Tag Archives: body

Sliding into winter

Over the last few days, there have been heavy frosts, and ice on the ground at night where I live. For me, this means winter is definitely here. It’s a localised definition. There are parts of the UK that have already had some snow – but, down in the balmy south west of the country, it’s possible to go a whole winter and not see any. What winter means varies a lot depending on where you are.

I become very aware of my body in these conditions. My balance – or lack of it. How readily my hands and feet go numb in the cold. I also note that I’m doing a bit better this year on both of these – I’m less panicked by slippery ground, and I’m not having quite the same degree of circulation problems. There’s only been one significant change in my life since last winter and that’s the Tai Chi, so it could be that both shifts relate to that. I think it has improved my balance. It’s given me body knowledge about ways of walking carefully so I can do that without having to over-think it. I was told it might improve my circulation, and this is the first evidence this could be happening.

How we experience the seasons combines body and location, health, affluence, resources – it can be incredibly revealing. What’s easy often goes unnoticed, so if winter is easy for you it may be worth spending some time with that and asking why.


Taking my body outside

Taking a Tai Chi class this year has changed how I think about my body, how I move, and how I interact with my environment. It’s made me aware of how my presence in my own body informs my relationship with what’s around my body – most especially, the ground.

One of the things the Tai Chi calls for is a deliberate process of moving weight between feet. Walking at the weekend I realised this had become part of how I think about moving. I noticed it when dealing with serious mud, and with muddy steps of awkward height. I’ve never been confident on slippery surfaces, and my depth perception isn’t great so judging an uneven surface is hard work.

Move the foot empty, is the constant refrain in my head. I know how to centre my weight over the other foot, how to use my knees so that the step out is balanced and I’m not committed. Then, moving the weight across while the feet are still. It creates far less scope for sliding, over-extending or falling. I discovered a body-confidence I’ve never had before.

When paths are really muddy, in the past I’ve had to slow down to deal with them. It’s been exciting not having to do that so much. My scope to enjoy the conditions and what’s around me has shifted as a consequence.

There are so many things we treat as though they should be innate, natural and not needing study. How to move the body is one of those – we learn to walk when too young to remember it, and most of us never think about that again. And yet, there are so many ways to move and manage a body. So many different things a body might do well, or badly, or not at all. So much good that can flow from being able to explore all of this.

So much of what we talk about in Druidry is spiritual and/or intellectual. It’s easy to forget that we encounter the rest of the world through our bodies, and that our embodied experiences are intrinsic to this spiritual path. What your body can or cannot do is going to impact on your Druidry. The simple process of learning how to shift my weight and how to think differently about my feet has entirely changed how I experience the world when it is damp and slippery underfoot.


Softening the body

One of the notions that comes up in the Tai Class most weeks, is of softening the body. Relax into the posture. Soften. It did not take me very long to realise that this is a significant issue for me. I’m not physically soft. Often I’m very tense. Pain, anxiety, inflammation of tissues, and whatever else is going on in here conspire to make me stiff and tense. What would it even mean to become softer? What would I need to do in order to achieve that?

To make things more awkward, there’s a lot of stuff in my history around being told the state of my body is my fault. That I’d be healthier and experience less pain if only I could learn to relax and put some effort into that. Oddly, I’ve never found that being blamed for being tense has helped me shift towards being less tense. There was always a subtext of how I would be more useful to someone else by this means, also.

I have a lot of trouble letting go. I’m not emotionally present or expressive in most contexts. I may be making an effort not to let my face show what I’m feeling. I’m not good at opening myself to other people, or letting people touch me.

Softness would mean acceptance – largely of myself, to some degree of others. It would mean trusting people not to hate me or hurt me if I let them in close enough.

I can soften in terms of being kinder to myself. I’m exploring that with craft projects at the moment – slowing down, being gentler with my hands. If I’m not pushing hard all the time to get more stuff done, if I can drop pace with the typing, take more breaks from the mouse and keyboard, that helps with pain with in turn helps with stiffness. Taking care of me takes time, and to have that time I need not to feel under massive pressure to be doing things that don’t help me.

Trying to soften my body seems to call for a heart softening towards myself. Not seeing my body as a means to other people’s ends, not letting anyone treat me as a tool to use and not a person. Holding a sense of self-worth that allows me to be kinder and gentler with myself. Dealing with pain kindly, not pushing through it to be useful.

It’s turning out to be a complex process, but I’ve achieved odd moments of feeling myself soften –physically and emotionally. I have a long way to go and this might well be a rest-of-life sort of project. I realise that being softer would also mean being kinder to myself about the timescales in which I can make those changes. I have to ush out of my head the several people who have shamed and berated me for not being other than I am. They were never trying to help, they were only ever feeding the problem. Experiencing a genuinely kind and supportive space focused on physical activity has taught me a lot about how unhelpful some of my historical experiences have been.


Finding more energy

I’ve had energy problems since my teens. Aged fourteen, my Doctor told me that ME didn’t exist, that it was probably psychosomatic or because I wanted to get out of doing PE. Oddly enough, I didn’t find that helpful. I figured out a lot of things on my own which have allowed me to manage my body a lot better.

I’m hypermobile, which apparently means everything is going to take me more effort than it does most people. Not a lot I can do about that, but knowing helps. It particularly helps in not blaming myself and telling myself I’m just being lazy and not trying hard enough. This in turn helps me rest when I need to and that’s improved my energy levels.

It may be the hypermobility impacting on my gut, it may be some other technical thing, but my digestive system has never been very reliable. I’ve eliminated the foods that make me ill – I can’t do meat, I can’t have too much refined anything, and I do better when I eat large quantities of fruit and veg. But, if my gut packs up, I mess up with the electrolytes and this in turn messes up my blood pressure leaving me feeling weak and useless. It took me a while to figure this because I get stressed by doctors so I don’t show up in tests as having low blood pressure!

By my early teens I was anxious about my weight, and went many rounds trying to starve myself. I’ve never been able to control my weight through any kind of dieting. In recent years I’ve focused on making sure I have the energy to be physically active. This works better for me, and having the energy from my food to do the things I want to do make a lot of odds. Investing in my diet helps with the aforementioned electrolytes issues. Having enough oil has helped reduce pain. I try to maintain good blood sugar because when low blood sugar and depression collide, energy disappears.

I’ve got the best energy levels and concentration I’ve had in a long time, and it’s more reliable than it’s ever been. I still get days when, for no reason I can identify, it’s like someone has coated my bones in lead, put old-style deep sea diving boots on my feet and sent me to walk through rivers of treacle. I don’t know what causes those days. I don’t push hard against them anymore, and I rest up as much as I can.

What this has taught me, over the years, is that my body is a really complicated thing, with many different factors involved (not all of which I have mentioned in this post). Simple, miracle cures have never cured me. Trying to work out things like how sleep, activity, stress, diet and body mechanics interact with each other is difficult, and those balances shift all the time. I’ve had to accept that I can’t totally fix myself and it’s not some kind of personal failing to have to work around some of this. Some of it is clearly genetic and I know something of the history of that in my family. Not everyone can cure all their stuff, and I’ve become very resistant to people who are adamant that a bit more magnesium and positive thinking (or whatever it is this week) would make me perfectly ok.

I’ve learned not to waste precious energy on people who are insistent about their miracle solutions. What I do know is that if a problem in your body was easily fixed, it was never that complicated a problem and it isn’t indicative of what will happen for anyone who has a whole mess of things going on.


Adventures with Ankles

Most of my joints will bend the wrong way(s) under any kind of pressure. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve grasped that this is a thing with considerable implications. It explains much of why I hurt, and why I get tired a lot. The tissues supporting my joints are softer than normal, so everything takes more effort, and I’m more likely to injure myself, including micro-damage. When I was first dealing with fatigue issues in my teens, I’m not sure anyone was aware of this sort of thing. No one asked about my joints.

My ankles are especially bad. I spent my childhood falling over a lot, running was scary and difficult. But, I’ve persisted, kept moving, walked, danced, swam, did what I could with this body and tried not to hurt it too much. I hold pens and chopsticks the ‘wrong’ way to alleviate hand pressure. I hold bows the wrong way, I probably type wrongly as well, but I get by.

A few weeks into learning Tai Chi it became apparent that I couldn’t get the knee and toe positions right for most stances. It’s a small knee bend. My teacher talked a lot about not bending knees the wrong way – clearly used to a lot of older students with dodgy knees. I started exploring what was happening between knees and ankles and realised I was loading the joints badly. Thus started a massive program to re-think how I stand and walk.

My ankles default to rolling outwards in response to any kind of pressure (i.e. being stood up). This probably makes me more likely to fall over, and I suspect it puts pressure on my knees and thighs. One of my hip joints is very loose as it is and often problematic. To correct my ankles I had to get more weight onto the inside of my foot. I focused on my big toes. I did it when practicing Tai Chi, and also when walking, and at first it really hurt, and gradually it’s got easier.

This in turn has got me looking at my toes. I’ve never been a serious wearer of pointy, heeled shoes so my toes aren’t much distorted by that, but they do all roll towards the middle. Getting my weight in the right place has meant training my toes to spread out a bit more. I need to build toe strength! When learning new moves I have to figure out how I’m going to get my ankles to the right place, and this can be tricky with bigger steps, but I’m getting there, and my teacher has been supportive and helpful.

I’ve learned a lot about my body in recent months. I’ve learned things that I wish I’d known when I was a child, struggling with sports lessons. I wish my teachers had known. I wish my doctors had known when I started having fatigue issues. I spent so long with body pain being treated like an over-reaction, fatigue being treated like drama, the poor co-ordination that goes with hypermobility being treated like a personal failing or lack of effort. It’s hard to ask for help when you’ve been convinced that your body is fine and your mind is the problem. I’m getting there now, and it’s changed how I feel about myself and what I do with my body.

I’d internalised so much of that sense of my body issues just meaning that I am a crap person in some way. Having a clear sense of the mechanics has been empowering, and allows me to feel better about myself. I get tired more than the average person because everything takes me more effort. I hurt more because I take more damage. It was never all in my head. And now that I’m dealing with it as a thing happening in my body, I might even be able to improve the situation for myself.


Healing challenges

When there’s just the one thing wrong with you, healing can be fairly straightforward. However, when multiple things go wrong, there can be conflicts within your body. To give a simple example – if your back needs you to lie flat, but you have a stinking cold and can’t breathe easily unless propped up. When the side effects from the ideal medication interact with some other problem and you have no options.

There are a number of things I need to maintain my mental health. I need to walk and spend time outside. I need social time. I need to be creative and I need things that are mentally stimulating. None of this goes well with any kind of bodily illness. Needing bed rest and needing time with people do not easily combine. If I stay put and focus on getting my body well at the expensed of my mental health, this doesn’t go well for me. Equally, poor bodily health will undermine my mental health every time.

This is one of the reasons that unsolicited medical advice from random people can be such a miserable nuisance. Especially when said people are pushy and adamant that they have the magic cure for your ills and get angry with you if you say no to them. Because they didn’t know about the inner conflicts you have, or the things that won’t work with the magic cure. It’s no use telling someone to do yoga if being told what to do with their body is a major panic trigger (this has happened to me). It’s no good telling someone who also struggles with low blood pressure to take something that will, as a side effect, lower their blood pressure.

People with complex, multiple illnesses don’t tend to list off everything that’s wrong. Sometimes, people just want the relief that comes from being able to say ‘this is really shit right now.’ It’s no good insisting they should cover their face in bees if you don’t know how they respond to bee stings…

Pushing medical ‘solutions’ onto people who are ill can be incredibly bullying and demoralising. It’s the kind of bullying that hides behind the lies of ‘I’m only doing it to help you’ or ‘for your own good’ while offering no help and no good. Sharing information is always a good thing. ‘This helped me’ can be useful. The problems start when we insist people act on our information and refuse to hear their reasons for not wanting to.


Sensual, not sexualised

We all get a barrage of information about how we are supposed to be sexually, and what we are supposed to find attractive. I grew up in a hetra-normative environment, and like many queer people my age and older, I had no words for how I am for too long. I grew up with clear messages about what my apparently female body should look like and do, that my clothes could be my consent, and that my clothes should be sexualised and consenting. And that at the same time it wasn’t ok to be a slut.

All the things I’ve been told to find attractive in men – status symbols, big muscles, dominating personalities – I don’t find sexy in anyone. There’s nothing I find more unattractive than the ‘alpha male’ who takes without asking. The person bold enough to ask for what they want? Now, that’s sexy.

At the personal level, there have been plenty of people in the past – some who were lovers, some were not – who wanted to tell me who I was and what it meant. People who wanted to define my identity for me, describe my sexual identity for me, translate my presence on sexual terms for me – and I think this is normal, because mainstream culture is rife with it and it is what we learn to do to each other.

For a while now I’ve been asking what happens if I reject all notions of the male gaze when considering what to wear. The male gaze of my bloke isn’t an issue on this score, he likes me, and he likes me being happy, all I have to do is show up. I don’t have to dress and act a part for him.

I’ve started asking what happens if I have a sexual identity that begins with how I feel, and not with anything coming at me from outside. A sense of physical self rooted in how my body is and what it enjoys and responds to, not what the culture I live in would have me believe I should enjoy and respond to. What immediately struck me as soon as I began exploring this, is that what comes from me is a far more sensual state of being than a sexual one.

Part of this is practical. With the best will in the world, actual shagging can only take up so much of a person’s time. Issues of chaffing and energy and all that. A sensual state of being is much more available, and much more possible in all kinds of contexts. I realise that I want to form a more tactile relationship with the world around me. I want to touch more – plants, stones and soil especially. I recognise how affected I am by sun and wind on skin, by being in water.

For many reasons, I did not have a very tactile relationship with the world as a child. I expect I’m not alone in that. Adults certainly aren’t supposed to paddle in puddles, stroke trees, put their faces against rocks just for the joy of doing it. We are to dress for how it looks, not for how it feels. We are to touch other humans for sexual purposes or not at all. We are allowed to have sensual, non-sexual relationships with our pets.

I go forth to experiment, to find out who I am if I just put the whole notion of sexual identity down for a while and explore sensual identity instead. I’ll report back if there are any interesting discoveries along the way.


When People are Troublesome

Here’s a very useful line of thought which I got from Alain du Botton. It goes like this. When small babies are grumpy, shouty or otherwise horrible, we check their nappies, burp them, see if they need to sleep, or we feed them. We wonder if they are teething. More often than not, what’s wrong can be put right. When adults are inexplicably funny with us, we infer meaning, and we get unhappy too and that seldom fixes anything.

Low blood sugar, insufficient sleep, trapped wind, and countless other simple body issues affect the moods of adults, too. On top of that we have all our baggage to lug about as well. For some time now, I’ve tried to factor this in when dealing with people. Sometimes I can just go for simple physical interventions to see if it helps, sometimes I just imagine that the reason a person is odd isn’t about me, but about them. At the very least, it helps me not to make worse an already awkward situation.

I’ve started applying it to myself as well. If I know I’m being crappy and short tempered, I check through for obvious physical things, and try things that might alleviate problems. If I know there’s a problem with me – for example if I’m in a lot of pain – I say so, in the hopes that the people around me will know not to take me too personally. I tell the people who live with me if I’m bleeding, or I think I’m pre-menstrual, so they know what’s going on. Hopefully, this helps. It certainly helps me take better care of me.

I think part of the problem is that we’ve inherited a culture that thinks body things are vulgar and not to be mentioned. We can’t tell people we’re menstruating! Or constipated! The horror! Instead we are to present a stiff upper lip and pretend everything is fine. Of course this means a lot of stuff comes out sideways. There’s nothing like trying to pretend you don’t feel awful for making a person over react to small things gone awry.

If we’re allowed to be honest about body issues, we can be kinder to each other. We can understand each other better and not build up layers of overthinking and anxiety around our interactions. If we assume that as grown up people we are basically big babies, we may be better able to recognise when someone just needs a pat on the back.


All Acts of Love and Pleasure

“All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals’ is a line from Doreen Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess (read the whole piece here – http://www.doreenvaliente.com/Doreen-Valiente-Doreen_Valiente_Poetry-11.php) It’s an interesting phrase to ponder.

Up until fairly recently, if I thought about the line at all, I interpreted it in sexual terms. However, over the last few months I’ve been on a journey and have been changing my relationship with my body. A wider idea about acts of love and pleasure has taken root, and has brought me back to this phrase with much greater interest in the idea of sacredness in the physical.

All acts of love of course has to mean more than shagging. I’m not always good with touch, I can still be panicked by unexpected contact, but on the whole I’ve learned to trust, to soften, to be more open to affection from friends. I’m starting to see my own love for the physical world in this line, too. Putting my body into water, or into soft grasses, or out in the sun or under a wide sky is also an act of love, and of sacred connection.

The scope for pleasure is vast. Our physical bodies have the capacity to relish many sensations. Our senses are rich with opportunity. Yet I’ve spent most of my life with a utilitarian approach to my body, seeing it in terms of what it can usefully get done, and as a means of getting my brain places. There’s been a puritan streak in my thinking since childhood – I have no idea where it came from, but it created the feeling that to enjoy anything too much with my body was unseemly, inappropriate, greedy… that the pleasures of a body were not to be trusted or invested in.

To take pleasure in food, and rest, in skin contact, a hot shower, a cool drink… every day offers so many opportunities to delight in small, bodily experiences. And if all acts of pleasure can be sacred, that really turns the tables on the life-denying puritan who took up residence in my head very early on in life. I think much of it for me comes from a feeling that I am not entitled to enjoy or to feel good, that I do not deserve to relax into things, or delight in them – I am meant to work, to strive, and to suffer. Well, sod that! It’s a miserable way to be that has kept me in some lousy places and contributed to poor mental and physical health, so I’m learning to head the other way and to enjoy what I have and make the most of it.

So many spiritual practices treat the experience of the body as something to control, and be ashamed of. I’ve lived with a lot of body shame, one way and another. Working to change that has made a huge difference already, and I feel I have quite some way to go along this path.


Penance and the disembodied

There are a number of concepts that I picked up early in life that make it hard to be embodied. As they were part of the environment of my youth, I expect it wasn’t just me.

Rather than thinking of food as being necessary fuel for the body, or a means to health and vitality, or a pleasure, eating seemed like a bad thing. Hunger – a perfectly natural bodily process – was something to rise above. Food should be eaten slowly, with care and tidiness, not gobbled up with enthusiasm. Second helpings should not be sought. Physical exercise was a penance you could do for having eaten food.

The notion that a person could enjoy their body, their food, their physical activity came to me rather later in life than was ideal. For too long, it seemed like the life of the mind, and perhaps the spirit were the only things worth worrying about and that all bodily things were there to be ignored, transcended or beaten into submission. A desire to be disembodied, not present.

It’s difficult to get into any kind of physical activity when you see it as punishment. You do it to atone for transgression, but not with joy, or for its own sake. If food is a vice, and burning off the calories is a necessary toll to pay, there’s no life of the body in this.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on thinking differently – learning to see food as necessary fuel. As a consequence, my fat and protein consumption have gone up. Increasing the oil in my diet has been hard, going against everything I’ve been taught, but ironically it seems to help with the weight loss. I’ve started using physical activity rather than sugar to keep my brain working through the day. My sugar craving has reduced dramatically, my focus has increased dramatically. By paying attention to my body and working with it, I’ve changed.

The key thing in all of this has been starting to treat my body, with its various feelings, cravings, urges and needs, as fundamentally acceptable. Not as something bad that needs controlling and punishing. Not as something that must do penance for feeling good. Meeting my body on its own terms and finding what it can do, and what helps it, rather than the simple obsession with being thin at any cost. Thin at any cost is something that will disembody you, although many of us have metabolisms that decline to be thin even under considerable pressure.

My animal self is not something I need to control or transcend. The life of my mind does not require it – in fact I think better when I treat my body with greater kindness. My spiritual life does not require me to transcend my body, either. I can have a spiritual life in which it’s ok to show up, skin, hunger and all.