The body is our most tangible teacher, confidante and adventure buddy. It gives us joy and trouble, confidence and sorrow. Below are a few disjointed jottings on this fabulous net of neurons, this house of spirit.
Once you understand many little things, you may grow to understand one Big Thing, said the great yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar. In other words, the more you are able to spread your consciousness to touch all parts of your body simultaneously, or explore with your mind the nether regions of organs and cells, the more you will become aware of all of Creation and its nature. You inhabit the universe in an ever more fine-tuned way as you keep practicing.
There are aspects of life which can't be experienced through any other medium, and teachings which can't be communicated in any other way. Not even getting into sex, let's take Alexander Technique: there is no simple way of expressing what we gain by it, but undoubtedly we do. The first time I tried it, the cleansing was so intense that I ran a slight temperature. Helped by the fever, I began to sense the deep mechanisms of connection within us all. Watching a chameleon on television after that first session, I was struck by the way it moved forward. The movement of its front leg originates in the spine. The actual "leg" is much longer than the visible leg.
Our cultures are built around the measurements of the human body – architecture, cups, books, airplanes, everything. Only traditional factories and contemporary art are out of scale, but for very different reasons: one wants to jolt us into a new awareness, and the other just doesn't care.
The body does not lie. It tells us what is right for us. When we are unhappy, stressed or broken-hearted, our shoulders are hunched, the ribcage collapses inwards, and our jaw juts despondently out. We shrink and contract, there is no room between the organs. Cities can have the same effect: coming back to rainy Paris one time from wide-open Bretagne, the people seemed much smaller, pinched. Happiness and growth are marked by expansion, space, light bathing our innards. No wonder we pamper ourselves in spas and pools.
The body retains emotion in areas that are habitually out of our awareness and sight: between the rib bones and the shoulder blades, in the hips, the lower back. In some practices, like yin yoga's extended asana, you can feel the dead emotional weight leaving the body like bats out of hell.
We can use physical exhaustion to break through mental limitations. Some artists drive themselves into sleepless stupor to overcome the limiting demands of the cortex. The intentional trance induced in shamanic rituals by walking and dancing loosens our ties of reason and to the world. We are free to enter the realm of God without fetters, dissolving in movement into Him. As we merge more and more with the Infinite, we become all creatures. On a forest walk, a deer glimpsed is no longer separate from us. We are the deer, and the deer is us.
It works for less creative and spiritual endeavours too: a few years ago, I was into target shooting. After beginner's luck wore off, I developed the usual unhelpful habits, and all the shots clustered to the upper right of the bullseye. My teacher told me: "Your brain needs to shut up and stop talking about the righthand upper quarter. Take a day, an endless amount of ammunition and just keep aiming and shooting until you're exhausted. Take small breaks to check up on your well-being. And then shoot some more. It will free your aim and body."
A peripatetic yoga teacher once said, "We nomads need to inhabit our bodies very consciously - they are our home, the place that anchors us everywhere." He talked about his blood vessels and thigh muscles taking position next to the memory of his mother's earthen pots and pans in far-away Anatolia.
The underlying idea of a fit, lovely body does make sense. Understanding the language of the body and helping it flourish makes us feel sensual, strong, resilient. It is our companion on adventures: a lot of fun things require a body we can rely on. It gives us vitality, ki, prana. That, in turn, gives us the strength to pursue our dreams, and makes our days more Now.