When it comes to looking after ourselves, we often hear the expression ‘listen to your body’. In fact, I find myself repeating it often. But do we know what it really means? I’ve always believed in the mind/body connection, but for years have understood it on an intellectual level without truly experiencing it. Looking back now, I can see I wasn’t listening to my own body until fairly recently. Mostly because, in my 20s and 30s, I was lucky enough to be able to rely on natural resilience to remain healthy. Throughout my career as a Beauty & Health Editor on magazines, I researched all the new fitness and nutrition trends, and would road test the latest things – a new herbal tincture here, superfood powders or coconut water there. A few weeks of boot camp Pilates or a phase of jogging round the park in ‘barefoot’ trainers. However, I wasn’t sticking to a balanced, healthy regime a lot of the time, and I took it for granted that I could bounce back from late nights and pressure in a full-on job with constant deadlines.
That all changed in my late 30s when it started to become obvious my bounce back ability wasn’t so strong anymore. It would take me two days instead of one to recover from a big night out; my digestion began to play up and I felt like I needed to move more to deal with the tension stiffening my body. I was running on empty. So, I began taking care of myself on a physical level, being mindful over the food I was eating and what I put into my body generally, as well as taking up yoga regularly. And I felt the benefits pretty much straight away – I slept soundly, I got more flexible and my digestion improved. All good.
What took me by surprise was that it was the meditative side of yoga which had the biggest impact. It was a gradual process, but by building up a daily practice slowly, I’ve noticed that I have a better connection with my body and I am happier in my own skin. The big lesson? Meditation is all about turning our attention inwards – it is the practice of listening to our bodies. By doing so, we increase awareness of how we feel – physically, mentally, emotionally – helping us to be an observer of our thoughts and emotions. Ultimately, this means we become less reactive and it is easier to make healthier, balanced choices for ourselves, whether in what we eat or the bigger life decisions.
One of my favourite yoga teachers explains it like this, ‘The more out of balance you are, the more you have to seek out extremes.’ She particularly notices this on the retreats she runs every summer. ‘I’m amazed at how so few people have a simple, uncomplicated relationship to food and exercise. They are either not eating after 7pm, are vegan, having protein only, going running at 6am with dumbbells before the early morning yoga class…….It’s a circus of energy and attention, anything but normal, easeful.’ So true.
This constant suppressing and indulging is the opposite to listening to our bodies. We are reacting to external concepts of what we think is good for us. It’s the detox/retox syndrome being played out, so we never find a balance. We are avoiding being at peace with ourselves, and therefore can’t feel comfortable in our own skin. Granted, in some ways, it is harder to sit in the middle, but it’s definitely less complicated. Plus, walking the middle path is the best way to age gracefully (think moderation in everything).
Finding that balance begins by simply allowing ourselves to sit still, to close our eyes and re-connect with that sense of deep stillness which is inside all of us. We can call it meditation, and there are many techniques in all the different spiritual traditions around the world, but in the end, it is this going inwards which kick starts the process of listening. If you can, sit with your spine straight – either on the floor, back against the wall for support or in a chair – this allows you to keep your focus (ie not fall asleep!). Having good posture helps you breathe more easily, and on a subtler level, helps the flow of vital energy (known as Prana in yoga, Chi in Chinese Medicine) in the body. Begin with just five minutes and build up slowly. It may not feel like much is happening, but on a deeper level the sympathetic (‘fight or flight’ response) and parasympathetic nervous systems (our rest and digest response) are being balanced, so that the complicated endocrinal systems begin working optimally. Make it a habitual daily practice, and you will feel calmer, happier, healthier, and in the long term, more at peace. That’s what happens when we take time to listen to our body.