Abide With Me (A Physical Center of Gravity)

In “Abide With Me”, Elizabeth Strout is referring to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian, and his reference to the complex concept of a mental center of gravity in a letter he wrote to a homesick soldier during WWII. 

A mental center of gravity involves utilizing various checks and balances that helps your conscious mind develop a sense of equanimity more than it involves the actual physical reality of the gravitational pull of the earth.

However, understanding the physical helps to make sense of the mental, at least to me, especially since at times they neatly juxtapose.

So while this post will take us away from the book my intent is to give you a better understanding of how our bodies align with the gravitational pull of the earth and how Yogis use this fundamental force to find ease and comfort in yoga poses. The next post will delve into the mental aspects of developing an inner sense of equilibrium and how having the one can translate into gaining the other.

We have a complex relationship with gravity, there must be balance, without it we quite literally wouldn’t exist.

All human bodies have a physical center of gravity because we are objects that contain mass. We float weightless in the womb but birth forever changes all that.

A center of gravity is defined as a balance of forces that produce equilibrium. Gravity always acts downward on every object on earth. Gravity multiplied by an object’s mass produces a force known as weight. If the object has its weight distributed equally throughout, its balance is at its geometric center.

A ball is a simple example because balls have a simple relationship with gravity, a ball’s center of gravity is located right in its center. But all objects behave as though their mass (the stuff they are made of) is concentrated at a point called their center of gravity.

A human body, definitely more complex than a ball, has a more complex relationship with gravity and our gravitational centers are located slightly higher than our waists as we carry more weight on top than below.

The Yogi in me can’t escape noticing that the literal location of my body’s center of gravity is located at the solar plexus, the Mani Pura Chakra. They may not have understood physics but these early Yogis did understand the concept that balance comes from the center.

You can find your own personal center of gravity by centering your upper body above your feet, your body will be balanced and you are unlikely to topple over. I would imagine that this is the driving force behind Tadasana (Mountain Pose).

When you stand perfectly upright, perfectly motionless, when all the tugging,  pulling and turning forces are exactly balanced and cancelled out, then you have found your gravitational center.  Finding it while standing still is relatively easy.

Keeping your balance while moving is a whole different ballgame because movement involves thinking about where your weight is and how to move it — without using too much energy or losing control.

A lot of life’s daily balancing acts become routine, automatically handled through skillful monitoring by your Autonomic Nervous System in coordination with your vision and motion sensors located in your inner ears. This gives us the ability to move about our days without really “thinking” about it. The conscious mind is free to look elsewhere.

Start leaning to either side and everything changes. In the effort to maintain balance the conscious mind is required to step in, to pay attention.  A smooth paved trail requires much less attention than a rocky road.

The quest to maintain a moving center of gravity, the quest to find equilibrium while standing on one foot, demands that you drop extraneous thoughts—the ones that tug and pull your mind in different directions.

This is because balance work that is physically challenging demands your full wakeful attention, you can’t fake balance, the instant you lose focus you fall over, balance demands that you remain focused on the task at hand.

Standing in Tree Pose requires an intense unwavering alertness to maintain, yet curiously a juxtaposition arises, out of that intense focus a deep sense of mental calm surfaces as you work to minimize the swaying of your branches.

“When we balance, we align the body’s center of gravity with the earth’s gravitational field. This means to literally place ourselves in physical equilibrium with a fundamental force of nature. The sustained effort to center and recenter, when successful brings not only our flesh and bones into balance but also our nerve impulses, thoughts, emotions and very consciousness. Equilibrium brings equanimity.” Roger Cole, Plumb Perfect, The Yoga Journal August 2007

We align our bodies with gravity during a physical practice to find a comfortable sense of ease in a pose. 

Sutra II:46 STHIRA SUKHAM ASANAM Posture should be steady and comfortable.

We align our conscious mind towards stillness in meditation to find a quiet sense of peaceful flow.

Sutra I:2 YOGAS CITTA VRITTI NIRODHAH Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.

We humble ourselves by attempting to balance on one leg in a variety of challenging yoga poses in front of others.

We are more able to find ease and comfort in a pose when our minds are not tugged and pulled in many directions.

We are more able to find a quiet mind when we make a concentrated effort to rest our mind on the task at hand.

We are more able to accept our failings with equanimity, by the realization that focusing only on our failures totally negates all the times our “trees” stood as steady as a mighty oak.

Sometimes we stumble, sometimes we fall, sometimes we sway in the breeze, sometimes we are steady, and sometimes we peacefully flow. The equanimity that Patanjali speaks of is the ability to place yourself mentally and physically on the very center of the seesaw that makes up your life experience, neatly balancing out the ups and downs.

We are more able to find this balance when we diligently focus on the immediate task at hand. The mind and the body come to work in the harmony of purposeful intent.

The best way to strengthen your physical balance is to practice many one-legged balancing poses and then practice them some more.

The best way to strengthen your mental balance is through meditation, the practice of centering your mind—not letting it get tugged and pulled away by extraneous thoughts. Make meditation a daily practice.

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