2016-06-30

Discomfort is what often leads people to try Eastern and Western body-mind disciplines, what I call "bodyways." They want to relieve stress and pain. What they don't know is that they may get a lot more than they bargained for--physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

While hands-on sessions, group classes, or workshops in any of the bodyways may banish the aches and leave you refreshed, they may also delight you with other benefits: Don't be surprised if you also experience acceptance of yourself and others, calmness even in crisis, confidence in pursuing your dreams, gratitude for the gift of life, and a desire to be a force for peace in the world.

We all have a natural drive toward healthy or optimal functioning. Our instinct is to move toward wholeness, connection, and peace. Bodyways are useful for guiding us in that direction. They foster self-knowledge, which is key to spiritual growth. As the Tao-te ching counsels: "Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom."

If you can't hear what your stomach, heart, or right leg is telling you, how are you going to get your spouse, friend, child, or employer to understand you?

Martial arts are valuable in cultivating self-knowledge. I've heard many anecdotes about people attracted to these arts in order to master techniques to defend themselves and overcome opponents. What they end up learning is that true self-defense is avoiding conflict and belligerence. Gradually, they are transformed by the highest purpose of martial arts--unity and harmony within and without. Instead of merely skillfully imitating the movements, they develop moral character; a quiet, focused, unwavering mind; and a peaceful life. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, defined it as "the manifestation of Love." He called the Japanese way of combat--budo--"a Path of Peace." He said, "True budo is for the sake of peace and harmony; train daily to manifest this spirit throughout the world."

An essential ingredient in knowing yourself is sensory awareness--focusing attention on what you're experiencing in the body. Taking up a movement art or getting massaged can help increase such sensitivity. In turn, it can enhance not only your physical health but also the health of your relationships.

Dr. James Lynch, author of "The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness," says, "People most vulnerable to disease are extraordinarily disconnected from their bodies." When you don't sense what is going on in your own body, you may end up with a condition that you could have prevented. The same applies to relationships. The more knowledge you have of yourself, the better able you are to state your positions, needs, and desires and to hear what others have to say. If you can't hear what your stomach, heart, or right leg is telling you, how are you going to get your spouse, friend, child, or employer to understand you? Sensitivity can lead to authentic dialogue as well as to flexibility and creativity in coming up with solutions. In a world fraught with conflict and violence, this is no small benefit.

It may seem strange to consider that lying on a table to be Rolfed or moving swiftly and precisely in Aikido can help you in personal transformation. However, the potential is always there. Working with the body can provide a mirror in which to see and feel yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Contact Improvisation is a good example. As an unstructured movement form, it gives you the opportunity to learn how to improvise spontaneously rather than follow a formal series of steps. To participate in Contact is to carry on a physical dialogue with another person, generally in silence and always in motion. Contact partners maintain a constant awareness of gravity, weight, and changing points of contact between their bodies. Through this awareness and the ongoing feedback it gives them, many of them pick up unexpected skills, including nonverbal communication, self-responsibility, immediate responsiveness, and the ability to give and trustingly receive support and to let things "happen."

All of these are integral to spiritual discipline and the art of daily living. It's not uncommon for Contact players to notice their self-image change. Before, they didn't see themselves as dancers or playful beings; now they're uninhibited about moving and relating. Before, they feared close physical touch; now they can experience sensual contact that is not sexual. Before, they always followed others; now they take the initiative and are willing to risk.

Psychologists believe that physical changes accompany better emotional functioning, and clergy believe that physical healing can result from spiritual alignment. Bodyways practitioners claim the reverse is also true. Get rid of physical problems and you clear the way for greater mental and spiritual health. That's what a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., learned. He switched from his ministry to massage therapy when he realized that 80% of the time when people were depressed and "not feeling right with God," there was a physical difficulty behind it rather than a spiritual crisis. Counseling with words alone left him frustrated and his clients still in conflict. But with massage, physical relief led to spiritual relief as well.

Many years of being involved in dozens of bodyways have shown me that it is not enough to contemplate, analyze, or reason through emotional or spiritual issues. We have to address them directly in our own bodies. It's through the physical body that we experience ecstasies and depressions. When the body is in balance and moves with ease, so much of what we wrestle with often pales in importance, and our distorted perception clears up. That taste of wholeness can impart a spiritual flavor to the kind of work we do in the world and how we do it, to the kinds of relationships we choose and how we conduct them, and to the way we move through this gift we call life.

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