Monday 22 January 2018

Listen to your body. It's smarter than you.

Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Anyone who has ever visited a yoga class will recognise the motivational maxims uttered by teachers the world over. "Just breathe." "Go deeper." "Listen to your body."

It took a while for the latter one to register, particularly in the early days of my practice when my body was threatening to collapse at any moment. Listen to my body? I can't even feel my fingers!

The maxim, I decided, was a lovely idea at best, and a trite yoga cliché at worst. It was years later - during a class with one of those teachers that look so light and ethereal that you're pretty sure they live on prana and levitate on a whim - when it finally clicked.

"Listen to your bodies," she intoned. "You're on the same team."

And that's when I joined the dots. How could I listen to my body when I was fighting it? How could I receive any wisdom it had to share when I was conditioned to see it as the enemy? My body wasn't the weight I wanted it to be, so I punished it with Monday morning extreme diet plans. My thighs weren't as smooth as the models in the magazines, so I picked and poked at them when I looked in the mirror.

I couldn't bend like the other women in the class so I pushed myself further and further until I couldn't feel my fingers anymore. We weren't on the same team - we were in competition. And I wasn't winning.

It was during that class that I finally understood the essence of yoga practice: the union of mind, body and spirit. Again, what was once just another yoga cliché finally made sense. My mind and body were meant to be on the same team. The objective was to unite them through spirit, which, at the most simple and tangible level, is just another word for breath. (I later discovered that the etymological roots of the word 'spirit' derive from the words 'breath' and 'wind').

My body and I became allies after that class, and it's no coincidence that I haven't so much as read a diet plan since. My muscle/fat composition has changed and I'm convinced that my metabolism is faster. Much faster.

I have a different relationship with my body, and because it feels different, it looks different. I don't harshly critique it any more. Okay, I wince a little when I see new cellulite, but the days of self-disgust are long gone. During a class, I'm more likely to admire my strong legs than abhor the belly rolls that appear when I do a forward bend. And as for comparing my practise to the other infinitely bendier women in the class? I don't even see them because my eyes are closed so that I can tune in.

That's another thing - you can't tune in to a conflicting wavelength. How can you listen to a body that is constantly telling you that you're fat and slow and unfit? Positive body image and body wisdom work hand in glove. "To the despisers of the body," wrote Nietzsche, "Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage - whose name is self. In your body he dwells; he is your body. There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom." Take home message? Your mind, where ego resides, can play tricks on you. But the body? It never lies.

We all listen to our bodies in one way or another. We drink when we're thirsty and we rest when we're unwell. We respond to sleep cycles and seasonal cycles, hunger cycles and menstrual cycles. We are constantly responding to our environment. But remarkable things happen when we really start to listen to our bodies. The exquisite symbiosis unveils itself and subtle feedback loops become more apparent. You discover that your body is an intricate self-regulating system, designed for perfection.

Why read a diet book when you have direct access to a unique, personalised diet plan that guarantees your best possible physique? Your body has the diet plan for you and by you. You wrote it. You just need to tune in to access it. It starts by eating when you're hungry and not eating when you're not. It's that simple.

Really listening to your body helps you discover your triggers. You'll recognise that brain-fog, muscle spasms and a clenched jaw are signals to slow down. Not tomorrow or the next day, but right now. Soon you'll be able to taste stress hormones when your body secretes them and reverse a cold because you were able to sense the first signs of it.

Your body will tell you when you're in bad company. That emotionally depleted feeling you get when you're around negative people? That's your body's way of telling you to order a taxi for one. Likewise, that "have you had something done?" question that people ask when you're in the first flushes of love? That's your body's way of telling you that this relationship is the right one for you, right now.

So how do you tune in? Yoga and meditation help enormously. Nature heightens the senses and you've probably noticed that you don't want to eat crap after an invigorating beach walk. Numbing toxins block the flow - it's not just the reduced calorie intake that makes teetotallers look better.

Listening to your gut once helps you listen to your gut again. Crucially, it's about trusting that your body knows best. To quote another yoga maxim: "Listen to your body. It's smarter than you."

If that doesn't work, you could always just ask. Close your eyes, find a moment of stillness and ask your body what it needs right now. The first thing that pops into your head, however abstract, is your answer.

Trust me, it works.

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