Body Awareness: What is it good for? • 6 August 2007

When I was 20 and drinking my way across Costa Rica (thankfully, a small country) a swivel-hipped Latin guy tried for weeks to teach me Salsa and Meringue. I would have been embarrassed at my failure to learn had I thought dance was even slightly important or interesting. At the time, the way he moved neither impressed me nor turned me on.

Until my mid-20s, the details that interested me were ideas. Body parts didn’t fit in the jar that was my brain, so I didn’t care about them. I had never studied dance or martial arts, never did any kind of formal athletics post junior high basketball (unless a scrappy upstart college lacrosse team counts—though we were primarily a drinking club), and I certainly never worked with a coach or personal trainer for anything. I do regret missing out for so long.

I would not say that astanga yoga got me interested in the body right away. But… over time, a detailed awareness of the body is pretty well guaranteed if you do this practice, which is silent and internally focused. You get sensitive to the details of how you move in space, of where tension circulates and coalesces, and of how different muscles, ligaments and bones relate to one another. Eventually, it gets a little weird. Like you know from the way your shoulder moves that your T-12 is out, or you notice way too acutely that the orange you ate at 3 pm on Tuesday brings a sort of acidity and watery-ness to your G-I tract that’s still present on Wednesday morning, or you get so you can dialogue with your uterus in this very useful way. Also, you might start to notice and play with your breath, throwing the voluntary/involuntary switch every chance you get and realizing how much all your thoughts and emotions are hinged to simple respiration.

There’s an argument to be made that the body functions on involuntary mode to free your awareness up to do higher-order operations. And that yoga pushes the mind back into the realms we’ve consigned to “automatic”—not just physical functions, but mental and emotion reactions as well. There’s an argument to be made (I’ll be arguing against it in public later this week, likely) that this sort of “mindfulness” is the simply province of capitalism’s leisure people—a preoccupation of those who have no occupation left. These arguments see the “attention market” as a zero-sum arena, in which we have to make choices about which capacities (and relationships) deserve our energy and attention, and which do not. While I’m always interested in a good critique, I would say that this assumption is mistaken. While yoga definitely involves sacrifices of time and energy, mindful awareness of the body seems to increase my energy and capacity to pay attention on various levels of experience simultaneously. Just because I am unusually aware of my body doesn’t mean, necessarily, that I’m less aware of my world… or that my sense of the world becomes limited to that which my body can articulate.

For me, the more interesting argument against body awareness is that may increase a person’s suffering in the presence of pain. As discussed here over the past weekend, most people would not know the difference if their sacrum were shifted, as mine is. But the fact that I feel this change both during and out of practice has at times led me to identify as someone with an injury. I feel pain in my sacrum because I investigate and amplify all sensation in my pelvis in order to map it with my senses. I wish for change, get irritated, and suffer.

Have I become neurotic or just more aware? This is what I wondered when I started meditating in a way that made subconscious emotional and thought streams semi-visible. The question has come up for me again this summer, with respect to body awareness in the presence of pain.

Ultimately, I don’t buy the second argument against body awareness any more than the first. While awareness of pain might distress me from time to time, that’s because I’m relatively immature. The longer it stays around, the more nonchalant I become about it, and the more days of practice I have in which I can be aware of pain (or better: sharp sensation) and still have moments of transcendence. I don’t know how that works or why, but it seems like a big deal. It seems like this is about equanimity on a concrete, practical level.

None of this says what intense body awareness is actually good for, I guess because that’s simple. It’s wondrous and inspiring. I never knew what I was missing. And it’s really not that elusive. There’s really no good reason to live in the dark.