Earthly Pleasures

I sing the Body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,         
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.   

The words of Walt Whitman ring true at surprising moments these days. When I was growing up, having a physical body was seldom exalted.

In Biblical tales, an earthly body seemed only to invite starvation, stoning, temptation, and crucifixion. At mass, sermons circled around one particular carrot: the reward of eternal paradise after the body was cast off—it was said that way, “cast off,” as if a human body was something heavy that we dragged around and were rewarded with losing. Death was a liberation from something dull and useless. And sinful.

As a schoolgirl, we talked about bodies being fat or thin, though no one was ever thin enough. Having a body was a struggle for dominance, and a losing one at that. I was mostly happy with my curvy but small frame, though I dreaded phys ed because my asthma and uncoordinated limbs often held me back.

When I discovered anusara yoga two years ago, I was born into a new religion—one all about the body electric.

My guru, Denise, exalts the physical body in ways that everyone who has a body should consider. When she asks us to stay in a difficult pose for another two breaths, she gently reminds us that, “Your muscles are shaking and you’re wondering when this pose will be over. There will come a day when you will not be able to do this pose again. It’s an absolute fact—so enjoy the health that allowed you to come to class today. This experience of being human is worth celebrating.”

When we’re in the thick of it—usually in poses like Utkatasana, or Chair Pose—she says, “This feels good for the first two seconds, and then your legs start to complain. You feel annoyed, your muscles are on fire. The question is, how will you meet this challenge? When you go out in the world and you are faced with a situation that makes you feel this way, how will you meet that challenge? Will you keep a calm expression and look it in the eye? Or, will you fall apart and give up?”

Making it through those moments with legs burning, heart pounding, nearly falling over—but making it—is where I began to find true joy in having an earthly body. With every plank, every hand stand, every flying moon pose, there is much to rejoice.

Other than yoga class, there are few places that elevate the pleasures of an earthly body like Las Vegas. What was remarkable about my recent visit was the capacity with which I was able to embrace its charm. Cold, gray, rainy Seattle and cold, gray, snowy Detroit were the ideal primers, I admit; but there was more.

The culmination of my Vegas delight was born from being very aware of my very heavenly body on very earthy earth:

…the 78-degree sunshine baking my bare shoulders in a most pleasant warmth, tempered by light breezes that tickled my skin;

…the heat rising in my leg muscles as I power-walked the Strip, ascending and descending a maze of stairs and skybridges;

…the sweet/tart flavor of crepes with freshly whipped cream, mangoes, and pineapple that passed between my lips at Paris for breakfast;

…closing my eyes to savor the dulcet sounds of a string ensemble as they played, “It’s Now or Never” on the patio in Venice; and

…feasting my eyes on the hyperkinetic-LSD-and-Technicolor-laced fantasy of the Cirque du Soliel’s Beatles show, Love.

What was different about this trip from the many others I’ve made was that I finally surrendered—and perhaps changed what my definition of surrender is. The smoke, the gambling, the scantily dressed girls, the fried food, the liquor—they were all there just like before. This time, instead of ignoring, over-indulging, or disparaging it, I let the true spirit of Las Vegas wash over me: the shameless glorification of the human body and everything that body was designed to feel.

At Mon Ami Gabi for breakfast with white linen tablecloths all about, I sipped delicious coffee at 9:30 am while two gentlemen next to me began their meal with double-whiskey on the rocks. As I luxuriated on my lounge chair in a swimsuit, straw fedora, and 80 SPF sunscreen, the man next to me casually browsed through Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler like they were a stack of Reader’s Digest magazines. While I delighted in my fresh salad of endive, orange, and micro-greens,  I chatted up two French fry representatives from McDonald’s who flew in for a conference with potato farmers and franchisees. As I pulled my black pashmina over my shoulders on the way out to dinner, I watched a 20-something prostitute tug absently at her dangerously short miniskirt as she stood to accompany her 60-something date to his room.

There was no hiding, no shame; no worry of stretch marks or disapproval; no calorie counting or preaching. There was just the body electric and all of the things it can enjoy: food, sex, movement, sunshine, dancing, getting drunk, walking, and lazing about. These are things we should feel justified in doing as human beings; things that we shouldn’t feel remorse for enjoying, though perhaps in moderation if only to be healthy enough to continue doing them.

Upon returning home from Sin City, I allowed myself another physical indulgence: a trip to Olympus Day Spa in Lynnwood with my friend, Julie.

The natives go naked in this women-only spa, a concern that fleetingly crossed my mind, taking me back to those days of group showers in gym class. I wondered, too, what it would be like to get a body scrub and moisturizing treatment, which I knew would take place out in the open with women lined up on massage tables within feet of each other.

The funny thing is, after a few seconds, none of that mattered. It could have been the sight of so many women with so many imperfect bodies all around me—women who could not have cared less whether they were fat or skinny, had sagging breasts or belly pooches.

Really, it was the sheer corporeal pleasure of the experience that made all of my neurotic worries fade instantly.

Like in Las Vegas, I let the totality of the experience wash over me as only a human being with a gloriously physical body can do: leaning back into the gently mounded floor of the warm salt room; pouring warm, soothing mugwort tea down my back before sinking into the jetted tubs; deeply inhaling the scent of eucalyptus in the steam room as sweat rivulets rolled down my arms; and feeling the gentle caress of another human being massaging my thirsty skin with olive oil and honey as she said, “Just relax and close your eyes, baby girl, and think of happiness.”

I sing the body electric—and when I sing of it, it sings of me, too.

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One thought on “Earthly Pleasures

  1. Love this, as usual. Denise is wonderful and inspiring in so many ways, isn’t she?. And, we have to get back to the corporeal pleasures of the spa before long. Smooth skin is starting to react to its cold climes. Thanks for another wonderfully thoughtful piece.

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