The body does better with nurturing than punishment. Studies have demonstrated benefits from good nutrition, moderate exercise, and regular mindfulness practice. And we all know harm results from high fat/high sugar diets, inactivity or over-exertion, and a consistently mindless, high stress lifestyle. We could add in many other helpful and harmful behaviors, some of which might be less obvious and proven (for instance, a consistently negative attitude toward the body sounds unhealthy, but I don’t think any research has investigated its impact), but you get the picture. Treating the body with tenderness, supporting it through the years, makes simple common sense.
So if nurturing the body is a good idea, what does body-nurturance look like? Think of a mother playing with her infant, cooing at her baby, smiling when the baby smiles. Think of the infant suckling at her breast, gaining nutrition and feeling loved. Maternal care is an archetype of affection we can transfer to our mind-body relationship. We can aim to nurture the body in the same spirit.
Here are some tips, general guidelines with a few specific suggestions. I encourage you to make your own list of ways you can nurture your body. Then, practice nurturance daily.
- Enjoy healthy foods. Eating well is a basic of self-care, but what I’m suggesting goes beyond simply replacing processed foods with fruits and vegetables. If we eat what we’re ‘supposed’ to eat out of obligation, then every meal will be spiced with resentment. The temptation to slip in some M&M’s or cheeseburgers will be strong. But if we notice how the body responds internally to different choices, we’ll discover an unpleasant, bloated or agitated feeling after fast food and a sweet, settled sensation after a dish of veggies. As we tune in to this pleasure more and more, we’ll slowly change our eating habits. Every healthy meal will begin to feel like an offering to support the hard-working body.
- Practice relaxation. Tuning in and making food choices based on wellbeing rather than craving is impossible when the body-mind complex feels panicked. When stressed, the system will seem to demand simple high-energy binges rather than complex, nutritious meals. If reactivity is so high that the organism responds as if fighting for its life, short term relief will overshadow longterm health. So regular practice of relaxation is a must. Researchers have amply demonstrated the healthfulness of meditation, which has many benefits in addition to reducing stress. But anything that eases tension will be helpful. As with healthy eating, in time relaxation will feel enjoyable, so its practice will get more and more automatic
- Exercise mindfully. Moderate physical activity helps reduce tension, but it also strengthens body systems (including cardiovascular efficiency) and generates pleasurable sensations. When exercising, it is crucial to pay attention to the body’s messages and limits. Exertion to strengthen the body is helpful, but not if it’s so intense that injury results. Even if harm is avoided, a mindless, punishing regime works against the principle of nurturance. It sends the wrong message and further alienates body and mind. A good example here is yoga. Often in health clubs yoga is taught with the implicit goal of making the body more sexy and desirable. With eyes on a wall of mirrors, students compare themselves with others in the class and with imagined ideals, and they push their bodies past natural limits. Injuries are common, and the gulf between psyche and soma widens. Yet when properly done, yoga encourages attentiveness, so that bodily sensations are felt with intimacy and affection. Stretches are used to slowly build physical and mental flexibility, and care is taken to push only gently, never forcefully. Whether or not you choose to practice yoga, approach all exercise in this spirit.
- Gentle the body. Physical touch soothes all animals, including human ones. Seek out hugs from friends and lovers. Embrace companion animals. You might even try wrapping your arms around a tree—it feels good! If you can afford it, get regular massages. Or massage yourself. One nice way to gentle the body is to rub it with warm sesame oil every night or after every shower. This is an Ayurvedic technique that is surprisingly soothing; it also supports the health of the skin. Whenever you can, offer your body physical reassurance. Gently touch your cheek or stroke your hands; give yourself a hug; massage sore muscles. Use touch to deepen your intimacy with your body, to nurture and honor it.
- Offer thanks and praise. Whenever you think of it, mentally send a note of appreciation to your body. Remember all the ways it supports you: breathing air, circulating blood, digesting food, battling disease, eliminating waste, generating warmth, etc. Each of these processes is a study in complexity and nuance, worthy of admiration, of awe. Take the time to feel the processes of life: the tide of breath, the thump of heartbeat, the rumbles in your stomach, and so on. Each is a reminder of your body’s efforts. Be explicit in your thanks and praise, so the soma feels the mind’s support. I don’t believe any research has been done on such a practice, but how could it hurt? Speaking from my own experience, honoring and praising my body seems healing.