Menuchat Hanefesh - Perspective, Equanimity or Resting of the Body-Soul
How can we bring Menuchat Hanefesh to an Embodied Practice?
The phrase Menuchat Hanefesh can be literally translated as “resting the part of the soul that is closely associated with the body.” In our mystical tradition, there are five levels or aspects of the human soul, and Nefesh refers to that aspect that is closest to the world of action, Assiyah, and to the physical/embodied plane of existence. Whenever we are talking about Nefesh we are emphasizing the level of soul that is closest to the body, addressing the deepest connection between the physical and spiritual as it manifests in the form and matter of the body itself. We take the phrase Menuchat Hanefesh into a physical practice in a few ways.
Menuchat Hanefesh as Resting, Finding our Foundation
With every breath we experience a filling and emptying of the lungs. We also experience a rhythm of lifting and settling of the sternum and upper chest, and a corresponding rhythm of descent and ascent of the diaphragm. If throughout a movement practice, at the end of every exhale, we can accentuate the descent of the body to meet the earth, we are able to feel the part of the body that contacts the earth as a source of rest, grounding and foundation. For example, we can feel the weight of the sit bones a little more deeply if sitting, or we can feel the full contact of our entire torso onto a mat or blanket if lying down, or we can feel the softening of the soles of our feet, with the base of the toes and the circumference of the heel capturing our weight evenly if standing in Mountain Pose / Tadasana (Figure 3). By connecting the balance of ascent and descent in the body, we can experience the way in which the breath assists us in resting more deeply into the earth.
Similarly, in every position, there is a foundation or resting place - a place where our physical body contacts the earth. In Forward Bend (Figure 1), and Triangle Pose (Figure 2) and Mountain Pose (Figure 3), our feet are the resting place/ foundation for all of these poses. In Downward Facing Dog (Figure 4), our hands and our feet are the resting place/ foundation. In handstand our hands are the resting place/foundation; and in complicated twists like Marichyasana III (Figure 5), our sit bone and lower calf/heel on one leg, and our foot on the opposite side are the resting place/ foundation.
In every case, if we bring our attention to the natural way in which gravity assists the deepening of contact between that resting point/foundation in the body and the earth, we experience Menuchat Hanefesh.
Menuchat Hanefesh as Moving from a Place of Rest
Here is one place where the concept of Menuchat Hanefesh also exists in our interpretation of a verse from Torah. There is a beautiful teaching about a line in Torah about Jacob when he flees for his life. The text reads, he “left from Be’er-Sheva and went to Haran” (Genesis 28:10). Be’er Sheva is the name of a town. The word Be’er Sheva can also be translated as “The Well of Seven,” which according to many teachings is Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, when we dip into a deep well of rest, divine connection and inspiration. The Hebrew word Haran also has the root, Hara, which is anger. So there is a teaching that the line “Jacob left from Be’er Sheva to Haran” as “Jacob left his place of deep rest and went toward anger.” Some sages teach that Jacob, when he went toward Haran or anger, did not leave Be’er Sheva but actually kept one part of himself tied to Be’er Sheva at all times. He kept himself connected within, to a place of deep rest and connection to the divine. This is the place from which he was able to dream his dream. So, this line from Torah offers for us an instruction for how to meet challenges in our lives from a place of rest, perspective, or witnessing: When you feel yourself moving toward an unsettling emotion, stay connected to the place of calm, rest, equanimity or perspective.
Similarly, if during any active movement practice we focus on staying connected to a place of rest energetically, we can create a balance of effort and rest in a way that deeply acknowledges all parts of our being, avoiding any injury which often comes from overexertion or pushing too hard. The practice of maintaining awareness of the resting place brings us perspective to our endeavors at every moment - a perspective that we can bring to our practice and off the mat into life, as well. By focusing on the resting place in any given active pose, and staying connected to that place, we are able to stay grounded and cultivate disidentification from the challenges that may come to us.
For example, when lying on the floor supine in Hand to Big Toe Pose / Supta Padangusthasana (Figure 6), if we place our attention on the back of the torso resting into the earth as we take one leg up to the sky, we can lengthen down the side waist from upper chest to hips evenly on both sides and let gravity assist in the resting of the organs, lungs, and kidneys into the support of the earth beneath us. If we focus upon this place of rest/Beer Sheva as we effort/Haran to lift the leg, we can experience the way in which the place of rest can always serve as a resource to us in our physical practice. Furthermore, we notice it takes even less effort to lift the leg when we take the opposite leg and arm long onto the floor, with a focus on the upper thigh bone (femur) resting down into the earth, and the entire length of the body resting, as the abdominals engage to lift the leg. The more we place our attention to a place of calm or rest in the body during the actions of a physical practice, the less effort it takes.
Menuchat Hanefesh in our Anatomy
This balance of Haran/Effort and Be’er Sheva/no effort is perfectly mirrored in our anatomy as well, in the agonist/antagonist muscle pairs. Certain muscles in the body contract when other muscles relax, and vice versa, and this allows us to move with more freedom. For example, in the aforementioned Supta Padangusthasana (Figure 6), energizing or contracting the quadriceps muscle on the top of lifted leg allows us to support the hamstring muscle at the back of the leg to reach to it full length and softness. The contraction of one muscle group corresponds to the relaxation of another partner muscle group in order for the body to function optimally. Similarly, if we raise our arms above our head and contract the pectoralis muscle at the front of the chest, we restrict the stretch of the trapezius and find restriction in the shoulder joint for Downward Facing Dog (Figure 4). But if we soften the pectoralis, we are able to find much more freedom of movement in the joint, and the arms lift higher, in greater alignment with the upper arm closer to the ear, etc. The kinesthesiology of the workings of the muscles themselves reflect the teaching in this text.
Thus, we can cultivate the quality of Menuchat Hanefesh by balancing effort with rest, by staying connected at all times to the part of ourselves that is in contact with the earth, and by paying close attention to the natural ways in which our muscular system functions. All of these approaches can support us in having perspective in our lives. From this place of perspective, we are able to respond rather than react, to move through our practice and our days with equanimity and perspective - an ability to be present with a “calmness of soul,” Menuchat Hanefesh as described by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin in his book Chesbon Hanefesh.
 Morinis, Everyday Holiness, 100.
Throughout this guide, we will refer to the following poses:
Forward Bend - Uttanasana (Fig. 1)
Triangle - Utthita Trikonasana (Fig. 2)
Mountain Pose - Tadasana (Fig. 3)
Downward Facing Dog - Adho Mukha Svanasana (Fig. 4)
Seated Twist - Marichyasana III (Fig. 5)
Hand to Big Toe Pose - Supta Padangusthasana (Fig. 6)
Warrior II - Virabhadrasana II (Fig. 7)
Warrior I - Virabhadrasana I (Fig. 8)
Warrior III - Virabhadrasana III (Fig. 9)
Tree Pose - Vrksasana (Fig. 10)
Side Angle - Parsvakonasana (Fig. 11)
Head to Knee Forward Bend - Janu Sirsasana (Fig. 12)
Seated Forward Bend - Paschimottanasana (Fig. 13)
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