You may not have a Smartphone yet, but you do have a Smartbody. Everyone does. Our Smartbody knows when to eat, rest, move and make love. It communicates how we feel and connects us to others and the world. So how come we turn to our smartphones and day planners before consulting our bodies? Is it because we are caught between ignoring and fixing our body when we don’t like how it looks? Or have we long ago stopped listening to its signals?
How can we start hearing our body’s innate wisdom?
In an earlier blog I discussed how the Body Positive Movement is helping us resist mainstream culture’s messaging that only the perfect in body can be sexy or sexual. I also described how, in a counter-cultural act of defiance, we can develop a healthy relationship with our body by celebrating all bodies in their wondrous diversity.
In this blog, we’ll explore ways to embrace vitality and self-care in a body-positive and sex-positive way. This requires taking an inside-out approach to self-care by becoming more embodied. As the default setting for most of us is an outside-in approach, an inside-out approach is counter-cultural as well. With an outside-in approach, we follow the advice of experts, whether it’s on diet plans, supplements, exercise regimens or the “right” way to make love. But, just as bodies come in different shapes and sizes, so too do our ways of tending them, and of making love.
In our retreats, we help couples view their bodies as portals to pleasure as they discover what their bodies hunger for sexually – what kind of touch would be preferable, and how their bodies want to move.
An Outside-In Approach can be Deafening
Like many of us, Priya is on her computer all day in her job as an urban planner. She used to play tennis and was an avid gardener, but now she sits for hours at a time. Having overridden her body’s signals to move, rest, and stretch throughout the day, she goes home fatigued and numb.
This numbness transfers over to sex. Increasingly she notices parts of her body that she would rather not feel, and parts that she fears are unattractive. All of this “not feeling” means she has trouble knowing what she wants sexually and is less responsive to her partner’s touch. Because of her less-than-alive sexual experiences, Priya prefers to get sex over with as soon as possible.
Priya also feels out of shape and self-conscious about her body. An inner voice berates her for not exercising regularly. Her husband, Amar, likes Priya’s rounder stomach and thighs, but Priya cuts him to the quick by putting up a wall between them. It is common for women to be critical of their bellies, hips, and genitals, but, “nothing makes you feel less sexual than feeling self-conscious,” says Barry McCarthy, the author of Rekindling Desire.
Like a lot of women—and increasingly men—Priya has been deferring her happiness until the day when she reaches a certain benchmark of perfection. Only if she loses every ounce of unwanted weight will she give herself permission to receive pleasure. That day is unlikely to arrive as long as she keeps shutting down instead of tuning in. It so happens that when we develop an attuned relationship to our body, we eat well and exercise because it feels good, not because we “should.”
Amar also works in an office and finds it hard to find time to exercise or even go for walks. Lately he’s been noticing that his lack of vitality at work follows him into the bedroom. Sex with Priya is almost entirely genital centric—meaning focused on the performance and feeling of his genitals—and not a full body experience. Like a lot of men, Amar’s body is shut down beyond his genitals.
So, what are the preconditions for a vital sex life? How can we become fully awake again?
Reclaiming Our Vitality and Sexual Spark
Many sexual enrichment programs follow a medical or performance-based model, whereas Passion & Presence uses mindfulness to help couples attune to their intrinsic eroticism.
Central to our inside-out approach is acknowledging the vitality of our intrinsic erotic energy, which many describe as the spark of life. As we enhance our physical vitality, we enhance our erotic energy. And as we enhance our erotic energy, we enliven our bodies.
Priya and Amar came to one of our Passion & Presence retreats and began reframing their relationships to their bodies. Over the retreat weekend, Priya began to discover the connection between her low libido and her physical numbing. Instead of putting her focus on looking desirable, she shifted to her feelings of desire and pleasure. During sex, and increasingly throughout the day, she began to ask herself mindful questions.
How do I deaden myself? When have I had enough of sitting at my computer?
How can I keep checking in with my body? Where do I feel stuck in my body?
What do I want right now? What do I want during an erotic encounter?
These kinds of questions, to which there are no set answers, are at the heart of a lifetime practice of mindful sexuality. Only by slowing down, turning attention inside and listening to our internal signals can we tap our body’s wisdom.
Following an inside-out approach to our body’s needs is a way of recognizing that all bodies are unique. Because our needs change from one situation to the next, a one-size-fits-all approach can never work for self-care or making love. Staying mindful of our body and responding to its needs is how sex remains fresh and alive in a relationship of many years.
At the retreat, Priya and Amar also learned about responsiveness. To their surprise the more they checked in, the more their bodies responded. Both Priya and Amar became more exploratory and creative. Their partner noticed and became more responsive in turn. This is in line with more general findings. While many of us say we want a partner who looks attractive, most people prefer a partner who is sexually responsive. This is someone who is turned on, passionate, experiences pleasure, and shows genuine excitement in response to our touch.
Both Priya and Amar began to see the parts of themselves they had disowned or exiled as a call to wholeness. For Priya, this allowed her to begin befriending her butt, thighs, stomach, and even her genitals. For Amar, it led to the practice of noticing the other parts of his body beyond his genitals, which led to a marked increase in pleasure during lovemaking.
Priya consciously let go of her fixation on having a “perfect” body and Amar on having “perfect” performance. As Priya gave herself permission to fully live in her Real-Life Body, Amar began to let go of his “penetration and performance” idea of sex. They both embarked upon a playful journey of following the erotic thread unfolding between them to wherever it led.
Caring for Our Real-Life Bodies Enhances our Portals of Pleasure
When we consciously care for our body, we will likely find ourselves leaving behind harsh diets or overeating in favor of eating just the right amount of vibrant, healthy foods. An integrated self-care program gives people the tools to know what their bodies hunger for nutritionally and sexually.
We can check in before we eat to sense what kind of food would be nourishing. We can also prime our senses to become more aware of our bodily sensations by doing body scans. This involves directing attention to various parts of our body and noticing our felt experience in each area. In doing so, we are likely to discover that our bodies, whatever their shape or size, are already awake and aware, something that Reggie Ray describes so well.
By noticing the vitality in our wakeful body we locate the portal to physical pleasure. Even if we have pain or physical limitations, we can still find parts of our body that feel good right now by redirecting our attention towards sensations of pleasure. We can also boost our energy flow or down tick our nervous system through movement.
Mindful movement can involve going to the gym, dancing, or even gardening, any ongoing practice that supports becoming embodied. I personally take inspiration from Jessamyn Stanley, a key figure in the Body Positive Yoga movement. This yoga movement is inclusive of every body, regardless of size, shape, color, gender, or sexual orientation.
How Can I Deepen my Body Positive Pathways to Pleasure?
I offer a webinar series as well as a retreat series for couples who want to renew their sense of wholeness and establish body positive pathways to pleasure. They are for people of all shapes and sizes, colors, and orientations. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts or stories. I can’t wait to hear from you!