Whenever I find myself overwhelmed by the many thoughts, to do’s, decisions and choices of our fast paced culture, I find a quiet spot and place my hands in anjali mudra over my heart. I take a moment to use this gesture to ground myself within the higher wisdom of my body.
I don’t mean this in any namby pamby new agey kind of way. I mean it literally. There is plenty of evidence suggesting our bodies possess a kind of transcendental knowledge that extends far beyond the limits of our ‘know it all’ rational mind. I believe all the answers we need -and even lifesaving tips – can be found within the body, if we’d just take the time to listen.
For example, Princeton University and the University of Amsterdam used photographs to study ‘anomalous cognition’. They hooked up test subjects to heart rate and galvanic skin response monitors and showed them disturbing or shocking images randomly mixed with neutral ones in a picture slide show.
Not surprisingly, the neutral pictures created no response, but the offensive images did. But the amazing thing was that their bodies reacted with anxiety to disturbing images 4-5 seconds before the images were flashed onscreen. The participant’s bodies expressed foreknowledge of coming events.
The fMRI Research center at Columbia University conducted similar studies. Director Joy Hirsch Ph.D. and her colleagues discovered our brains react with anxiety to images of people expressing fear – even if those images flash by so fast our rational mind has no idea we’ve seen them. In this case the participant’s bodies subliminally registered what their conscious minds could not perceive.
If our bodies tell us what we need to know before our mind catches up – shouldn’t we be listening more carefully for its signals? The problem is that most of us are so caught up in our heads we don’t have a clue what our body is saying.
According to esteemed yoga teacher Donna Farhi, “we live in a time of extreme dissociation from bodily experience”. We numb ourselves to the body’s aches, pains and sensations as we go about the busy importances of our day. In this way Farhi warns, we become “dissociated from our instincts, intuitions, feelings and insights. By ‘living in our heads’ are we cutting ourselves off from a greater field of knowledge that can help guide and even protect us? I think so.
Consider an experiment recently conducted by the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, U.K. Researchers asked participants to play cards, but what the players didn’t know was that some of the decks were rigged. What the study discovered was that player’s heartbeats (without their conscious awareness) began to react to the rigged decks with raised stress levels. It was the body – not the mind- that became aware of the differences in the decks.
Similar card playing studies conducted by The University of Iowa, measured the rate of perspiration on people’s palms. They found that players started generating stress responses to the rigged decks (sweatier palms) within ten cards. Yet they didn’t start consciously twigging to the fact that the decks were rigged, until 50 cards in.
I agree with Farhi, that the sensations of our hearts, guts, arms and legs are in constant conversation with us, if we’d only listen. By floating over our bodies like disembodied heads, we miss out on some pretty critical information. Whether we are aware of it or not, the shift in our heartbeat, the change in our perspiration, is trying to tell us something.
I believe when we are “in touch” with our bodies, we can become like the martial artist who is always one step ahead of their opponent, we can grow eyes in the back of our head, we can swerve just in time, out the way of an oncoming car. We can trust that our body is doing its best to keep us alive.
The good news is that the more we spend time quieting the mind and tuning into the body, the more our brain will respond. A 2005 study found brain regions associated with sensitivity to body signals had more connections and gray matter in those who meditated on a regular basis.
That’s why, when I find myself succumbing to the mental agitation of modern life, I make time to place my awareness in my body. Grounding my thumbs against my heartbeat, I put my palms together in prayer posture and listen.