Reading this you are in the presence of a powerful healer. Yourself. You are a highly complex array of interconnected biological systems which have evolved over the course billions of years, and are still evolving now, you are then, the inherited wisdom of millennia working continuously to not only keep you alive, but to move you towards flourishing. This process is called homeostasis, every cell inherently seeking to maintain balance within, taking on board nutrients that are nourishing, and expelling waste that it does not need, in this way maintaining a balance, and more than this, seeking to flourish, to keep an energy surplus. This homeostatic process is functioning at every level of scale in the body, cells do it, organs do it, body systems do it, and the whole body, including the mind, integrating through the central nervous system, does it.
Our body is the inheritor of an ancient, powerful intelligence, that all of us are able to tune into, for it is talking to us all the time, we just have to develop the ears to hear it. I have always been fascinated by the ability of birds to migrate across continents, without maps or satnavs, I am a person who has to make some effort to remember directions, so the idea that an animal is able to find its way intuitively across thousands of miles is very impressive to me. I remember hearing about a friend’s cat, who for reasons unknown at the time, started to eat charcoal from the bottom of the stove. It turned out later that the cat had cancer, and that the charcoal was exactly the medicine it needed to temper the effects of the illness. I am told that animals in the wild know which plants are safe to eat and which not, and I have seen my dog, eat grass that makes him sick shortly after, apparently forming an integral part of his digestive process. All around us and within us we can observe the natural world functioning with what can only be called intelligence, all living beings moving towards balance and flourishing, seeking out that which is good for them and leaving behind that which is bad for them. These are not things that have to be taught, but are encoded in the biology of the being. Despite our many technological advances we still have only a dim view of how our genetic systems are functioning in the context of the wider ecosystem, the relatively new field of epigenetics is revealing how our genetic code is not the only determining factor in our biological makeup, that elements of the code are switched on and off by incoming environmental signals. Our genetics are much more alive than we had thought previously, not a fixed unchanging script written before birth, but living, responsive and adaptive, a script that is a continuous process of rewriting in response to ever changing circumstance. We are not simply isolated beings, functioning as lonely island nodes in an uncaring universe, we are intimately involved, woven into the wider ecosystem with which we are in constant communication, much of which we are processing unconsciously.
The unique intelligence of human beings has allowed us to supercharge the evolutionary healing process, we have for millennia been developing technologies of medicine that have allowed us to set bones, stitch wounds and apply poultices to burns and bruises, yet these processes have arisen from the underlying evolved tendencies which move us towards us health and flourishing. In the last two hundred years we have made tremendous advances by applying the scientific method to understand the underlying structures of the mind and body allowing us to develop an array of medical techniques that are the stuff of dreams for generations past. It seems to me though that the more technology we have developed the less we are able to trust or listen to the innate healing powers of our body. Immediately turning to external authorities to aid us in our decision making rather than taking the time to first look within to discover what the body needs. With colds and other minor illnesses what the body often needs is rest, but we, for many reasons often do not want to give our body the rest it might need, and turn instead to over the counter medicines.
I am personally very grateful for the developments of modern medicine, and would recommend anyone to always consult with a qualified doctor if they have any doubts about illnesses of body or mind. I always try to remember though, not to surrender my autonomy when I pass through the doors of the doctors. Keeping in mind that the relationship that I have with my body is unique, and that while a doctor may be able to diagnose things that I might not otherwise be able to, that only I can know what it is to be in and of my body. I personally leave going to the doctor’s to be the last possibility when seeking to return my body to a state of healthy balance, first I will rest, secondly I will see what fruits and plant medicines are available to me, such as ginger, lemon and honey, thirdly I will use home pharmaceuticals such as ibuprofen or paracetemol, and if all else has failed then I will go to the doctor. If I do have to go to the doctor, once I have a diagnosis I will try to understand as much as possible about the condition that I have been diagnoses with, and about the treatment that I am being offered. I am grateful that careful use of the internet is an option to me, and that so much good information is available once a few reputable sources have been discovered. This process applies to infections, fevers and minor illnesses, if however I was effected by something more important or that needed surgery, bone setting or something of this nature, I would head straight to the local emergency centre.
I propose here a different approach to one’s own health care. Offering the possibility of seeing oneself as far as possible as one’s own health professional, that the doctor and health services should be one of the tools that can be used in stabilising, maintaining and flourishing health, but not the only tool, or even necessarily the tool of first resort, and the same goes for pharmaceutical drugs. These things have their place, and are a great gift for all of us who live in the modern world. But we can make better use of them by becoming self-directed healers, taking responsibility for our own health and wellbeing, and understanding that these arise from within us, that we are always the source of our own health. Even at the extreme of having hip replacements, or pacemakers in old age, it is almost always, an inner sense of wanting health, or relative health, that moves us towards these aids to our physiology and mobility. We are moved primarily from within not without. Even into old age though, it is our own body that is doing the most to keep us healthy, the brain and body constantly monitoring the inner systems, all working together to maintain temperatures and chemistries within certain strict parameters, and doing their best to communicate to our conscious minds to go and seek out certain environmental inputs to help return the body on the path towards good physical and mental feeling.
The key for me in learning to become a self-healer is to begin to consider the body as being intelligent, an intelligence that is of a different order to our conscious everyday intelligence – the mind we use to plan the day ahead, organise our cupboards, or do the accounts. If we begin to view the body in this way we may notice that we are guided towards certain foods, environments or experiences. Rather than thinking of our body as a kind of unintelligent machine that carries us about the place, an awkward arrangement of flesh, bones and organs, we could think of it as an intelligent conscious being that is always seeking to guide us towards what is good for us.
Our body is talking to us in the language of feelings, guiding us from inside out, letting us know if we are hungry, tired, in pain, and so forth. The language of the body is the language of feeling, and the more attentively we are able to listen to what the body has to say the more we can get to know the vocabulary and grammar of the feeling speech that is arising inside of us, instead of treating these phenomena as something inconvenient, or possible dangerous, we could see them as signals of an other, or even a higher intelligence. It is normal in our culture to think of the brain and our rational thought as being superior or higher than our feeling body and intuitive mind, though we may have things the wrong way round.
The writer Ian McGilchrist has a written a book called ‘The Master and the Emissary’ that offers a theory of how the brain works which can give us another way of looking at the body and healing. Most of us will have heard of the theory that the left hemisphere of the brain ahs something to do with language and rationality, and the right side has something to do with creativity and intuition, something like this does seem to be the case. McGilchrist, describes the right side of the brain, which is linked to the left hand side of the body, as being the Master, it has a kind of broad focus, or meaning focus, constantly taking in a information from the environment, most of which we allow to bypass our conscious mind. The left hand side of the brain, linked to the right hand side of the body, has a narrow focus, fixing on the immediate present and seeking to fit that immediate present into existing conceptual structures, categorising it in order to know what to do with it. The right brain, connected to the left hand side of the body, is said to speak in the language of feelings, intuitions, symbol and imagery, speaking in the language of wholes rather than parts. Most of us I am sure have strong experiences of just knowing something, without knowing why we know it, and being proved right about our intuitions at a later date. We are constantly taking in far more information than we are able to process consciously, our right brain will do its best to signal to our conscious, analytical, categorising left side of the brain things that it believes are of importance. We can learn to become more alert to these communications, they may reveal surprising or useful information to us that we would not other wise have been able to consciously formulate.
Our mind can be viewed as a tremendously powerful information processing system, which is constantly working to solve whatever problems we supply it with. Based on the information it has available to it, the mind will seek to offer solutions to the problems of life, it is doing this all the time, sometimes more effectively than others! The mind’s health and wellbeing is a vast subject that could be studied for multiple lifetimes and never finished with. I do not want to trivialise a subject that better minds than me have grappled with for millenia, and on the subject of which many brilliant books have been written and will continue to be written. I want to focus on a singular and essentially simple idea, that there is a deeper and more powerful intelligence in our bodies that is accessible to us. When we use our conscious mind to analyse a problem we are very limited in the amount of information we can process at any one time, most of us can only remember a maximum of 6 numbers before our conscious information processing powers are exhausted. Even the best multi-taskers find it difficult to focus on more than a few things at a time, and arguably they re really focussing on one thing at a time and are just moving from one thing to another very quickly. Our body though, in concert with the unconscious part of our mind is processing multiple information streams at once, with no problem at all, taking in information from the outside world via the senses, simultaneously taking in a vast array of information from the inner world of the body, from the hormonal, circulatory, respiratory, and other body systems, from the muscles and bones, and with this information, amazingly, our body and mind are somehow generating from moment to moment our experience of lived reality. The structures of our body and brain are the most complex technology that we know of in the universe, and remain far in advance of the most complex of our own designed technologies. While we have made great leaps in understanding the structure of the brain and nervous system, we do not understand how consciousness arises from biology, and our body and mind retain many other mysteries for us to still discover.
Famously, many scientists have found solutions to their scientific inquiries in the forms of dreams or sudden intuitions. One of the discoverer’s of DNA Frances Crick initially visualised the structure of DNA during a dream. Our conscious reasoning rational mind can only take us so far, yet the other part of our brain can at times leapfrog the rational mind and provide unexpected answers that we would not have otherwise arrived at. I have on occasion lost my keys, and no matter how hard I try to think back over my steps of the day to track down the whereabouts of the keys, nothing I do consciously can bring their whereabouts to mind. It is only when I stop trying to find the keys, and relax, that out of nowhere their whereabouts appear in my mind clearly and I am able to find them. The other part of my mind was just waiting for me to stop trying and in that moment the answer appeared. It is clear from our own experience and from thousands of examples great and small, that our intelligence is not limited to the workings of our rational mind.
Mental health arises from multiple causes, our brain chemistry is part of the story, so are our relationships with family and friends, our work life, the food we eat, the amount of time we spend in the natural world, how much we move and how much we rest. Many factors interact to allow us to function in a way that feels good for us. This is key; that we know how we are functioning because of how we feel. It is our body that communicates to us our mental states through the medium of feeling.
There are of course mental health conditions that benefit from interaction with a qualified professional and sometimes medication is the answer, bringing erratic brain chemistry into a regular pattern. Someone’s life could be in harmony at all other levels, and it really is simply the case that they have had the misfortune to inherit an unusual and emotionally debilitating brain chemistry. There are though in many cases other options to explore before seeking chemical assistance. Chemical balances may be resolved through changes in diet, in patterns of exercise, in patterns of relationships. Our chemistry is being altered all the time by all our interactions, when we feel we are experiencing chemical changes in the body, and at an essential level, to be, is to feel. Feelings are often viewed as something inconvenient, that we must put to one side in order that we may be rational. It is not often recognised that rationality itself arises from feelings, and represents in its own way, a certain kind of feeling, of calm focus perhaps. We cannot be rational without feeling. If we can begin to view our feelings as the intelligent and potentially intelligible communications of our biological being perhaps they can lead us into a different kind of relation with the world.
Yoga then is able to help by offering a certain perspective. In the physical practise and the mental practise this involves taking the view that everything is absolutely perfect exactly as it is, and that nothing can be any different from how it is. This allows us, temporarily at least, to become observers of our being, without judging, and in so doing move towards a more and more subtle and profound connection with our living nature. Nothing that is happening inside or outside is unworthy of our attention or consideration, and anywhere our consciousness alights may be the source of insight. By resting in this perspective, allowing whatever wants to arise to arise without judgement, we may begin to relax a little, and in this relaxation, in this state of non-interference our internal system may begin to find its own harmony again, and may be able to begin to harmonise with the external systems of which it is a part. This process is a kind of meditation that we can consciously engage in, we can take the time to allow our body to be, without interfering, and in so doing allow this deeper intelligence to emerge. This is not something that we can force to happen, and forcing it will only push it further away, this process takes patience, time and trust to allow something to happen. We are used in our daily lives to making things happen, and also being made to do things, and this becomes part of our pattern of behaviour. The idea that by resting non-judgmentally alert to the moment to moment changes of reality we can allow changes to happen from the inside out, is counter to the general way of our culture, but nevertheless offers great rewards to those that are prepared to take the time to try it.
Our role as yoga teachers, is to create a space where you can give yourself as fully as possible to this process. We cannot promise any miracles. You will probably find through the practise, that you will begin to feel better in body and mind, that you will develop more strength and flexibility from the physical practise. The more you can give yourself to the practise, the more you will gain from it. If you are also able to embrace this perspective of non-judgmental observation of your being, then you may find other changes are able to happen, as your relaxation allows them to do so. Try it and see.