One of the best things about yoga, for me, has been learning to tap into the wisdom of my body. We live in a very thinking oriented culture, and when I’ve been worried about something or trying to make a decision, I can think myself into spiraling rabbit holes full of information I don’t actually have.
Through yoga and meditation, I’ve learned to make more space for physically feeling things in the moment. Thoughts are usually oriented in the past or the future, but sensation—even if it’s related to fear of the future or ruminations about the past—is still happening in this body, in this moment, right now.
When we are facing a difficult decision or going through a tough time, it’s important to be able to tap into both sources of wisdom: cognitive thought that can weigh options and consider information, but also physical sensations, emotions, and gut reactions.
Cognitive thought can be useful, but also tricky: our minds are very good at filling in missing information, and justifying what we are already feeling emotionally anyway. We tend to have thought loops that we learned a long time ago that can lead us to repeat the same mistakes we’ve made before.
Sometimes looking past your thoughts and giving yourself space to feel your emotions can be illuminating, but it’s not a crystal ball. My gut definitely has its own wisdom, but I used to think I could look into it deeply enough, I could tell the future, or read other people’s thoughts. I thought if I could get close enough to my gut wisdom I would be able to see my situation clearly and never make a wrong decision again.
Gut feelings are about as tricky as thoughts, though. Gut feelings don’t come from some benevolent fairy godmother living in your small intestine. They come from your experience, cultural conditioning, and information your body and subconscious mind pick up. As Banerji and Greenwald have shown through their Implicit Association Tests (which you can do here) most of us in North America have unacknowledged biases about gender and race that don’t match up with our explicit conscious values. We don’t consciously discriminate against people for their race, ability, body shape, or gender, but these biases show up in the tests anyway. Sometimes our gut fairies are little racist, sexist jerks!
When you are able to create some space to think and feel, however, without coming to conclusions or trying to influence what’s going on inside you, one of the first things you discover is that your internal world is constantly changing. Cravings arise and pass. A meal or a good night’s sleep will completely change your perception. As much as I romanticized the idea that I could have premonitory superpowers, it’s a relief to know that no matter how hard I try to figure something out, there’s always information I’m missing, and I’m always going to make mistakes.
As yogis and as human beings, we have the gift of living in a body, learning things, encountering other people, loving, getting hurt, making choices, and making mistakes. Living with this gift means we also have the responsibility to listen to our thoughts and feelings, give them room to breathe, and watch them change. The practice isn’t about quieting the experience of being a human. It’s about being in that experience as fully as possible. So we pay attention, we do the best we can with the information we have available, and we embrace the scary sweetness of living with uncertainty.