As within, so without

One of the things I treasure about my Pagan path is that it leads me to integrate all aspects of my life. Rather than suppress the physical and emotional self in an effort to elevate the mental and spiritual self, walking my path has taught me that wholeness and integration make me stronger in all aspects.

As above, so below; as within, so without. This metaphysical principle comes to us from Hermeticism, but echoes through numerous magical Traditions. I believe that this principle applies to our bodies as well as our spirits, to our minds as much as our emotions, and to our sacred selves as much as the universe.

Pagan teachers often exhort students to craft a daily spiritual practise, as daily practise is vital to maintaining our deepest connection to our spiritual path. A growing number of Pagan teachers also require their students to make a daily practise of exercise.

Several studies suggest that exercise affects our moods. Another study shows that mindfulness meditation has long-term benefits for people diagnosed with anxiety disorders.

A recent study from UCLA indicates that practising Kirtan (yogic chanting) meditation for as little as 12 minutes daily for 8 weeks leads “to a reduction in the biological mechanisms responsible for an increase in the immune system’s inflammation response.” That is to say, a form of chanting meditation has been shown to reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress – such as inflammation – that can lead to chronic illness.

Those are just a few of the scientific studies that suggest that “as within, so without” is not just a matter of faith, but one of science, as well. It stands to reason that maintaining a healthy body is vital to maintaining a vital and integrated being.

Many people hold the misconception that healthy bodies meet a narrow ratio of height and weight, but studies have shown otherwise. Those studies have shown, time and again, that healthy habits lead to healthy bodies, regardless of weight or BMI.

So, what are these healthy habits? According to a study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, “engaging in physical activity >12 times a month, being a nonsmoker, consuming >=5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day, and drinking alcohol in moderation.”

It bears stating again: Scientific, peer-reviewed studies show that no matter how much you weigh, or what your BMI, if you don’t smoke, drink alcohol in moderation, eat five or more servings of fruit and veg every day, and have a moderate amount of exercise three times a week, you have a greater probability of surviving into old age.

Physical activity doesn’t have to be a chore or a punishment to the body. We don’t have to punish ourselves or deprive ourselves in order to be healthy. Instead, approach the matter with mindfulness. What sort of physical activity do you enjoy? What feeds your spirit, as well? What gets your mind and heart involved?

I enjoy yoga and qi gong as integrative exercise and health practices. Both are moving meditation, which feeds my spirit and my heart. Both help me to slow my mind and focus on the moment I am in.

I study Kripalu yoga as presented by Abby Lentz, of Heartfelt Yoga. Abby is a plus-size yoga instructor who teaches “yoga for the body you have today”, by way of showing numerous ways to modify poses in order to work gently within the limitations your body presents now. For instance, if you can’t come to the mat, she shows how to do poses in a chair.

I also study qi gong, as presented by Matthew Cohen. His approach is meditative, and I find it really quite Pagan in his regard for the elements and the practise. My partner and I work with his DVD, Qi Gong Fire & Water.

Based on these two practises, I find the series below a very enjoyable way to start or end the day.

Wear comfortable clothing that does not restrict your movement. Stand or sit, as you are able, and become aware of your breath. When you are ready, with your inhale, raise your hands slowly, palm upward, like you are scooping up water. Scoop up energy in your cupped hands. As your hands come up above your heart, tip them toward you, to pour that energy over your heart. Bring your hands onto your heart, one over the other. Press gently, to push that energy into yourself. This is hand to heart. Click here for a video demonstration.

With your hands held as if cupping a bowl of water, held at the Dan T’ien (just above the pelvis, also called the hara, Svadisthana, or sacral chakra), breathe your hands up to the level of your eyes. On the exhale, gently push your hands down as if stroking a tree trunk, carrying Qi energy down through your aura and back to the Dan T’ien. This is called Clearing.

Next, bring your hands together in prayer. Elbows down, shoulders relaxed, fingers upright and together, hands in front of your heart. Breathe slowly and deeply through the nose, deep belly breaths. Set your intention for your practise. Hold this pose for five breaths, or longer, if you prefer.

Now, bring your hands so that your fingers are pointing forwards, palms still pressed together. Open your hands as if you were opening a book, but then carry that motion on to bring your arms out to your sides. Reach backward, squeezing your shoulders together, as if you wanted to wrap your arms around the whole world. Take a deep, integrating breath. Release this pose, bringing your hands gently down to your sides. I call this Heart Opening.

As you are able, keep your feet hip width apart and tuck your tailbone so that it points at the floor. Keep your shoulders back, arms at your sides. Take an integrating breath. This is Mountain Pose.

With the breath, bring your arms up, straight out at your sides, palms up, to shoulder height, and if you can, step out with your right foot. You should look a bit like DaVinci’s famous drawing, Vitruvian Man. This is Five-Pointed Star.

Now, turn to face right, and step out further with your right foot into a lunge. Keep your arms at shoulder height. This is Warrior II. With the breath, raise your arms over your head, bringing your hands together if you are able. This is Warrior I. Take a breath, then come back to Warrior II.

From Warrior II, next, raise your right arm up toward the sky, letting your left come down to your side. If you are standing, let your left arm rest on the back of your thigh or calf. Raise your face to the sky, a soft gaze out over the fingertips of your right hand. This is Exalted Warrior.

With the breath, return to Warrior II, then to Five-Pointed Star.

Repeat this series to the left side, and when finished, come back to Mountain Pose.

Next is a qi gong practise called Swings. If you can, stand with your feet hip width apart, knees bent slightly so that your legs are actively engaged. If you need to, you can do this practise seated, as well. Swing gently back and forth, pivoting from the waist while keeping your feet still. Move your arms through the air at your waist as if you were in water, the hands just under the surface. Keep the motion smooth through both directions.

Click here for a video demonstration.

Come back to neutral pose, hands open by your hips. From the Dan T’ien, breathe in and gather energy between your hands. On the exhale, draw the energy down the left leg, bending slowly forwards as you do so. Shift your weight from left to right, bringing the ball of energy through the ground to your right leg, then back up as you inhale, lifting so as to “stack” your vertebrae. Repeat, going down the right leg and back up the left. This is called Carrying Qi.

Click here for a video demonstration.

On the inhale, lift your arms up and over your head, bringing them back down on the exhale, crossing your hands over your face as you bring your arms down to finish the circle. Repeat this motion at least three times. This practise is called Moon Circles.

Click here for a video demonstration.

Finish by sealing: As with clearing, breathe your hands upward until they reach just above your eye level. This time, as you exhale slowly, bring your arms down and trace the outside of your aura to “seal” in the energies you’ve gathered with your practice.

This is just one example of the many things you can do to incorporate joyful, mindful movement into your spiritual practise, making exercise spiritual, as well as physical.

What do you enjoy doing for exercise? Do you have any tips for mindful, spiritual movement options? I’d love to hear about them!

Okay, but how is it Pagan?

I have introduced the concept of Health At Every Size, and tried to provide some resources for those who wish to learn more about HAES.  But how is it Pagan?

As Pagans, we deal with subtle influences, intuition, empathy.  We train ourselves to hear the voices of wind and water, to hear the spirits of place, our Ancestors, the Universe softly singing the song of Making that reverberates through all.  We train ourselves to meditation, turning consciousness inward to see with the inward eye those things which lie within our hearts and souls.  We do Shadow Work, turning toward those parts of ourselves that we’ve hidden away so that we can recognise them, embrace them, integrate what was wounded and lost, and heal from the pain that caused the separation.  All of the practises hold keys to living Health At Every Size.

One path toward developing our best relationship with our bodies is to practise intuitive eating, a practise which honours the body’s natural intelligence and ability to self-regulate.  It takes work to learn, but in time, we can learn our body’s cues, gaining the intuitive understanding of what our bodies want in terms of nutrition based on what our hunger tells us.  We can learn how to honour our sacred selves, body and spirit, to treat our bodies as the temples so many faiths hold them to be.

In order to do so, we must turn that mindfulness we develop for our spiritual practise towards the physical.  When you’re hungry, close your eyes and sit with that hunger.  Explore it.  What is it you’re hungry for?  What do you find yourself craving?  What foods do you think of that would satisfy that craving?  Explore the physical sensations of your body being hungry.  Explore the thoughts that come with those sensations.  What do they tell you?  

Turn your thoughts to how you feel about the food your body wants.  How does the idea of eating it make you feel?  What memories does that food evoke?  Do you feel like you need permission to have it?  Why?  Do you feel like you can give yourself permission to have it?  Why?

Our bodies have the same messages for us about movement.  In spiritual practise, we recognise that in order to raise energy, we have to expend energy.  In order to feel more energised in our bodies, we need to expend energy in movement.  Our bodies know when we need to move, and what sort of movement we need.  They also know when it’s time to stop.  Abby Lentz, of Heartfelt Yoga talks on her DVDs of pushing ourselves to the point of “sweet discomfort”, but never to the point of pain — that is, up to the point we need to reach to develop greater flexibility or strength, but never to the point of harm.  Our bodies know when we’re pushing too hard and we’re putting ourselves at risk, and send us sharp signals to help us avoid harm and injury.

What movement options are you doing regularly?  Do you enjoy them?  Why do you do them?  Does it feel like a chore?  A punishment?  Think about forms of movement you enjoy, that make you feel good in body and in spirit.  Would you like to do them more?  What is stopping you?  Do you feel like you need permission?  Why?  Again, do you feel like you can give yourself permission?  How can you make movement more enjoyable, easier to partake of so it can be a joyful, celebratory, and loving part of your life?

Learning to listen to our own bodies, our own spirits, is as much a Pagan practise as listening to the voices in the rain, or the communal fire.  The messages our bodies have are just as important as the voices of the land, sea, and sky… for they all call us to balance.

Something sweet

Last year, I discovered that I have a wheat sensitivity. Not Celiac Disease, I’m grateful to say, just a sensitivity to modern wheat. Still, this presents a significant challenge when it comes to sorting out meals — especially dining out. Beyond that, let me tell you, Cakes and Ale becomes a dicey proposition, indeed!

Through experimentation, I’ve found that I can have spelt, an older species of wheat, and einkorn, one of the oldest forms of wheat we know about. Thus began my journey into ancient grains. (My partner has mostly enjoyed the results of my learning how to cook with spelt, aside from maybe the red velvet cake that was neither.)

This is my version of Honey Cake. At Ostara, I like to bake this into flower or egg shapes using a silicone mould to use for Cakes and Ale.

CAUTION: Spelt is not gluten-free, and neither is the recipe below.

Honey Cake
1½ cup spelt flour
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup honey
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
3 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease a 9″ x 13″ baking tin (or baking mould for individual cakelettes). Combine the flour, soda, salt, cinnamon and ginger. Set aside.
Combine honey and applesauce; whisk until honey is blended in. Add eggs; whisk until fully combined. Stir dry ingredients into honey mixture. Pour batter into prepared tin or moulds. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes (20 for wee cakes) or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Allow to cool for 15 minutes, then cut into squares (or unmould cakelettes).

It starts with love

Before we begin this post, I’d like you to do something.  Wherever you are reading this right now, take a minute, just a single minute, and do this.

Close your eyes.  Rest your hands in your lap, if you’re sitting.  As you inhale, raise your hands slowly, palm upward, like you are scooping up water.  Scoop up energy in your cupped hands.  As your hands come up above your heart, tip them toward you, to pour that energy over your heart.  Bring your hands onto your heart, one over the other.  Press gently, to push that energy into yourself.

Keep your hands there for a moment.  Give yourself that moment, that energy.  Give yourself love.

Hand to Heart – a video demonstration of this practise.

Do it again, if you’d like.  I’ll wait for you.

Now… how do you feel?  Maybe a little silly, but under that self-consciousness… under that worry that someone saw you… under that discomfort of unfamiliarity… how do you feel?  How does your heart feel?

This is a practise from qi gong, used to bring healing and compassionate energy to the heart as a conscious act of self-love.

All the things we do to take care of our bodies, minds and spirits are acts of self-love.  Bathing, grooming, dressing and adorning our bodies, exercise, feeding ourselves… these are all acts of self-love.

When you are hungry, your body is expressing to you a need.  Think of your body as a partner, a friend, a loved one.  When your loved one expresses to you a need, how do you respond?  Do you give your loved one the bare minimum to shut them up and get them to leave you alone?  Or do you focus on fulfilling that need in a joyous, loving manner?  Your body does so much for you, every moment… so many wonderful things!  Breathing… heart beat… sensation… thought… senses with which to take in beauty.  Treat it with love, and it will love you in return.

It is all too easy for us to push aside our own wants – and even needs – in favour of someone else’s.  The demands of work, school, family, friends, what have you can all pile up, leaving us feeling frazzled, panicked trying to get it all done, and too often, we put our own needs at the bottom of our to-do lists.  But we cannot serve others from an empty well.  We must take the time to replenish our energy in order to be the best we can be in every moment.

Part of how we do that is through the care for our bodies.  But it has to start with love.

Negativity saps our will.  Shame drags us down.  Anger may fuel our fires, but not with higher purpose.  Only love tells us that anything is possible, that we are capable and worthy of great things.

As you show yourself more love and kindness, you will find that you begin to unfold, to blossom.  You respond to that love with increased confidence, greater energy, more vitality.

Love is like the sunshine on a flower.  The radiant light of love helps us to blossom into our most authentic selves.

Pagan HAES

A great deal of conversation has begun across the Pagan blogosphere regarding the physical health of our spiritual community, sparked by the passing of a prominent young man.  I am not going to recount the points that have been raised, or all of the posts and comments that have been made.  Tara “Masery” Miller of Staff of Asclepius has done an excellent round-up of the conversation, thus far, and I encourage the curious to check out that post.  (Trigger warning: some of the conversations linked to include the usual fallacies,including conflating weight with health, thankfully, the round-up post, itself, does not.)

As a Pagan, I strive to live in harmony with Nature and Her cycles.  I strive to live with respect paid to the world around me.  As a Wiccan, I strive to live according to the Rede: An’ it harm none, do as thou wilt.  There are a number of questions the Rede raises when it comes to health.  Does the Rede mean that I should be mindful of my health?  I think so, yes.  So what does that mean, exactly?

I’m a big fan of Ragen Chastain’s underpants rule, and as such, I’m not going to sit here and tell you what you should or should not be doing.  What I will do is tell you what works for me.  What being mindful of my health, in accordance with the Wiccan Rede means to me is this:

  • Eat balanced meals of wholesome, nutritious foods grown from the Earth, not test tubes, petri dishes or beakers, with as little commercial processing as possible.
  • Engage in safe, enjoyable movement options that make me feel good, on a sustainable schedule.
  • Do not allow anyone to bully me for any reason, no matter who they are… including me.

In other words, I make Health At Every Size a part of my spiritual practise.

Health At Every Size is a health movement that focuses not on weight, BMI, or size, but on developing healthful habits:

Health at Every Size is based on the simple premise that the best way to improve health is to honor your body. It supports people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and well-being (rather than weight control). Health at Every Size encourages:

  • Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes.

  • Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite.

  • Finding the joy in moving one’s body and becoming more physically vital.

— quoted from

This blog is an exploration of how I make HAES a part of my spiritual practise, and how it informs my food choices, movement choices, and how living Health At Every Size helps me to live the Rede.  The posts here will include recipes, information on movement options, cooking techniques, and other things that help along this path.  I am hopeful that there will be guest posts from time to time, showing how other people live HAES as part of their Pagan path, as well.  It will be maintained as a safe space to talk about HAES and Paganism — constructive, respectful dialogue is welcome.  Trolling, body shaming, and other hate is not.

Thank you for joining me in this exploration!  I hope you are able to find something that helps you, and that you’ll share what works for you in the comments!

Covered in Light International Day

I’m taking part in this.  I’m also distressed by some of the comments on the post.

Pagan Women Organize Covered in Light

For those of you who want to know why I veil:

Through experimentation borne out of a conversation with my partner about Pagans who cover their head as part of their spiritual practise, I discovered that veiling helps me focus — a significant challenge for me, trying to manage ADD without medication.  I also found that, energetically, it aided some of my spiritual practise.  Then, I read something about the Jewish tradition of veiling which resonated with me profoundly:

“Once a woman is married, she enters into a completely unique relationship with her husband. This transformation is alluded to by the Hebrew name for the wedding ceremony, “Kiddushin”, which means sanctification or holiness. Through this act, the bride and groom are totally and utterly dedicated to each other in a holy coupling. This dedication manifests itself in both an internal and an external form, in many ways, and for both partners.
“One of these ways is by a woman covering her hair, which is viewed by Judaism as a sensual and private part of a married woman’s appearance. By covering her hair a woman is expressing her exclusive devotion, love for, and unique connection to her husband. “

That led me into researching traditions surrounding married women veiling — given that I was engaged at the time, I think my interest is understandable.

Two different Pagan bloggers I respect posted round about the same time discussing Pagan women who choose to veil, and sparked by that, I started delving into the ancient Roman traditions of veiled wives.  I found enough in all of this research to lead me to strongly consider the choice to cover the top of my head and my hair when I’m in public.  

I spent time meditating on the matter, talking with my partner about it, and contemplating the potential fall-out.  … would people mistake me for a different faith?  Would people think ill of my partner because of my choice to cover?  Would it be disrespectful to the women all over the world who are oppressed by modesty laws?

… and one of the things I realised was that we reclaim the tools of oppression all the damn time.  It’s part of how we take power back.  So why the heck couldn’t I reclaim the veil?

So, I veil because I respect my marriage.  I veil because I like subverting the idea that women are on display every waking moment.  I veil to reclaim and take power back from the tools of oppression.  I veil because it seems to please my Gods.  I veil because I’m sick to death of complete strangers walking up to me and fondling my hair.  I veil because I like the way it makes me feel.  I veil… because I choose to.

Won’t you consider spending a day covering your head in order to stand with women the world over in making their own choices about how much of themselves they bare to the world?
Covered in Light International Day
Friday, 21 September 2012