Is Your Body Untrustworthy?

What does it mean to “listen to your body?” Irritated by the perceived glut of platitudes spouted by yoga instructors, a recent blog by instructor Maya Georg targets this as her top “yoga cliché.” Noting we must “never, ever buy into them,” she shares “If I listened to my body I would smoke four packs of cigarettes a day, drink a fifth of vodka, and eat nothing but chocolate ice cream as I lay on my couch.” While I don’t argue with Georg’s experience, I do take issue with her conflation of “listening to one’s body” with over-indulgence and debauchery.

Georg posits that our bodies are intrinsically lazy “creatures of comfort and routine” that “betray us (think sneezes and gas),” and “can only be mastered through discipline.” A hallmark of Cartesian mind-body dualism, such beliefs support the relational matrix of body to mind in our cultural context (and, to be fair, many others). The body, frequently gendered as female, was historically framed as an untrustworthy, wily, seductive, and lazy entity requiring discipline and restraint by the mind. Deriving from silos of past millennia, such beliefs interweave our cultural samskara.

Mind-body dualism is inherent to Classical yoga philosophy, which posits the manifest world to be an illusion, and the body’s sensory pleasures as temptations to overcome in the pursuit of enlightenment and transcendence. This parallels Christian asceticism and other major religions, which have largely tended to view the body as essentially “feminine,” in need of controlling, and lacking the standalone wherewithal to tame unruly desires. Underlying such philosophies is a fear of the body, and the perceived chaos that would rein absent its restraint. This mirrors the fate of women, both historically and in many regions, to the present day.

Such fears permeate the fabric of our society, and our lives. The fear that if we give up an inch of control, we’ll lose a mile; that if we listen to our bodies, we’ll become fat, addicted slobs, is implicit in modern narratives of the self. So, too, is the belief that vigilant discipline is required to restrain the lusts and appetites of this embodied creatura, this sensual beast that would otherwise thwart our best efforts at self-control.

And so, lines drawn are in the sand, mind versus embodiment’s vast frontier. Distrusted, maligned, and perceived as qualitatively different from the self, the body’s wisdom, and our capacity to listen become unmoored.

Historical depictions of women have been closely tied to embodiment. Frequent stereotypes shared by women and bodies included deceptiveness, seduction, and uncleanliness. Women have been revered and feared for their cunning, intelligence, and wisdom throughout history. Regions failing to harness women’s intellectual and economic contributions have experienced setbacks to the present day. To extend this reasoning, I argue that in failing to mobilize and honor the body’s wisdom, invaluable resources languish that could otherwise optimize well-being.

What is your experience and opinion of the relationship between body and mind?

This is Part 1 of a three-part series. In Part 2, we discuss scientific perspectives on the relationship between body and mind. Part 3 considers the tantric celebration of embodiment, and the benefits of enlisting the body’s wisdom in everyday life.

Comments 2

  1. Maybe I’m coming at this from an unusual direction, but my own experience with mind and body duality is this:

    My body wants exercise and sunlight and to eat a lot of vegetables. It feels good and rewards me with an excess of energy when i do or have these things.

    It is my soul that wants to eat chocolate ice cream for breakfast. My body wants no part of that, but sometimes, your inner self needs comfort from an unusual or seemingly unhealthy direction. I think there’s no harm in listening to those impulses from time to time, as long as a balance is struck.

  2. “Georg posits that our bodies are intrinsically lazy ”creatures of comfort and routine” that ”betray us (think sneezes and gas),” and ”can only be mastered through discipline.””

    Well what about little children, most of whom are all over the place, all the time, with seemingly boundless energy? Are THEY naturally lazy? NO! … What kind of a “routine” are they on? NONE! Do they need to be disciplined to exercise? NO! …

    They spontaneously do what ever, when ever, most of the time, until they fall asleep. Many, if not most, are born with a natural proclivity to be very active & spontaneous. But it gets conditioned out of us early on. Especially when the put us in front of a TeeVee set or more recently, a computer game.

    Now, it’s true that if you get conditioned into liking ice cream, you’ll probably prefer that to real food. But you’ve probably taught yourself to like ice cream by repetition. You sometimes have to change your conditioning before the quality of your messages improves.

    The “listen to your body” element comes in when you try something “new,” such as, commit to trying NO ice cream and lots of something good for you for one month. Then see how it feels. Compare the results. Which do you like better? See if you’re not drawn to better foods because of how you feel afterwards.

    The process of yoga is, in my mind, not about imposing rules on one-self. It’s about using physical/mental yoga to improve your ability to truly feel what’s really going on underneath the superficial messages. To be able to listen to, or in some cases even hear, the more subtle messages.

    Will you be tempted to eat ice cream? Maybe, maybe not. But when you feel the results of the ice cream, you might not. I’m not saying this works perfect every time, or there are any guarantees. But it works a LOT of the time for a LOT of people.

    In my case, I cheated. I used Tofuti, then Rice Dream, then unsweetened carob-covered almonds, to gradually, step-by-step, wean myself then break my Haagen Daaz addiction. It took about two months, but it worked. … Those replacement items were not exactly “good” for me. But they were enough to clear my need for whatever was in the ice cream my body wanted. And, occasionally I’ll have some ice cream made from coconut milk, or a bag of carob covered almonds. But I very rarely have “bad” deserts now.

    The point is, my entire life of dealing with the food thing, if I used some discipline initially, then just “let-go,” I usually found I preferred the feeling in my body of the better stuff. (Except wine & beer, in small to moderate dosage. And I probably eat WAY too many raw cashews lately. But other than that I’m pretty sane in my eating.)

    So, just like in a hatha yoga posture, where you exert in with some will power for a while (discipline), then let go to relax into the posture and see what happens, so too, much or most of life is like that. Yoga can be more like a dance, not a contest of willpower versus evil.

    In the early 1980s, when I was suffering severe back pain, every time I did yoga, I was even worse afterwards, often near paralyzed. I stopped doing yoga all together for a couple of years as a result.

    When, after looking at an X-ray, I realized I had been stretching all the wrong muscles, I re-designed my yoga approach, and got way better pretty fast.

    But before, I had been stretching the muscles that “felt right” because they were achy & sore and “needed” the stretch & relief. But they were on the Opposite Side from the Real Sources of my pain. But the real trouble makers felt fine. So I thought I was “listening to my body,” but was stretching the wrong muscles as a result.

    So, I learned, “If it feels Good, be VERY Careful if You Do It,” and sometimes what your body is “telling you” has a hidden message, or is showing you the message in mirror image.

    That’s why I was stretching the “wrong muscles.” I had not yet learned what my body was REALLY telling me, only what I thought was feeling.

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