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“Let us have good head and shoulders—the basic elegant posture of enlightenment.” ~ Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
My body was screaming in pain.
The searing sensation in my back was unavoidable, no matter what position, posture, or movement I contorted or cajoled myself into.
From the attachment of rib seven onto my spine, a tight and sharp feeling ripped upward, culminating in a hot pinch at the base of my skull. From that rib, I could trace the tugging on the sheaths of muscles and connective tissue all the way to the arch of my left foot, like the elastic of a stirrup pant pulled too tight.
I stood and looked at myself in the mirror: my shoulders rounded forward, my belly popped out, and my ribs dropped.
And if I were to read my own body language, I would guess that I was dejected, sad, and rejected.
My body was speaking something not too far from the truth.
Although our culture cleaves the mind and body apart, the truth is this: they are one. Our posture speaks volumes about our emotional inner state, and our emotional landscape shapes the outline of our body.
Dozens of times a day, the micromovements of anxiety, sadness, and happiness roll through our viscera. Most of us have almost no conscious awareness of the constant activity of our skin, muscles, and fascia, even as we stop breathing when we are angry at our co-workers, clench our jaws when we are tensely waiting on hold, or grip our back muscles to protect ourselves from the ravages of too many things on our task list.
Each of us has our own slightly unique blueprint for how we physically manifest these emotional stressors. Yet few of us were taught how to tune in to, let alone decode, the signals our body sends or what unique muscular presentation of tension we are personally carrying.
We are somatically illiterate.
And when we don’t understand the dynamic between our posture and our mind, we are almost as far from enlightenment as it gets.
The day my posture started screaming at me was a day when I was “soldiering through.” My son was suffering a migraine, alternating between needy and angry. My yoga teacher training was overwhelming: I was frustrated and flustered when called upon to teach a pose that I had first encountered literally minutes before. I struggled with a friend, who had wordlessly disappeared and was ignoring my messages containing attempts at either reconciliation or understanding.
By the end of the day, beliefs of “I’m too much,” “I’m unloveable,” “I’m a bad mother,” and “I’m not worthy of being someone’s friend or companion” ricocheted through my head—and it was written all over my body.
Our musculature holds the truth.
When we link the experience of our felt senses to our emotional landscape, we realize that chronic stress can be the root cause of our aches and pains, fatigue or maladies.
Those pains and postures, in turn, direct and dictate the experiences of our emotional and intellectual life. This relationship is circular rather than linear.
I was raised in the stoic landscape of bygone years. Emotions were not only deemed unimportant but also were seen by my parents as tools of potential manipulation.
They were to be ruled, eliminated, and controlled.
In our family, we were trained to be reserved. Like Goldilocks, we were to be not too little (“I’m talking to you. You need to answer me!)” and not too much (“Quit being silly!”). It was irrelevant if the emotions were happy or sad, my siblings and I were to dole them out in just the right quantities at just the right time.
Because of that, nobody ever told me how to “self-soothe” or regulate myself. And nobody ever told me that my body’s sensations were clues to the emotional landscape we were to so carefully tuck from view.
As early as 17, I remember that my body often hurt. I was so used to clenching my jaw, tensing my neck, lifting my shoulders, and stopping my breath that these actions became normal.
Like an animal prepared to run, my posture was the posture of someone in fear.
I increasingly dissociated, became avoidant, and turned to coping mechanisms to numb myself: drinking, exercising for “stress relief,” and over-achieving.
None of it worked, and I couldn’t figure out why.
Our failure to embody our experiences is not our fault. We’ve been trained to seek professional guidance in the disciplines of mind or body when maladies arise. Yet the wisdom of our lives is integrated within our tissues and posture. And extracting the data for ourselves is a skill that we can learn.
The more specific language we can employ, the more skilled we can become in noticing nuance and embodying our experiences.
Standing in my kitchen in pain, I paused and became present. What was happening in my body?
I started exploring my jaw in detail: I was clenching it and gritting my teeth. I established that it was more gripped on the left side, specifically under my jawbone. The right side felt comparatively relaxed, and so did the bone lining my face compared to the joint, which was hot.
Then I moved my attention to recalling the emotionally distressing incidents of the day and started dissecting what happened and processing who was to blame: me.
The tugging in my back shouted at me to stop. I paused. What emotions did I feel right now?
Anger. Sadness. Fear.
I paused. What did I believe about myself? I shamefully admitted that I must not be loveable.
I had simultaneously gripped the hell out of my jaw, stopped breathing, lifted my shoulders, and activated the muscles in my neck. My jaw was clenching even more tightly.
But while engrossed in the throes of shame and guilt, I had completely stopped noticing my body.
I turned my attention to simultaneously holding awareness of my body tension, my emotions, and my beliefs.
The chorus of information from my brain, heart, and body sang together in my awareness. The story of the tension was now clear; I had a bath to soothe my muscles, FaceTimed a friend to be witnessed and co-regulate, and did some yin yoga to give compassion to my somatic experience.
Being present to the experience and wisdom of our muscles means that we develop expert levels of self-attunement.
With a simple-but-difficult daily practice such as the one above, we learn to react with our bodies based on information from our mind, and we can react with our mind based on information from our body.
We can acknowledge and accept the experience of the present moment and offer ourselves compassion for whatever arises.
We can learn to move and treat our bodies to what nourishes, energizes, restores, and refreshes us, when we need it most.
When we stop cleaving the mind and body in two, enlightenment awaits.