Little Girl Lifting Weights
Photo: Hulton Archive
By the time I was 7 years old, Monty Roberts already suspected there was a better way to train horses. Roberts spent his childhood watching cowboys break animals in the traditional way, using restriction, force, and punishment. But he also watched the horses themselves, noticing that they communicated with one another in a language of postures and movements. Roberts suspected that if trainers learned to understand and use this language, the horses would cooperate much more willingly. He was right. Roberts's now famous method, termed horse whispering, can accomplish in 30 gentle minutes what might take traditional trainers three brutal weeks.

I don't have a horse, but I've found Monty Roberts's philosophy very effective in training an animal I do own: me. My body, to be exact. For the first half of my life, I set about "breaking" my body by controlling it with various forms of discipline, and it worked: My body broke. I was chronically ill by the time it occurred to me that anyone caught treating a beast of burden the way I treated myself would be arrested for cruelty to animals. I began to speculate that my body would cooperate better if I learned to "whisper" to it, to interpret its signals and treat it with respect.

If you haven't yet learned this lesson, age will teach it to you. Pain, illness, and exhaustion are wonderfully persuasive instructors, and they increase with time unless we learn to heed them. Great! Aging prompts us to learn our body's language, and this can be downright redemptive. In fact, the more we learn to communicate with our bodies, the more we may feel as though we're aging backward, like Merlin the Magician, becoming healthier and more comfortable in our skin with the passage of time.

Why Body Whisper?

"As we get older," my doctors used to say, "symptoms like yours just start to happen." This is not a comforting thing to hear at the age of 18. Maniacal dieting, intense exercise, persistent sleep deprivation, and self-imposed stress had turned me into a teenage cornucopia of illnesses that usually plague much older people. My muscles and joints hurt constantly. My organs were deteriorating. I contracted every infectious illness the breeze could carry. After more than a decade of this, physicians guessed that I had some unnamed autoimmune syndrome. They had no idea what to do about it. My own approach was to resist, ignore, or rage at my body, but after a couple of near-lethal health crises, I realized this wasn't good enough. I had to force myself to treat my physical being more considerately.

It helped me to stop thinking of my body as me and to begin thinking of it as a useful, valuable workhorse. From this perspective, my lifestyle appeared not as righteous self-discipline but as sheer brutality. When I stopped praising myself for self-torture and began listening to my body, I found that there was wisdom in my cells to exceed anything my bewildered doctors could offer. Like a horse that knows the way home, my body naturally gravitated toward the things that were good for it—for all of me. Listening to its "language" improved every aspect of my life: social, emotional, spiritual, and professional, as well as physical. The same thing can happen to you, if you're willing to take up body whispering.