The Words That Break Your Body.

Via Chelsea Roff
on Jun 6, 2011
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Sticks and Stones May Break Some Bones But Words Are Breaking Bodies.

Image: Linkzer on DeviantArt

The conversations that really affect us — the ones that erode marriages, instigate wars, change the reality we know indefinitely and irrevocably — do not happen in the realm of the concrete, the explicit. They take place beneath and between our words.

Most, I imagine, would agree that tone of voice, facial expression, and body language can radically alter the meaning we gather from a conversation. But body language, especially for yogis, is a conscious form of communication. We see it, we analyze it, many of us are hyper-aware of its presence. The really powerful messages, I think, are conveyed at a more subtle, subconscious level. What really gets my neural juices pumping is the idea that the language that most deeply affects us lies in the metaphors that envelope our words.

Let’s explore this idea with a concrete example. Let’s say you’re scrolling through your news feed when you stumble upon a news headline that says: “Scientists find human beings are hardwired for compassion!” Sounds great, right? The explicit message is that human beings are by their very nature inclined toward empathy, love, and kindness towards fellow human beings. But what about the implicit message, the one hidden in the metaphor that oh-so-subtly encompasses those words?

Human beings have a long history of likening the body to whatever technology happens to be most advanced, alluring, and impressive at the time. The great thinkers of history have compared the brain to a telephone switchboard, an electrical circuit, even a steam engine (Thanks, Freud) all hot and steamy with pent up emotions. Nowadays, neuroscientists like to suggest the brain is much like the internet, a fleshified system of interconnecting “networks”. Obviously, our understanding of the body is just a tad bit skewed by the lens of our time and culture.

Here’s the thing… the brain is not a machine. Sure, there are aspects of its functioning comparable to human-created apparatuses– computers, clocks, and the like. But there are dimensions to the brain and to the body not captured by the reductionism inherent in (any) metaphor. And the metaphor of the body as some sort of vitalized machine can have potentially detrimental consequences.

You are not “hard-wired” for anything. The brain is remarkably malleable in fact. Yes, metaphors are useful in simplifying aspects of reality so complex they threaten to short-circuit (only kidding) our attempts to understand what’s going on. The brain’s 1000 trillion connections would be utterly incomprehensible without some sort of analogy to put it in perspective. The problem, I think, arises when we forget that what we’re throwing around is just that– a metaphor. It’s a reductionistic and often messy comparison designed to put boundaries around something that doesn’t readily squeeze itself into words.

Now why does this body-as-machine metaphor matter at all?

When we understand our bodies as machines, the notion that we can control them—through dietsdetoxesplastic surgeries, and other forms of “self-improvement”— becomes not only feasible but seemingly necessary to become “whole”. When scientists proclaim that sadness is due to malfunctioning circuits in the brain or plastic surgeons offer corrective surgeries to “fix” body shapes that deviate from the norm, the hidden message between the words is that our bodies are broken just as they are.

I am by no means suggesting modern science causes body hatred. I don’t hold judgment toward the woman who decides a tummy-tuck is just what she needs to boost her self-esteem, nor the doctor in India offering corrective eye surgeries to children blind from birth. I believe that you — only you — can know for certain the intention behind what you do with your body. And I believe that we as individuals can be responsible for how words affect us.

All I’m suggesting is that we bring a little bit more awareness to the effect of the words circulating in and out of our consciousness. Who decided there was something “broken,” something pathological about your feeling sad? Maybe, just maybe, it’s not you that’s broken. Maybe at least a piece of that epidemic of depression sweeping the world is a rational response to something broken not in our personal brains, but in our environments, in the collective mind of our species as a whole.

So the question I’d like to ask you is this… what do the words and metaphors you personally draw upon say about your relationship with your body? Think about both the words you speak aloud and those that silently ricochet around in your head. If the cultural metaphor of body-as-machine is no longer working for us, perhaps we as yoga practitioners can drawn on this intimately embodied practice to settle on an alternative.

So here’s my challenge to you. Come up with a new metaphor. Fill in the blank…

My body is like _________.

This is the second part of a series of posts on the power of language. Read Part 1 here.


About Chelsea Roff

Chelsea Roff is a nationally-recognized author and speaker, and the Founder of Yoga for Eating Disorders. In September 2013, Chelsea raised $50,000 on the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo to kickstart her non-profit, Yoga for Eating Disorders. The program is currently being offered in treatment centers and yoga studios around the country at no charge, and she is working with researchers at UC San Diego to evaluate the program’s effectiveness in treatment. Chelsea is known for her intelligent, inspiring, and tell-it-like-it-is speaking style, and for weaving together profound personal experiences with her scientific background to deliver deeply moving insights. After nearly losing her life to anorexia and a subsequent stroke when she was 15, she has became a national advocate for community-based mental health interventions. Her work was recently showcased by Sanjay Gupta on CNN, and she’s been keynote speaker at 92nd Street Y, The Omega Institute, and at various universities and conferences around the country. Chelsea currently lives in Venice, California, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.


27 Responses to “The Words That Break Your Body.”

  1. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  2. Bill says:


  3. Alan says:

    My body is like… unto my mind, a knotted bungie — stretching / retracting: indulgences / austerities – there, done.

  4. Marc says:

    …your body.

  5. harikirtana says:

    My body is like a machine, made of material energy and I am seated within this machine but I am not the machine; I am the conscious living being within the machine.

    The problem with modern scientific language with respect to the body is not one of mechanistic descriptive but rather of the denial of the existence of the self beyond the body; the insistence that we are our bodies and that consciousness itself is a product of a chance combination of material elements. Traditional yoga philosophy emphatically contradicts this proposition. As far as classical yoga philosophy is concerned the reason for practicing yoga is precisely to break our selves out of the conditioning that has us mis-identifying our selves as the bodies we inhabit. In fact, it is not just modern science that uses mechanistic metaphors to describe the body; yoga wisdom texts do the same. A case in point is this verse from the 18th chapter of Bhagavad Gita: “The Supreme Lord of all beings, O Arjuna, is present within the inner region of the heart, causing all beings to move about like riders upon a mystical machine, by the divine power of Maya.” (translation by Graham Schweig).

    So I say that the body is not just like a machine; it is a machine. But we are not these bodies and our anxiety stems from identifying the self as the body, not from language about the body.

  6. yogiclarebear says:

    this is really insightful. i'm not sure what my answer to the blank is. my body is, just, my body. its like what it is like.

    i love metaphors, but i love seeing way beyond them more. thank you for opening that!!

  7. Chelsea says:

    Thank you so much, Clare. I love your comments. And you know what, I'm not sure metaphors are always all that useful for the body. They're pretty magnificent, just as they are. 🙂

  8. Chelsea says:

    I like that. That's one of the things that bothers me most about the medical model of the body; we're framed as these vital systems with dictator-like brains at the top and a bunch organs, tissues, hormones, etc following orders like mindless little automatons. In reality, all our "parts" mutually affect and influence one another. I wonder if we might be getting ready to witness a reframing of the body that mimics the paradigm shift underway in our culture right now– leaderless revolutions, hyper-connected and interdependent networks, etc. In my opinion, are bodies are far too complex to be limited to just one metaphor.

  9. tanya lee markul says:

    Chelsea, I really enjoyed this article!! Thank you!! I think as we journey further and wake up more and more, the layers of what is 'unreal' become more and more clear. I loved this…

    'Maybe, just maybe, it’s not you that’s broken. Maybe at least a piece of that epidemic of depression sweeping the world is a rational response to something broken not in our personal brains, but in our environments, in the collective mind of our species as a whole.'

  10. Shanti says:

    My body is Like a prayer whispered from the heart of my ancestors, a moving symphony of soul manifest as live alive.

  11. Shanti says:

    Life Alive

  12. Another great discussion generating article, Chelsea. Thank you.

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  13. From Facebook:

    Catherine Kustanczy no one else's. And I love that.
    20 hours ago via Facebook Mobile · Like · 5 people

    Lezlee McDaniel ‎(quoting Mya) My body is like WHOA! 🙂
    20 hours ago · Like

    Melissa Lee Clark Magic
    20 hours ago via Facebook Mobile · Like

    Heart Yoga ‎"the perpetual student, learning new ways to grow each day."
    20 hours ago · Like · 2 people

    Jamie Sloan the greatest of teachers. It speaks clear and precise and always instructs the next lesson with perfect candor and cliff notes 😉
    19 hours ago · Like · 1 person

    Ivy Brayman Stirling the most amazing vehicle to travel around in.
    19 hours ago · Like

    Heather Cate a miracle.
    19 hours ago · Like

    Samuel Miranda the universe
    19 hours ago · Like

    Terri Van Fossen A work of art.
    19 hours ago · Like

    Charlotte Bell always in the present
    19 hours ago · Like

    Valerie S. Kelley a gaint soft cuddley marshmellow…
    19 hours ago · Like

    Wendy Morin one stop shopping – warm, soft and enveloping to ease others' hurts and fears; strong, fierce and unwielding when facing challenges
    18 hours ago · Like

    Elaine Slevin Shuter A giant sponge, it will soak up and absorb all the care and love I give to it.
    18 hours ago · Like · 1 person

    Kim Ediger That is not a metaphor…. It's a simile….. (just saying)
    18 hours ago via Facebook Mobile · Like · 1 person

    Michele Cannello My body is like _an organic smoothie, full of wonderful vitamins and nutrients for optimal health ;)________.
    17 hours ago · Like · 1 person

    Nicole Grappo science fiction
    16 hours ago · Like

    William King Gutshall a song sung into being by the creator with my having permission to jazzy rift to learn the essence of the song.
    16 hours ago · Like

    David Telfer McConaghay my body is like a simile. my body is a metaphor.
    15 hours ago · Like

    Terri Black a temple
    15 hours ago · Like

    Bettina Beresh a large bank for the next food crisis …. just sayin'
    13 hours ago · Like

    Chelsea Roff WOW! What a beautiful array of answers. Keep 'em coming 🙂
    9 hours ago · Like

    Melissa Stamm Marino a window through which I see the world
    about an hour ago · Like

  14. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  15. inspirationlocation says:

    A plant: organic, growing, with roots and complex systems that depend on water and light and proper nutrients to flourish.

  16. DJ Sukha says:

    my body is like nobody ( or no body) else…

  17. Tamara says:

    Beautifully written!

  18. Chelsea says:

    Thank you, Tamara. 🙂

  19. Chelsea says:

    And yet simultaneously like every body else! Someone else responded with "your body". Love the paradox.

  20. Chelsea says:

    What a beautiful verse, Kimberly. I love Mary Oliver but don't think I've ever read that one before. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  21. Chelsea says:

    Thanks, Tanya. I was actually a little hesitant to include that statement, I was afraid it might appear I was minimizing the experience of clinical depression or imply that it is a mere invention of the medical world. I'm really glad it resonated with you, my intention is more to expand the frame we use to understand mental "illnesses" rather than imply they don't exist at all.

  22. Chelsea says:

    Thank you, Clare. I'm right with you there. Much of the time, I think trying to compare the body to something else just gets in the way of us experiencing it as it is– personal, unique, and far too complex to be limited to the static realm of words.

  23. tanya lee markul says:

    I'm with you. It also intrigues me to ask the question, why doesn't the medical world (at least the one we typically hear from most of the time via the media) share in this expansion. I suppose if most people can learn to heal themselves, not just mental illness, perhaps they will be out of a business. If our minds expanded much more than where they are now, I suppose a lot of things would be out of business. 🙂 🙂

  24. My body is the marvelous, miraculous, magical embodiment of my soul. It is not who I am, simply one means by which I am able to interact with others, move through space, enjoy sensations & stimulus, touch and be touched.

  25. Chelsea says:

    Ashe!! Beautifully stated, Donna. I need to start using that as a morning mantra.

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