Last time we looked at the importance of having an ethical foundation for your spiritual practice and some of the perils of living a moral life. In this post, we’ll explore some practices for the body, an area that’s often neglected in our busy daily lives but is essential for creating a fully grounded spiritual practice.
Many of us don’t like our bodies. We tend to treat them like machines and expect them to perform perfectly without much care or attention. You may only notice your body when it breaks down and you get ill – or old.
When applied to spirituality, this bad attitude creates a false distinction between the body and the soul – or matter and spirit – and that creates imbalances in our spiritual practice. It’s the perfect breeding ground for spiritual bypassing and other avoidance behaviours, like addiction, as well as chronic ill-health and disease.
With that in mind, the practices in this section are essential if you want to create a fully grounded and integrated spiritual practice. Body practices include things like:
- Sleep and Relaxation
- Exercise – walking, aerobics, weightlifting, etc.
- Diet and Nutrition
- Tai Chi and Chi Kung
- Breath work and pranayama
- Chakras and Energy Bodies – gross, subtle and causal
- Kundalini practices
- Bodywork and energy healing – massage, Rolfing, Reiki, etc.
- Biofeedback techniques – Binaural beats, HeartMath, neurofeedback, etc.
- Natural medicine and acupuncture
I won’t go into these in great detail – that would take forever! – you’ll have to do your own research based on what you need. To choose the right practices you need to take into account your age, general state of health and any long-standing conditions you may have. And get good, professional advice before you begin.
These practices can be used for healing illness but they’re not limited to that purpose. We often approach them that way because we’re so stressed and out of touch with our bodies. But ideally they should be the foundation of your spiritual practice, helping you be more present to yourself as an embodied being.
In other words, don’t wait until you get sick to start a physical practice – take care of your whole being now and it will take care of you!
And if you’re already sick, be kind to yourself. Don’t try to avoid your suffering, but turn towards it with compassion. That way, your spiritual practice becomes a force for healing whether you recover your health or not. The results can be surprising.
Let’s have a brief look at some of the key body practices…
Sleep and Relaxation
It’s safe to say that most of us probably aren’t getting enough sleep, but it’s essential for your heath and sanity. The amount of sleep you need varies according to your age, but the average for adults is about 7-9 hours a night. Establish a good routine that works for you and do your best to avoid sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep has a devastating effect on your health and general well-being, and staying awake for too long can induce hallucinations and psychosis. So without decent sleep your spiritual practice could get derailed. More on sleep here.
You may also want to try Yoga Nidra. This is an advanced form of deep meditation with the aim of remaining aware during deep sleep. It’s also known as Yogic Sleep, or conscious deep sleep, because you retain awareness through all stages of sleep, not just when you’re dreaming.
There are many misconceptions around Yoga Nidra and it’s become associated with the usual relaxation practices. The internet is awash with videos that take you through a guided meditation that involves some form of visualisation, but this isn’t what Yoga Nidra is about. The idea is to learn how to shift your awareness straight from waking to deep sleep – and it’s not easy.
For more, read this article by Swami J with lots of detail on what the practice is and isn’t, including guided meditations for relaxation and Yoga Nidra.
Chakras and Energy Bodies
The body isn’t just physical but energetic, so the best body practices will work at multiple levels at once to bring your whole being into alignment. There are various systems for describing the energy bodies, which represent different frequencies of your whole being. The simplest identifies three bodies:
- the physical or gross body
- the subtle body
- the causal body
These also relate to different levels of awareness, so the gross body is connected to your normal waking state; the subtle body is the dream state; and the causal body is the formless dream state entered during Yoga Nidra. The subtle body is your energy body and it includes the chakras and meridians through which energy is circulated. And the causal body connects you to the divine – the source of the energy.
The chakras are vortices of energy that are aligned along the central energy channel in the body, and they help to move energy (or prana) between the bodies using the nadis, or meridians.
Many physical and mental health problems start with blockages and imbalances in the energy system of your various bodies. Doing practices like yoga and Tai Chi will clear blockages in the energy bodies and chakras, releasing emotions and helping you to align with your true Self. But any physical exercise can be turned into a form of meditation and used to integrate the bodies – as we’ll see below.
Breathing exercises are a great way to work with the energy bodies as well as relaxing the physical body. Becoming conscious of your breathing stops you from getting stuck in your head and brings your awareness back into the body. Just taking a few deep conscious breaths can make an enormous difference to your mood and bring you back into the present moment.
Meditation might not seem to be a body practice because so many people do it in order to escape their bodies and drift off into a trance state. But as a meditation practice, watching the breath is the perfect way to come back to yourself as an embodied soul. This is the foundation of Zen practice and it encourages you to slow down and simply be. More here: How to Meditate: Watching the Breath
Also visit the Remember to Breathe website for tons of information and resources on breathing practices that help to balance your brain with your heart and bring you back to centre.
Another powerful breathing practice is Pranayama, which comes from the yoga tradition. Prana is the breath, or life force, that exists at all levels of being, and the aim is to control the breath in order to unite your mind with the life force. There are various types of pranayama that are practised either sitting or lying down, but the idea is to learn how to generate and move energy around the bodies.
Practices include the Conquest of Energy, Alternate Nostril Breathing, and the Interrupted Breathing Cycle, amongst many others. This is an advanced practice that can release powerful energies, such as the Kundalini. B.K.S. Iyengar says you should only practice pranayama once you’ve mastered the asanas in yoga. So be careful and don’t overdo it.
Visit the Swami J website for loads of breathing practices, plus links to more information and guided meditations.
Yoga isn’t just a physical exercise programme of postures, or asanas, that twist your body into knots. It’s an ancient science of consciousness based on the system created by Patanjali over 2,000 years ago and detailed in his Yoga Sutras. There are many different types and the ones that include asanas work on all three bodies at once to unify your consciousness with the divine.
If it’s your sort of thing, you could just practice yoga and nothing else and it would provide everything you need to progress on the spiritual path. When done correctly and deeply, the asanas balance the masculine and feminine energies of the body. It brings the mind and body into harmony by releasing blockages and purifying the mind, reducing stress and healing various ailments.
Some yoga practices are quite advanced and the asanas can be a challenge if you’re not already fit and healthy (and bendy) – and some can be dangerous if you have particular conditions. So you should always get professional advice before you begin. However there are easier asanas and many can be modified or practised with props and supports. A good gentle place to start is with savasana.
Doing some of these practices may trigger an awakening that unlocks the power of the Kundalini energy that’s coiled in the base chakra. You can also do specific practices to bring this about, such as Kundalini yoga and certain forms of Tantra.
Kundalini is the life force or divine serpent energy called shakti. When it becomes activated, it uncoils and enters the sushumna or central energy channel of the body. It travels along the spine, both rising and retreating again, through the chakras, burning away any blockages or impurities and shadow material that’s got stuck.
A Kundalini awakening can happen slowly or suddenly and sometimes the results can be difficult to manage, especially if you weren’t expecting it. The symptoms vary because the process is individual to you. Many people experience no symptoms at all and the process unfolds naturally as part of the spiritual path.
For more, read this article on Kundalini by Lisa on the Mummy Mystic blog, including a guided meditation.
Also check out Parker’s excellent blog Waking the Infinite for lots of information and resources.
Tai Chi and Chi Kung
Tai Chi and Chi Kung (or qigong) incorporate breathing practices into moving forms of meditation that are really good at bringing your awareness back into the body. There are different forms of Chi Kung, some moving and others involving almost no movement at all, such as Zhan Zhuang (pronounced ‘jam jong’), which means ‘to stand like a tree.’
Chi is the Chinese word for prana and the aim of the practice is to balance and direct the flow of yin and yang energies around the body. It transforms and cultivates this energy, using it for healing and meditation, as well as for martial arts. On the physical level, it tones the inner organs, realigns the muscles and strengthens the bones. But it also releases stuck energy, brings the energy bodies into alignment, reduces stress, and clears the mind.
Depending on the type you do, the movements are slow and gentle so the practice is relaxing but also invigorating. You can do Chi Kung standing or sitting and you don’t have to be physically fit to begin. If you’d like to do Tai Chi, it’s a good idea to find a teacher because the forms are more complex and can be tricky to learn from videos or a book.
A good basic starting point is the Wu Chi meditation. This is the first posture of the Tai Chi form, but you can practice it as a meditation on its own or before other standing practices. Wu Chi involves standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent and your attention focused on the tan tien point (pronounced ‘dan dyen’) just below the navel, the main area of energy storage within the body.
For Chi Kung practice, I recommend Everyday Chi Kung by Master Lam. It’s great for beginners and really makes a difference to your energy levels doing just 15 minutes a day. More practices to try:
- Wu Chi meditation
- Taoist meditation – The Inner Smile
- Chinese qigong exercises – 20 minute routine (video)
Even if you’re doing yoga or Tai Chi, you’ll also need to maintain a basic level of aerobic fitness. The standard minimum advice is for 30 minutes aerobic exercise 5 days a week, and 30 minutes strength training 2 days week. But you can break these up into shorter chunks if that works better for you. Aerobic exercise is anything that raises your heart rate, and strength training includes things like weightlifting, but also yoga and Tai Chi.
You can incorporate any form of exercise into your spiritual practice by adding energy practices (subtle body) and pure awareness (causal body). This might involve beginning the session with a few minutes meditation, such as Wu Chi, and ending with a period of rest and perhaps more meditation or prayer. And while you’re exercising stay present and mindful of how your body moves.
Whatever you do, it should be something you enjoy. There’s no point forcing yourself to do a practice you hate. Create a realistic schedule and build it into your daily and weekly routine. But don’t push yourself too hard and remember to take regular rests.
Diet and Nutrition
To get the best out of all this exercise and energy work you need to make sure your diet supports your health. That means eating a healthy balanced diet with plenty of fresh veggies and good quality nutrition. Some people thrive on a vegetarian or vegan diet, but it’s not for everyone and you have to take your overall health into account.
For example, I can’t eat dairy so a vegan diet would seem ideal. But I can’t eat soya or too much fibre either, which makes a vegan diet impossible – unless I want my guts to bleed and inflate like a balloon!
Experiment to find the diet that suits you, but don’t be faddy or follow trends just for the sake of it. At the very least, you should cut out anything unnecessary, like sugar and processed foods. Whatever diet you choose, moderation is the best approach.
Exercise and dieting are often approached in a way that punishes the body or tries to force it into a particular shape. This implies that you see yourself and your body as two separate things, with you in the driving seat. But you’re not separate from your body – it’s a manifestation of your soul.
So there’s no need to beat yourself up or approach any of these practices with rigid discipline. You do need some self-discipline – this isn’t about indulging every passing whim to make yourself feel good. But there’s no need to force things.
And try to practice without expectation of results. This applies to every area of spiritual practice but it’s even more relevant for the body. It usually takes time for changes to work their way through the energy bodies and you’re not going to regain lost health or fitness overnight. And sometimes you have to accept things as they are because they can’t or won’t heal.
A huge part of this practice is about self-acceptance and learning from the deeper meaning of pain and illness – not seeing them as mistakes or problems to be fixed. That doesn’t mean you do nothing about your problems. You do what you can to support yourself to heal but without attachment to outcomes. You practice for the sake of doing it – because doing it is better than not doing it.
The body is amazing, working away quietly to keep you alive. It’s fragile and needs your care and attention, but it’s also incredibly strong and resilient, and knows how to heal itself – if you let it.
So listen to the wisdom of your body and allow it to guide you. When you feel tired – rest or sleep. When you’re hungry – eat.
Next time we’ll explore practices for the Emotions…
Read the whole series here