Embodiment, or the conscious experience of being in your body (as opposed to simply having a body unfeeling) see , is vitally important to living fully and freely.
Embodiment is involved in every aspect of our being. It is central to the choices and connection we make. Because if we are connected to ourselves, then we can connect to others and to the planet. In this way, embodiment plays a decisive role in social change.
Sadly, many people confuse athletic bodily pursuits with embodied ones. Many potentially embodying arts, such as yoga, exist in forms which have the opposite effect, taking us further from the home of the body. Here’s how:
Overwhelming exercises force people to ignore their bodies. While intensity can heighten bodily awareness to a certain extent (part of the genius of yoga), too much intensity discourages awareness. After all, who wants to hang out with a screaming body?!
With the trend in yoga towards more and more extreme practice (anyone for dynamic, hot, hardcore rocket torture genocide yoga?), intensity is becoming more of an issue. Our society is addicted to high intensity sensation, and habituated to high speed and pushing. While this kind of practice is seductive and addictive, it is the last thing most of us need!
Remember the motto, No pain no gain? When we take this approach to our bodies, we are so disconnected that it can lead to Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.
Where a physical activity demands too much, the quiet voice of intuition and parts of ourselves needing softer care will be missed.
If the focus of a system is how a body looks, or conforming to a form, then how the body feels will be ignored. If a group of people make exactly the same shapes at exactly the same time, which is what many yoga teachers strive for, this resembles a Nuremberg rally more than an embodying practice. The military take uniformity to the extreme in order to ensure compliance and drown out individuality, with mutiny as the greatest crime. In fact, according to War Studies Professor Gary Sheffield, “one of the factors that enabled the soldiers of the First World War to endure terrible conditions and high casualties was discipline”.
In line with the above, if the implicit or explicit message a teacher gives is, “what I say is more important than how you feel”, people learn to ignore and mistrust their own bodies.
Authority can look like adjustments without consent (horribly common in yoga), punishment for not doing exactly what's required (big in martial arts), being offered no choice (e.g. in terms of postures to fit different body types), having to do something to a count, being "encouraged"/pressured to keep going or go deeper (a habit many yoga teachers have picked up from the fitness industry, itself strongly influenced by military and Nazi calisthenics), not letting people stop or change an aspect of practice to fit their bodily differences, subtle social shaming, etc.
Many yoga teachers give lip service to "listen to your body" but the whole set-up of the class is a top-down command structure, and non-invitational command language can reinforce this. As Professor Sheffield remarks of military structures during World War One,
“all armies subjected new recruits to basic training which ranged from the unpleasant to the brutal, the aim being to break down the individuality of the new soldiers and to mould them into a group that would carry out orders unquestioningly”.
4. Sexual and emotional suppression
If a system does not acknowledge sexuality, then the body is repressed. Many practices subtly include the Christian notion of the sexual body as sinful, dangerous and primarily in need of control (see below). This can take subtle forms such as the genitals being missed out from body scans in meditations. I have very rarely heard a yoga teacher refer to sexual sensations (which are just as legitimate and present as any other sensation). Equally, because wellbeing and positivity play such a key role in marketing techniques, there is often little space allowed for “darker” emotions to arise.
5. The body "beautiful" / objectification
The modern yoga industry – and it is an industry worth many millions – is now utterly complicit in the media's attempts to objectify us. That is, to make us relate to ourselves as objects to be improved according to someone else standards. Under the cloak of wellbeing, self-loathing and sexual objectification is encouraged in much yoga culture and some of the dance world. In some situations, this can lead to self-destructive habits.
Yoga journalist, Chelsea Roff, writes that “for people with disordered eating habits, or those with poor body image […,] counting on yoga’s promise of emotional and spiritual healing can be perilous: drawn to yoga as a means of self-care, they instead may find reinforcement for dangerous weight-control behaviours in a studio culture that increasingly celebrates thinness, flexibility, and perfection of form”.(see Yogajournal article r.e Yoga eating disorders)
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