How Do You Feel Gravity?
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
When I first started practicing yoga, I had no idea what teachers meant when they talked about being "grounded." Even though I knew the definition had something to do with being connected to the earth, and not being forced by a parent to stay in the house all weekend (because I Googled it), I still felt entirely lost as to was my body supposed to be feeling when I was "grounded." Yoga is full of abstract language, and coming to understand abstract concepts over time is part of the practice. However, for folks who process information literally, too many abstract verbal cues can serve to create more confusion than clarity, especially in the beginning. For me, it wasn't until I read a physics book about gravity that I finally began to understand what it means to be grounded.
When we practice grounding in yoga, we use our conscious awareness to notice the parts of the body that are physically connected to gravity. This helps us drag our awareness out of thought and into what is happening now, in the body. Give it a try. Close your eyes if it helps, and feel your feet on the floor or your seat on the chair. Do you feel a pull downward? Pressure or heaviness? A connection to something massive? A feeling of ineffable depth? Whatever you feel is awesome, because you are the only one that is feeling it in that exact way at that exact moment.
Remember that neurodiversity means that no two nervous systems are the same, so every human being experiences the world, including gravity, just a little bit differently. We not only sense the world differently from one another, but we process sensory information differently, too, resulting in a perception of the universe that is completely unique. Your experience of gravity is yours; cues about what might be happening in the body are only there to provide some guidance as you begin the journey of feeling.
But here is what's really cool. Your experience of gravity may actually be what keeps you connected to this physical reality in time and space, like, literally, at a quantum level, and it may not be long before physicists find a way to prove this. This is going to take some explanation and a little physics lesson. I promise there won't be any math because I don't know any of it anyway. I'm also not a physicist, so please forgive any inaccuracies along the way.
At a physical level-- a very concrete level-- gravity is much more than a force that keeps us from floating off of the planet's surface, or the firm feeling of a chair under your seat, or the sensation of the ground under your feet. When you are feeling gravity, you're actually feeling into the fabric of spacetime itself... the stuff that connects everything in the universe. It's the material through which light travels from our sister galaxy, Andromeda, 2.5 million light years away, and the material that connects our present moment all the way back in time to the birth of the universe. I am not making this stuff up; it's one of the implications of my favorite theory of quantum gravity, Loop Quantum Gravity (LQG).
WTF is quantum gravity? I'm so glad you asked! You did ask, right?
Quantizing something just means breaking it down into its smallest components. Far beyond anything the human eye can observe, and far beyond what we can even observe directly with scientific instruments, is a very weird, very tiny, quantum world, and only by zooming wayyy out to human scales does the physical reality that we can see and touch, emerge. Quantum physics seeks to understand the rules for the way the smallest bits of our universe exist and behave, and how these rules inform the bigger picture of the world we experience as conscious human beings.
Through the study of the physical world, we've come to understand that our universe is made up of particles and forces. This is called the Standard Model. Gravity has long been included in this model as a force that kinda gets tossed into the mix without much explanation, but the kicker is that gravity really isn't a force at all, at least not if you believe Einstein's theory of general relativity.
Einstein understood that what we feel as the force of gravity is really an effect of the fabric of spacetime bending around massive bodies of matter (more matter= more mass), like our sun and our planet. Spacetime bending is a little like what happens when you drop a heavy bowling ball on an old spring mattress. The surface of the mattress curves as the weight of the bowling ball pulls downward. If there are other objects on the mattress, they may be pulled down the curved surface toward the bowling ball. It's a bit oversimplified, but the point is that gravity is not a force like magnetism. Gravity is a side effect of the bending and curving of space and time as matter interacts with the fabric of the universe. Matter tells spacetime how to curve, and spacetime, in turn, informs matter how to move.
A black hole is the most extreme example of this effect. A black hole is created when so much matter gathers into one tiny area of spacetime that it creates a sort of drain in the fabric of the universe. Imagine if you had a magic marble that was as heavy as a car, and you dropped that onto a mattress... yikes. Time for a new mattress. When a lot of matter is concentrated into a very small area, spacetime curves so furiously around it that anything else that gets too close, including photons traveling at the speed of light, will get sucked into the drain and cannot escape. This effect of being sucked down the drain, so to speak, is what we call gravity.
It takes a LOT of mass to bend spacetime with any noticeable effect at human scales, though; spacetime is tough and it does not curve easily. Nevertheless, if spacetime is in fact, a thing that can bend, then it must have physical properties that can be quantized in the same way that matter can. Theories of quantum gravity attempt to explain what the fabric of the universe (spacetime) is made of at the quantum level. What makes up the substance that light travels through from distant stars? If the universe was likened to a painting, what is it painted on?
The theory of Loop Quantum Gravity proposes that spacetime is made of interconnected loops of energy. It gets really complex from here, but the idea behind it is relatively simple. Think of spacetime like the fabric of a blue knit t-shirt. At the human scale, the fabric looks like a smooth, solid, uninterrupted blue surface. When you zoom in to get a closer look, though, you realize that it is actually made of lots of little blue threads all knitted together, and in between the threads are tiny little holes that you couldn't see from far away. Under a magnifying glass, you can see that the blue threads have an uneven texture with wild little fibers are sticking up all over. What looked like a solid swath of uninterrupted blue cloth from afar is actually a jungle of textures and fibers interlocking together with little gaps of empty space in between. Our reality is nothing like it seems when you really get up close, and that includes our pal gravity.
From this point on, I like to take creative liberties with how the implications of the theory of quantum gravity get interpreted. If this theory is true, all of the loops of energy that make up the fabric of spacetime mean that we have a literal physical connection to every point in time and every other particle of energy in the universe. Every interaction between energy particles since the universe was born is recorded somewhere in this network of loops. The energy that you are made of might have once been part of a star, or a planet, and somewhere through that network of connections, backward in time, that star still exists. Even if we can't reverse the arrow of time at human scales, the past is preserved as a network of connections from the beginning of everything, resulting in our present moment. At the quantum level, there is no distinction between your body and the rest of the universe, and time, as humans experience it, really isn't even a thing (I promise to nerd out on that "another time").
Gravity is our connection to E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.
If you've heard the saying "You are the universe experiencing itself," a quote attributed to British philosopher Alan Watts, you might have had one of two reactions: either "That's fudging amazing!" or *rolls eyes*. But it's true. You are one point of view of the whole of the universe, anchored here by gravity in space and time. When you feel your feet on the earth, you are feeling the whole of the universe and all of time beneath you, and your experience of this is entirely yours.
If you need a little grounding after reading this head-spinning stuff about gravity, check out my new video where we learn about and practice some Deep Belly Breathing.
If you are eager for more and don't want to wait for more blog posts, here is some related recommended reading:
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (my favorite!)