Yoga and Bodywork

Expressing Our True Nature

By Sonia Osorio

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, June/July 2005.

Yoga and bodywork, in their complete expression, are similar fields of practice and self-study. They support one another as learning experiences and as healing systems. Both share a common foundation that focuses on the body and the breath in order to deeply understand the physiological and psychological aspects of our form and the energy systems that support it. Both disciplines also require a willingness to explore and discover our own authentic nature, which involves an ongoing commitment, daily practice, continual exploration, and a willingness to open not just our bodies, but our hearts.

Yoga is not a string of acrobatic postures or dogmatic philosophy, just as bodywork is not a litany of preset movements or academic study of the body. Both yoga and bodywork are means through which we observe the quality of our own and another’s experience in the present moment.

In the classical context, yoga has very little to do with physical fitness in the way we pursue it in the West. Rather, yoga is a system designed to unite body and mind with the divine (the word yoga means “union”), which is our true nature. Yoga cultivates awareness, which begins by being mindful of bodily sensations and breath. As we become more aware of our sensations, we also notice the reactive tendencies of the mind, and we can begin to bring them under conscious control (another meaning of the word yoga is “yoking,” which refers to reigning in our distractive tendencies). By working with and observing patterns of thought and movement, we come to understand them better, we see through them, and can therefore allow them to fall away more easily. In doing so, clarity of thought and ease of movement arise, and we come closer to our genuine expression — who we are when our habitual patterns and stories have fallen away.

Integrity of Body and Mind

The yoga postures (asanas) are an integral part of the yogic discipline, which comprises other elements considered essential to a complete practice of yoga: ethical principles (yamas), personal conduct (niyamas), breathing techniques (pranayama), sensing inwardly (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and connection with the universal (samadhi). This holistic approach to yoga reflects the notion that body, mind, breath, and spirit are intimately related and that to work on any one of these, is to reconnect with the others, ultimately helping us understand our connection with a universal life energy that is both in and around us.

In any bodywork session, this connection is inherently understood as we awaken sensory awareness, linking breath with touch and movement, honoring who we touch and who we are, respecting ethical and personal boundaries, releasing physical and emotional tension, and feeling our aliveness in the moment. Massage begins with the body yet often touches the deeper sensations and emotions that open those places in our hearts and souls seeking expression through our form.

All bodywork approaches strive to improve and rebalance the functioning of our body, whether through massage, deep tissue restructuring, movement reeducation, or energy work. Often, these are used in concert and involve reestablishing a conscious connection to our bodies, helping us remember a deeper and more integral connection — who we are at our core, which is both unique, yet intimately related to others and to this world. This is sometimes called our connection to the divine, to our essential self, which is often much more (or less) than we imagined it to be.

Bodywork, like yoga, is about this connection to the divine through the body. It is about a release of any preconceived notions of who we thought we were and how we believed we must move in our bodies and in this world. This is the essence of freedom — to open to who and how we are in this very moment and to accept others in the same way.

Interconnection Through Our Form

Just as there are a variety of bodywork techniques, there are many different approaches to yoga. Though each may place different emphasis on certain areas of this far-reaching philosophical system, the goal is the same: awareness and enlightenment through our form. As B.K.S. Iyengar, one the foremost living teachers of yoga, counsels, “Look into the essence and do not be misled by the names.”

Patañjali, whose Yoga Sutras were written more than 2,000 years ago, views yoga as a system of self-refinement through which we still the mind, allowing us to see things as they are and thereby achieving freedom from suffering. Describing its universal nature, he calls yoga sarvabhauma — bhauma meaning “the world,” and sarva meaning “all.” Yoga works on the individual as a whole, and by so doing, affects the whole of the world around her. Says Iyengar in his book, The Tree of Yoga (Shambhala Publications, 2002), “When your body, mind, and soul are healthy and harmonious, you will bring health and harmony to those around you and health and harmony to the world — not by withdrawing from the world, but by being a healthy living organ of the body of humanity.”

Bodywork, like alignment and integration in yoga, is about not forgetting the whole while observing and working with the specifics, allowing the parts to coalesce, to flow together effortlessly, and to reveal their deeper nature. In doing that, we can look without bias at our form and our experience and see the interconnectedness of all forms and all experience. In doing so, compassion, understanding, and awareness shine through — the deeper expression of any practice.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, described by the Dalai Lama as one of the greatest thinkers of our age, has stated in his lectures on the nature of freedom that, “When one sees life as it is, when one sees oneself as one is, from there one can move.” When we move from this place of awareness, our actions cannot help but be in integrity with who we are and become a movement toward change. To put it bluntly, if we’re not even aware of where our foot is in a yoga pose or how we’re breathing as we give or receive a massage, how can we know where we’re going in life?

Cultivating awareness is an ongoing process, and we begin by being curious and noticing small details: Where is my foot? How does it feel? How am I breathing? Where am I tense? How does this feel? Who am I, feeling this? And we continue our inquiry, which is part of any dedicated practice. Through this ongoing curiosity, we gain an awareness that gives us the means to act skillfully in our daily life and in the world. Grounded in awareness, our actions are done more consciously and naturally come from our heart. In this way, individual practice grows through practical application, motivated by what is good for us and for those around us. Gentleness and respect toward ourselves and others is called ahimsa, or non-harming, and is a basic tenet of yoga philosophy. If we honor this, we naturally awaken our compassion, and wish health and happiness for all beings.

An Effortless Approach

For centuries, consciousness has played an essential role in governing physical, psychological, and spiritual health in Eastern traditions. Yet many people pursue yoga and bodywork, seeking some definitive result, instead of experiencing them consciously. Goal-oriented as we are, we forget to use the time we devote to our bodies to simply observe where and how we are in this very moment, without judgment and, most importantly, with great compassion. It is a grave mistake to believe that a harder and deeper approach in practices whose roots are based in honoring the body will lead to more “gains,” to a “better” or faster release, or offer us a fast-track to spiritual connection.

According to Patañjali, mastery of yoga occurs when practice becomes effortless. In the West, such a concept is difficult to understand, as we often push harder and faster in order to achieve more. How often have we heard the phrase, or perhaps uttered it ourselves, “I’m trying to relax!” Effortlessness, gentleness, compassion — this is the true practice: gently easing into one experience and out of another, being in the moment without desire to cling to it, or aversion of the emotions and sensations that rise up as we enter into sensation.

Where Paths Meet

Many yogis either come from a bodywork background or are discovering its benefits to complement their practice. Massage and bodywork, like yoga, are about balancing opposites until we can feel them as complements in our bodies and in our lives: strength and flexibility, joy and sadness, shadow and light, opening ourselves and honoring our boundaries, releasing old patterns, and holding fast to our truth.

Somatic techniques redefine our kinesthetic sense, developing not just an awareness of how thought and movement patterns affect us at all levels, but on how we can reeducate ourselves to move and think in ways that are healthier and more life-enhancing. Somatic practices encourage self-awareness by allowing us to understand the source of where our holdings come from. The emphasis in sessions is often on simply observing where and how we are, and in so doing, eventually discovering new options in how we can move and think. Most importantly, the techniques provide us with the courage and confidence that we can release ourselves from what confines and restricts us. As in yoga, such releases are actually openings, movements into a larger sphere of awareness that naturally happens when we realize we’re not bound by a limited definition of self.

Somatics as Yogic Awareness

If we look at some of the current somatic approaches to bodywork, we find that, at their source, they too have touched on principles inherent in yoga.

Ida Rolf, who had a doctorate in biochemistry and a background in atomic physics, studied osteopathy, chiropractic medicine, and homeopathy to cope with her personal health issues. For more than a decade, she also studied Tantric yoga, and her work with chronically disabled people began with yoga postures. She eventually integrated her own theories about how the body’s structural alignment affects behavior and emotion, creating the now well-known sequence of 10 bodywork sessions that define Rolfing. As in yoga, Rolf’s work was about integration, with an impetus toward self-realization. She worked with the body and the breath to help people find a place of balance and thereby access their inherent well-being at all levels: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Rolf always considered her work not simply a means to deal with the physical body, but also as a way to encourage the evolution of the individual.

Pilates is a bodywork program that focuses on improving core strength for better overall alignment, (see “Pilates for Bodyworkers,” page 60). Joseph Pilates, who developed the approach, was a German physical fitness instructor whose early studies included yoga and Zen meditation. When he was in a British detention camp for German nationals during World War I, Pilates taught self-defense to other inmates. Later, he worked in a hospital where his work evolved into a physical rehabilitation program that included equipment he designed himself. When Pilates immigrated to the United States, his work was quickly adopted by professional dancers recovering from injury and has since gained increasing popularity with yoga practitioners. Pilates’ six principles — concentration, control, centering, breathing, flow, and precision — are also an inherent part of any yoga practice. Pilates’ focus on core stabilization develops deep inner strength and awareness, in much the same way that an advanced yoga practice is about the balance that naturally occurs when inner and outer strength are in harmony.

Body-mind centering (BMC), created by Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen, is another somatic technique that has its roots in yoga. Bainbridge-Cohen, originally a dancer, was equally influenced by Eastern and Western approaches to working with the body, including yoga, aikido, occupational therapy, and neuromuscular reeducation. BMC is based on the idea that patterns evolve as we move through our various life stages and that each system of the body is involved in this evolution. Both therapists and clients are taught to sense from the inside out, becoming conscious of the effects that thoughts and movement have on their tissues, organs, and skeletal system. In this sense, BMC’s approach is very yogic, encouraging a process of inward observation, awareness, and conscious evolution.

Like Bainbridge-Cohen, Moshe Feldenkrais integrated Eastern and Western techniques to create what is now known as the Feldenkrais Method. Feldenkrais, an Israeli engineer and jujitsu expert, suffered from severely crippled knees. He recognized that, while stretching and strengthening muscles could rehabilitate his body, what was needed for lasting change was a transformation from deep within. What was needed was to involve the nervous system. Feldenkrais developed what he called “awareness through movement” lessons, where the body is taken through slow and gentle movements that send new and healing messages to the nervous system. Eventually, the nervous system itself learns to send these healing messages back to injured or constricted muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

As in yoga, the Feldenkrais Method is about awakening our body’s intelligence at its core. As one’s yoga practice deepens, effects on various neural pathways become obvious. Pranayama and asanas are about opening the body and “clearing” the energetic pathways (nadis) as well as the central channel (shushumna), along the spinal column, to support the vital life force that arises as we learn new ways to move and breathe. “Dwell as close as possible to the channel in which your life flows,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. It’s here, at our core, where we reconnect with life — and it’s from here that all genuine movement and expression begins.

Emptiness as Opening

Can bodywork be considered a spiritual pursuit? It depends on how we approach our practice. Whether it’s giving or receiving, on a yoga mat or on a massage table, anything we do with full awareness reminds us of our spiritual connection. “To live spiritually, is to live in the present,” Iyengar says. Whether it’s through yoga, bodywork, or both, any time we come into the present moment and become more aware of our body’s alignment, movement, and thought patterns, transformation begins. Then, we realize that it’s not just where we are in our practice, but who we are as we face the various challenges that arise.

Any approach that integrates mind and body will naturally elicit a multilevel change: physiologically, emotionally, and spiritually. As this happens, we gain perspective, space, clarity, and the capacity to open to a more multifaceted view of life. We can see the immediate problem, yet also realize where it stems from, how it affects our body as a whole, how it impacts other aspects of our lives, what stories and habits we have to empty ourselves of, and where change needs to take place — in effect, where and how we can recover our happiness and well-being or support others in their discovery. As we do this, our actions begin to have an effect that is beyond ourselves.

“To pay attention means we care, which means we really love,” philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti says. By mindfully listening to and caring for our bodies and those of others, we set the stage for true and lasting change. We wake up and find we cannot help but open our hearts. We are “care-full,” as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says — full of care. Awareness, in fact, is about opening in this careful way, compassionately noticing and dropping old patterns, softening, trusting, and relaxing into the present moment. Effortlessness. As we let go, we make space. Then, we remember: There is no search, no “trying” to understand, no “trying” to relax, nothing to achieve — just an opening, where we reconnect and touch once again the core of who we all are. This, in effect, is also the core of both yoga and bodywork.