One summer when I was in grade school, I attended a weeklong dance camp. Toward the end of the week, the instructor walked us through an exercise you’ve likely encountered in some form: she had us bring attention to and relax each area of our body, starting with our toes and working up to our facial muscles.
A friend and I made a game out of the exercise as it progressed, suppressing giggles as we wiggled our noses and ears in an exaggerated way so that we could “relax” them when their turn came around. Another girl laid perfectly still, performing the exercise as intended, and the instructor praised her profusely, telling her that her body was so thankful that she was giving it this chance to rest.
The moment sticks in my mind because it’s one of the few times I wasn’t an exemplary child, but it’s also the first time I remember being introduced to this idea of attending to our bodies from head to toe. Prior to this, I can’t remember hearing anything about being in relationship with our own bodies.
Our bodies tell us things. They can be grateful to us, and we to them.
As I grew up, this exercise resurfaced every so often. It was variously presented as a mindfulness exercise, a stress reliever, and a way to check in with yourself. At some point, I realized it could also be a prayer — I could direct gratitude not just to my body, but to God for making it and sustaining it.
I’ve experimented over the years with other ways of tying my body into my spiritual practice. Pilgrimages — including mini-pilgrimages like the Stations of the Cross — stand out as a lovely way of “walking with” God by literally putting my feet on the ground. As I’ve revisited these practices off-and-on for more than two decades, several important lessons have emerged.
My body is good
We’re surrounded by a culture that tells us to be more and better all the time. While it can be inspiring to realize the vastness of human potential, much of the messaging out there communicates that we are not enough. This is especially true when it comes to our bodies, which have seemingly limitless ways they “need” improvement. Resting in the reality of my body — as it is right here and right now — helps me combat this mindset.
My body is capable
I’m often tempted to think about my body with a scarcity mindset, noticing primarily what it doesn’t have or what it can’t do. I so often forget to notice all that it does and can do — often without me even thinking about it. This was illuminated for me recently when a small car accident left me with a back injury that really inhibited my daily functioning. Modifying movements to manage the pain made me more aware of how many things I was doing before the injury. As I recover capabilities with time and physical therapy, I find myself grateful for the smallest victories — and for my body’s capacity to heal.
My body deserves care
Sitting with my body in prayer enables me to see my body as a gift, something I need to be a good steward of. Doing the work of nourishing my body with good, real food often feels tedious — I have to think of something to eat every single day? Forever? But nutrition is a way of saying thank you to my body for the work it does for me and for others. Moving my body in ways that feel good is a way of honoring the gift God has given me. Resting my body is good, and worth my time, despite the overwork our culture tries to encourage.
As I move through the childbearing stage of my life, my relationship with my body feels like it’s constantly changing. Pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding gave me new and wonderful things to be grateful for about my body, but they also turned my body into a near-stranger with whom I’ve needed to get reacquainted. Grounding my care for my body in spiritual practices helps provide some continuity with who I was before children. And it reminds me that the hard work of self-care, including care for my unique and beautiful body, is well worth the effort.