During the long introductory lecture before a Holotropic Breathwork session, the subject of the body comes up a lot: somatic realms, trauma in the body, energies manifested in the body, body work during the session, etc. Once, many years ago, a man at one of my workshops asked the following: in all Hindu scriptures, the body is considered unimportant. For true transcendence, we must transcend the body entirely, they say. So why, in work that purports to be so spiritual, do we spend so much energy, time, effort on the physical body?
The question pushed my buttons on many levels. And, since, in a workshop setting, the only person I can work on is myself, I had to breathe into the pushed buttons and find an answer – which came quite quickly and seemed to satisfy most of the group – although I don’t think the person who asked the question bought it. I said, simply, that the primary teaching of this modality is to work with what is and, since we have bodies, we work with our bodies.
This question brought up a whole bunch of discomfort for me. Rage, shame, and wanting to jump out of my skin. All in a second. First, because the questioner was an older Indian man. As he spoke, I remember my mind jumping off to the small room in my family’s house where the Hindu idols resided. I remember being afraid to go in there. I remember being told not to go in there when I had my period. And that thought brings up all the ways in which my body – female and hence impure – was kept out of all spiritual practice. The men do the puja. The women stand by. IF they are not menstruating. All difficult, interesting, thought-provoking spiritual matters are left to the men. Kundalini practice is too powerful for women. Real shlokas are learned and spoken by men. We yell so much about the Catholic Church – has anyone ever seen a female priest in a Hindu temple? For some priests, the touch of a woman’s skin could send them off to take another shower. Because god will not listen to the prayers of an impure priest.
I was a Bharatanatyam dancer for most of my life. Gorgeous practice, it was banned in India for many years and, even in my time, women who practiced the form after a certain age could find it difficult to have an arranged marriage. In the “old” days, Bharatanatyam was the dance of the temple prostitutes. Translators of the stories of gods and goddesses, the women were kept as chattel. And, because we danced in front of so many men, we were “used” – a term carrying too many connotations to go into – but you read it or hear it and you know what it means. Defiled by eyes and lustful minds – somebody else’s – and now only trash. I don’t know if “prostitute” in this case meant actual sex acts or if it was a way of calling them “vestal virgins” of some sort. It doesn’t matter. The men, in discarding the humanity of these women, were discarding their own humanity as well. Because, clean or impure, our bodies are all the same. Also, if a prostitute is unclean, then so is the person who is with her.
To be human is to have a body. Probably there is nothing else that differentiates us from other beings. So we must include our bodies in human spirituality. “Transcending” bodies is pretending that we are not human. That simply can’t work, for anything not authentic is not true and the untrue cannot be spiritual. The history of humankind is a story of bodies as much as a story of ideas, feelings, movements.
True awakening cannot be separate from bodily awakening. But what a mess that is! Bodily awakening means coming into our feeling of pain: all kinds. Of craving. And the cells of the body lead directly to our emotional centers, so bodily awakening will be a coming into our emotional pain as well. Most of all, awakening into the body means awakening to our mortality – and perhaps this is why we would all prefer the spiritual bypass of finding god or oneness, transcending the immediate – because it’s so frightening to wake up to the knowledge of our imminent and certain death.
I try not to be sure of anything. And as I do more and more inner work, I am taught that I know nothing. And yet a paradox, for this I do know. At least for now. We cannot experience ourselves as spiritual without including our physical selves and everything that comes with that.