unrolled yoga mat

What is a nourishing yoga practice ?

Being more and more interested in embodied anatomy I ask  Leo Peppas if he would accept to answer my question. “What is a nourishing yoga practice?”. What he did with an extreme generosity. I am really grateful for it. If you want to know more about it, Leo Peppas has many workshops planned for the end of this year and a book will be released soon. Take your time to read, prepare a tea and sit comfortably as it is really complete answer. 

In one of your post you wrote us that “a nourishing yoga practice  it’s a part of honouring our intelligence of differencing and our capacity to know whose business is whose”.

Could you explain a bit more about it?


This question is like a riddle, it’s not a simple question to answer because it brings up so many others.


At the root of such questions are the dilemmas we have inherited in resolving what it means to fully be a human being.


To do this profound question justice, we will at least have to give some consideration to one or two big themes. If we don’t, we may seem to get to a clearer conclusion, but that conclusion is just a reflection of over simplifying the context, it’s no bringing us closer to the truth.


The Eastern philosophy may shed more light on the matters at hand but there are no promises. No matter, to answer this question it’s still an important exercise for the mind.


Surprisingly, “what is a nourishing practice?” is also a question I get from many teachers. The very ones who are ‘supposed’ to know. To know what nourishes us, we cannot rely solely on principles. These rarely serve us life long. What we need depends on the time in our life and the individual. Many elements of what we need undergo through big changes in the course of our lives. In fact it’s a multilevel question with a daily, or even moment by moment answer.


The interesting thing is that through learning to attend to this question, we can develop life skills.


Learning to differentiate what we need to be nourished, is an expression of a basic intelligence that has been evident since life began on this planet more than 3 billion years ago.


For more than a billion years single celled organism live in complete harmony, ecologically, something we “advanced” humans cannot as yet manage.


Homeostasis is a basic expression of life. The responsive exchange between inside and outside, me any the world. Mediating this is the intelligence of the cell membrane, where a differentiating intelligence decides what to let in and to keep in.


This same intelligence is expressed (or dumbed down) in the gut, with the same question since it’s again a kind of information processing system: what to let in and out and to keep in or out? The state of our gut (our evolutionary older brain) directly affects the capacity of our head brain and its own differentiating intelligence, remarkably so.

In fact learning to listen to the gut brain seems to be one of the head brain’s rites of passage – one we struggle with according to the aisles in supermarkets dedicate to products that assist the functioning of the digestive tube in one way or another, from one end to the other.


Of course this is further complicated by the fact that our brains can be trained to be make food choices, not just by sophisticated marketing, but chemically as well.


This story of how we make the choice about what to eat, informed by an easily manipulated ‘top-down’ processing system, is that we choose a diet or the kind of food based on a concept: Things that sell, could be anything, like; its looks attractive, it has great organic ingredients, its sustainable and ‘Jim’ made it.


But this is very different way of choosing from most animals, that have a more intact ‘bottom-up’ processing system.


One is not good or bad, it’s more a question of whether each can be present when it’s appropriate and not get in the way, and if there is enough integration – much of the training of our top-down, primarily cognitive brain, has been designed by evolution to occur bottom-up.


But most of us don’t get enough of this, we become consumer before we have had time to meet the world that is bigger than the world consumption.


The other day, at an airport, a baby threw something out of its pram, I thought it was a toy so I was about to pick it up. Till I saw that it was an iphone!


If we are lucky enough to get an intact building of informed choice making, which is very rare, we lose it, partly because we do not live in a dynamic physical relationship with the landscape.


One of the most common things I see in class is how people interfere with themselves, in fact we have made yoga into a science that does this in a very sophisticated looking way


Why? Well one reason is that we do not realize what we are doing, largely celebrating consumer ideals and concepts that have an origin as far back as the Renaissance.


In this process we have also lost access to a big part of our reality checking system. Which does not come from top-down trying to figure it out thinking.


So the way we do yoga can make matters worse or help us, depends on the value system at the base of what we do. If we can’t examine this, the chances of realizing what we are doing are further stacked against us.


Back to the story of how what we eat nourishes us, because animals choose what they eat in a very different way to most of us. Though again it’s a complex question and there is not room to cover this fully here.


The first primitive animals whose body was based on a gut tube, had the brain of that tube in the mouth, deciding what to put it. Instead, our gut brain begins in the lower part of the oesophagus, and it’s easily overwhelmed by dubious head brain food choices.

The story of how being a consumer and living in a society that favors image over the intelligence we have inherited from our evolutionary past, that connects us to all life on the planet that has come before – is very much related. There are two kind of coordinating intelligence in the brain, one is Body Image and the other Body Schema.


I work a lot with movement patterns, also at the core of most yoga postures, that demonstrate the way we come into the world as babies – as it is designed by evolution: They emerge at distinct times answering a simple question about relationship.


Because let’s not forget, if you are to understand a cell, a human being or their body, the only way to get the meaning will be to see it, to experience it in relationship – and we have lost much of the practice of this profound idea.


What is the most appropriate way to relate to the world, what choices make senses at this point in my development? The capacity at the heart of this question is directly related to our original one.


Who decides, who is the authority of my experience? This used to be the priest, became the doctor and is now sometimes even the yoga teacher. Backed up by Patanjali, a yoga guru, tradition, whatever its is it’s all external.


Coming back to Homeostasis, which is one of our basic expressions of life – we can see how again it’s reflected in the way we come into the world. That there is a gradual process of learning to reference inside, what I need, and this slowly meets the world outside, till we can reference both.


Inherent in this process are many of the difficulties we struggle with between things like inner and outer demands, let alone all kind of relationship issues. Like understanding whose business is whose. Most of us lose, if we sufficiently established it, much of this capacity. Sometimes in yoga too, we can even spend too much time diving inside – gazing too long into our own navel 😉


Narcissism needs to be confronted enough by our relationship with the world, and not just the one we dream up.


In babies we observe what is called the ‘satisfaction cycle’, so if a baby is not happy we can usually see where its support is missing. This is related to how we begin by yielding, coming into contact with ourselves and our environment, discovering what we need. From here we can push, reach, take hold and pull back to us what we need, and then be satisfied. You can see from the way someone moves in a Vinyasa the same issues.


We often taught, unknowingly by our consumer parents, into existing in a incompleted satisfaction cycle, even and often from its start – but this makes the perfect consumer, never satisfied and not really knowing what they need – easily manipulated. Because we have lost contact, we have lost trust and train our kids to exist as perfect consumers.


In our society Body Image sells, it sells yoga magazines, a lot of expensive yoga clothing, we have become stuck with a bias as to its value, it’s not an informed choice, because we have lost our more primitive, honest gaze of Body Schema. A dog will do dog posture purely from body schema, its has no idea about how it looks or how it thinks

another sees it. This not a question about good or bad, but understand how these intelligence work together and what they tell us about what it means to be a human being, But Image can often obscure schema.


The less we are in touch with schema the more we don’t even see this, the more importance we put on image.


Yoga offers us the opportunity to confront and learn a great deal from this dilemma.


But mostly we have sold out to a value that “feels” closer to home only because we have lost contact with the other. It’s very helpful to ask yourself, on as deep a level as possible.


“What do I want from my yoga practice?”. Then to look honestly at how loyal you are to this. We need a lot of support to deal with such questions, and this again is where yoga can help or hinder. Action has consequences and yoga is for sure a consequent path!


There are many obstacles to our beginning the process for answering our questions. But these too are all opportunities. To be able to examine purpose and meaning, again part of what makes yoga yoga and not simply exercising the body with the use of the mind, or sometimes just the mind.


For example, we may need to confront or question our ambitions, purposes that we have aligned our will to, that may not serve enough our development and the evolving of our understanding. What are we loyal too, what allegiances or deals do we make? To confront these, we need to learn to be honest and loyal to a deeper purpose – it’s a big part of the process of yoga. If we have sold our will out to outer needs, societal dictates, it’s going to be very tricky – when we disconnect from such an essential part of ourselves, because it seems so tiny or non-existent, we lose trust.


Yet each time we question this seeming state of status quo, our courage and trust grow, we can start to have faith in something we do not yet know – what it is to be a human being.


We have to learn to trust the human being in us more than be subservient to a society that does not take care of us anyway. It is nobody’s job but our own to take responsibility for our own care. Many of us are still caught in the dilemma that we want to be cared for by the perfect loving parent, not realizing that we simply have to learn to love and take care of ourselves.


Part of this dilemma can be expressed in our self practice and the kind of classes we go to. We can find patterns that originate from our upbringing playing out. For example, if the teacher does not respect or know how to relate to our own inner intelligence enough, does too much, this may get us caught in an old pattern yet feeling like we are doing something good for ourselves. There is no easy solution, we take everything with us onto the mat, that is a beautiful thing, but we need to remember we also have a blind spot – always.


Yoga is about shifting perspective often enough and coming back into relationship in the moment, this will support my honesty. My loyalty to mySelf.


In all relationships we need to be able to define whose business is whose, and it’s a teacher’s job to keep handing responsibility back to the student, so they learn to be their own guide. To take care of themselves. The teacher has to give away what is most valuable and not use it to create some kind of spoon feeding dependence. I learned this  a lot from working with kids, they taught me to respect them as equal human beings, no matter how they may seem to behave.


In the end nobody can be the authority of your experience but you.


A great metaphor for any relationship, is learning to listen while you are talking and this can certainly be applied to an asana practice, if we stop listening we can mislead ourselves. There is a reason that the meaning of asana is only understood when we experience it in relationship, in the moment and honestly enough, in the context of our lives.


In yoga the listening skills are often outweighed by the talking skills – more sophisticated action.Most dogs would probably not recognize most yogi’s dog posture, which tells us a lot about the value of pseudo sophistication.


Another rite of passage is before we control the breath to learn to listen without interfering. There is so much to learn from this process or so much to be missed by bypassing it. I don’t want to sound too black and white, if someone is just

getting more stressed and sicker from their state, the support of pranayama can be an emergency measure – but not a life long practice. That would be missing the big point.


In the end the answer to the question is quite ironic: It’s not my job to tell people what a nourishing practice is, but to help them discover the process for themselves.


After all it’s a life skill. Much of value will be learned along the way. Again, it’s a question that will have different answers, sometime on a daily or even moment by moment basis.


If our practice is only ever about recovering from our lifestyle choices, stress and what we miss in life, like enough movement and time spend in a dynamic physical relationship with the world, then we never get the chance to get to the most important questions: Our practice just become usurped by another purpose and can function like a hamster wheel, serving to make me feel more comfortable with our cage.


To know what a nourishing practice feels like, we need to know what it feels like to be truly nourished, satisfied. This connects us to something bigger, part of what this is we can discover by reconnection to the rest of the planet, our evolutionary past, the 3 billion years that made us, and not just the last couple of thousands that have taken us apart again.

A book should be released soon, please sign up on the website for more informations. 

There are many posts in the embodied anatomy album that relate to this question.

Credit photo: Werner Moser

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