately being forced to take of myself. I recently became aware of an imbalance between my body and mind, which yoga is helping to bring my attention to as I practice restoring balance.

Here’s what I’m learning about loving the body in sickness and health.

My body says to my mind, “I don’t trust you.” She is cautious because, too many times, my mind has ignored her. When she desperately needs rest, my mind has made her keep DOING when she has asked for water.

My mind neglected this thirst when she needed to be listened to; instead, I abused her with too much alcohol or other things to silence what the reason did not want to hear. “I’m sick!” my body cried on many occasions until finally, my mind slowly started to listen.

But here’s the thing: years after learning to take better care of my body, abstaining from harmful substances like alcohol, and eating lots of healthy foods, my mind finds it hard to trust a body that is still sick. My mind says to her, “I don’t like what you’re telling me! I don’t trust you, either. You don’t work correctly.

Why can’t you just be normal? I’ve tried EVERYTHING. When will it be enough? The details of my particular illness aren’t the most important, as this same story could fit into many labels of ill health.

But part of my struggle has been coeliac disease, an auto-immune condition whereby my body attacks itself when gluten is ingested. My mind is cautious because, too many times, my body has shot itself and caused pain, sickness, and exhaustion. There are two valid sides to this dispute, to this disharmony, this distrust.

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And my spirit is caught in the middle between the two, trying to unite the decade-long feud between a mind and a body that long to be whole. I am still working on it, little by little, day by day. It’s been seven years since my coeliac diagnosis and at least ten years of very up-and-down health.

But it has also been this long since I first found yoga, which has offered a way to unite mind, body, and spirit.

At first, I just went to a weekly class and enjoyed switching off on a Wednesday night during a stressful exam period at school. I dipped my toe in and out of the water for the following years until I finally committed to daily practice and completing my teacher training.

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One part of yogic philosophy that has started to help with this union of mind, body, and spirit is ahimsa. 

Ahimsa is one of the yamas – which can be described as an ethical code of conduct – making up Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of YogaAhimsa means non-violence or non-harming. This extends to others, but a more challenging part of ahimsa is practicing this same compassion and care for ourselves.

When practicing non-violence towards ourselves, we need to take care of our bodies physical needs as well as our mind’s emotional needs, and of course, the two are intrinsically linked.

Non-violence is not merely confined to abstaining from causing physical harm but mental injury too. Ahimsa means not beating ourselves up with our thoughts, examples of which could be I’m not good enough, hate my body, or useless.

These three things are all things I have said to myself when I am sick and when my body needs love and care, but instead, I have rejected her and abandoned her.

I recently listened to Clarissa Pinkola Estés reading ‘The Joyous Body Myths & Stories of the Wild Women Archetype,’ and it struck me deeply to hear her describing how it might be if you were to treat a dear friend the way you may treat yourself.

I was horrified at the idea of saying any of these things to a friend in need. I would not tell them they were useless or be angry at them. I would ask kindly, “what do you need, my love? How can I help you?” I would listen attentively and do what I could to meet those needs.

How yoga has personally helped me treat myself like a loved friend and less like a sworn enemy is not only through the philosophy, which is all about union and non-violence, but also through physical practice.

The physical practice itself is an embodiment of the philosophy, and it is through the daily yoga practice that I began to truly understand and feel into what this union of mind, body, and spirit is (to truly understand and embody this union of mind, body, and spirit) and how to practice ahimsa for myself.

Clarissa Pinkola Éstes says, “To love the body is to grant it an honorable place in your life instead of as an afterthought.”

This is precisely what my yoga practice does. It makes my body a priority and creates the space to tune in to what my body has to say.

Every time I roll out my mat and sit down, I begin by closing my eyes, centering myself in the present moment by connecting with my breath and feeling into my body, in this moment and in every moment that follows during the practice of different yoga postures, whether an energetic flow or a set of restorative floor postures, I am allowing my body to be as it is.

I am accepting my body.

Whether sick, tired, healthy, or injured, my mind is saying to my body, “I love you, I take care of you, I am here with you, and I am listening.”

The sheer power of this very act is beyond words.

Although I may not be able to find the right words to describe the profound effect that yoga practice has had on me, I can say that I have felt the benefits and that slowly, slowly, by practicing ahimsa little by little, day by day, my mind and body are beginning to learn to trust one another.

This makes my spirit dance with joy.

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