In a homework assignment for a class I took recently, I had to practice abhyanga, or self-message, as a form of embodied intimacy.
You’ve probably heard of intimacy in the context of sex or romance, but intimacy isn’t just another word for sex. If we’re using the latin roots to provide our definition—intimus: innermost; intimare: to make known/familiar—we can understand intimacy to mean “making the innermost aspect of oneself known or familiar.” This can happen in a romantic relationship, yes, but also in friendships or familial relationships as you connect and share with one another.
But rarely do we show ourselves this same level of intimacy. One of the core principles of this course’s curriculum (designed to help those struggling with mental health challenges and eating disorder recovery) is Embodied Intimacy, which is the capacity to appreciate and use the body as a gateway to intimacy.
When I first heard this I was very confused. I could grasp the idea of emotional intimacy, since being an HSP makes me naturally predisposed to self-reflection and personal growth, but my understanding stopped there. As someone with an eating disorder and plenty of body image issues, my mind is historically disconnected from my body. The notion that I could use my body as a vehicle for connecting with myself seemed absurd.
When I was assigned this abhyanga exercise, I was honestly a little embarrassed. I mean, c’mon, I was supposed to undress in a room alone and use oil to massage myself for a significant amount of time?! The instructors of the class mentioned that when they assign this exercise they’re lucky if even a few people actually do it. There’s no denying that being intimate with ourselves is hard! I was proof of that.
I waited until the last possible moment to do the abhyanga, approaching it as something to check off my to-do list. At first, I even turned the TV on in the background. Bob’s Burgers was the perfect way to continue my trend of distracting and avoiding discomfort. I was instructed to use oil and pay special attention to my feet, so, after thoroughly washing my stinky feet, and feeling thoroughly ridiculous, I began.
I started on my left foot, keeping my ears on Bob’s Burgers and my eyes on my massage. When I moved up to my left leg, I noticed that I was using deep pressure, more than I thought I could handle, and my leg felt a lot stronger than I thought it was. I was so used to criticizing my muscles for being weaker than most, I hadn’t even noticed how strong they actually were. Suddenly, I realized there might be something to this exercise, and I turned off the TV.
By the time I reached my right foot, I was having an epiphany. The sole of my foot was calloused and tough, and I couldn’t remember ever intentionally giving my feet any love before doing this exercise. I found myself steeped in gratitude…my feet and legs are so much more capable than I ever give them credit for. They carry me, and have carried me, to so many places without faltering, and usually without my noticing. They have been through so much—from strolling on the beach, to dancing at concerts, to walking into dream jobs—and I never thank them for any of it.
I finally understood: this massage was a gift, my gift to my body.
My love language has always been giving gifts, so why don’t I ever give my body the gifts it so deserves? Despite all of the pain and illness I have faced, my body has continued to keep me alive and protect me. My sensitive nervous system provides my mind with this amazing intuition and empathy…my own superpowers. My hands have allowed me to do the things I am passionate about, like hold a camera or learn a language. My stretch marks are proof of the challenges I have overcome. My eyes help me to read and create and observe the beauty around me. My body is so incredible, always has been and always will be, and it deserves more gifts than I can ever give it. My body is my home.
My two biggest takeaways from my abhyanga practice that I want to make sure I never forget are 1) my body is far more strong and capable than I ever realized, and 2) my body deserves so much more gratitude than it currently receives. I am dedicating, right now, to the internet and to myself that I will spend more time thanking and loving my body. I will spend more time embracing embodied intimacy.
Gratitude is a powerful thing. Love is a powerful thing. It’s time I accept and respect that I am powerful, too.