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!

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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.