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.

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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.

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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.

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