Learning from Leonardo

Da Vinci's Genius Habits

Leonardo da Vinci's Corporalita: Taking Care of Your Body

By Linda Dessau | Posted 7/6/06 | Updated 4/6/23

Da Vinci's Genius Habits

Da Vinci knew his body was a strong house for his creativity and took care of it by practicing the cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.

Michael Gelb describes Leonardo da Vinci's practices and attitudes about wellness and physical fitness in the chapter, “Corporalita: The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise”, in How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. He invites us to explore and apply many principles.


“Da Vinci believed that we should accept personal responsibility for our health and well-being” (194).

I was pretty thrilled to read this, considering my own passion for self-care and my belief in our personal role in our own health and wellness. Years after quitting smoking and adopting daily rituals of self-care, I can now truly say that self-care is a way of life for me. A way of life that keeps me healthier and happier than I've ever been before!

Self-care requires two basic beliefs. If you don't believe them yet, pretend until you do. The first belief is that it doesn't matter what other people might be thinking about us — that's their problem. When pleasing other people becomes more important than our own health, we'll always be out of sync with our self-care goals.

The second, and possibly the most challenging, is the belief that we deserve to be healthy and well. Until we do, we'll always find ways to sabotage our efforts.

Adopting these beliefs can feel very foreign after years of being controlled by people-pleasing tendencies and by feelings of low self-worth.

A great place to start is recognizing when you're reacting to those old beliefs. Make an effort to shift things, in the moment, and try on more healing beliefs and healthier habits.

In Gelb's self-assessment, he asks us whether we're “aware of the ways in which my physical state affects my attitudes”, and, consequently, whether we're “aware of the ways in which my attitudes affect my physical state (196)”, bringing us to da Vinci's next principle.

Mind/body connection

da Vinci obviously believed strongly in the mind-body connection. We know that a positive attitude and beliefs, healthy and supportive relationships, and a sense of personal empowerment can all do wonders for your physical health.

Be aware of the language that you use for health issues. Are you fighting an illness (conjures images of combat, anger, struggle, winning versus losing) or are you encouraging health (conjures images of nourishment, blooming, healing, radiating, glowing)?

If you're tempted to focus on something that hurts (maybe your neck is sore after a long day on the computer), you can focus instead on being grateful that the rest of your body is healthy and well enough to carry you around through the day.

When you're sick, talk and act as if you're getting healthier by the moment. Because you are! Focusing on what you're growing into (health) and not what you're growing out of (illness) keeps you more positive and keeps things moving in the right direction.

Mindful Eating — “Don't eat, dine”

da Vinci's approach to physical health was simple and full of common sense — balanced physical activity that included aerobic, strength and flexibility exercises, emotional wellness, balance and moderation.

He also touted mindful eating (making dining a pleasurable and sensual experience, one to enjoy and savour), and suggested the best time to stop eating is JUST BEFORE you feel full. That's a lot easier to do if you're paying attention while you're eating!

Think back to the last time you ate a meal among purposefully chosen surroundings — soothing music or positive conversation to listen to, delectable aromas to smell hours before your meal, pleasant colours and textures surrounding your eating area and delicious, fresh, wholesome and natural foods to taste and savour.

Quite different from how many of us eat — on the run or standing up, listening to chatter or the depressing television news, and surrounded by stacks of unopened mail, business folders, laundry or whatever else happens to have landed in our dining space.

Body awareness

We spend much of our time in our brains, rarely tuning in to what's carting them around and keeping them safe. Breathing exercises and other mind-body practices are simple pathways to body awareness. Tuning in to your breath can be grounding in moments of stress and anxiety, or as a way of enjoying positive moments on an even deeper level.

The Body Remembers

When we perform actions repeatedly, the body remembers them. I notice this when my fingers dance over the keys when I type the URL to my website, or when I get through playing a song on the guitar while I was so focused on my client I didn't even realize I'd changed chords. I see this also in my elderly music therapy clients; I once a spent a joyful few minutes observing a woman knit effortlessly, when just a few minutes earlier she was sitting motionless, staring blankly and not responding to my greeting. Her hands just knew what to do when the knitting needles were placed there. Her body remembered.


da Vinci also stressed the importance of developing ambidexterity — the ability to perform tasks equally well using both hands. As a piano student, my two hands had to do a lot of similar things — the left hand didn't get a break just because I'm right handed!

And I believe that as a result of those early piano experiences (I've played from the age of 5), I do have limited ambidexterity. I notice that when I perform some tasks (kitchen jobs, throwing and catching a baseball, bowling, etc.), it's sometimes difficult to determine which hand is stronger. And sometimes it's the opposite of the one it's “supposed” to be.

The drum kit was another instrument that I studied that allowed me to explore ambidexterity. It was always much easier to do if I just “forgot” that my right hand was supposed to be stronger, and just relaxed and let the music and rhythm come through me.


Speaking of relaxing — flexibility training, such as stretching and some types of yoga, can be a wonderful mind-body workout. Tuning into the muscles and body parts that you're strengthening and stretching is a wonderful way to also tune in to the body.

There's strength inherent in flexibility. A strength that is pliable and resilient in it's very nature; not at all rigid.

And I think this flexibility, this resilience, is at the very heart of a life of self-care, health and wellness. It's being strong enough to say, “No” when “No” is what needs to be said. It's being strong enough to stop and change your behaviour when you see you're stuck in an old unhealthy way of living. It's being resilient enough to start again after a slip, and it's being flexible enough to let go of controlling diets and strict regimens.

Da Vinci taught us that to take care of our bodies, we can adopt a series of common-sense practices. I invite you to join me in a life of simple self-care, just carrying on and making one healthy choice after another.

Copyright ©2006 Linda Dessau. All rights reserved.

How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day

Da Vinci's Art and Science

Using both sides of your brain.

Da Vinci's Sfumato

Opening to experience.

Da Vinci's Dimostrazione

Learning from your mistakes.

Da Vinci's Corporalita

Taking care of your body

Da Vinci's Sensazione

Awakening your senses.

Da Vinci's Connessione

Seeing the connection in everything.

Da Vinci's Curiosity

Being curious about everything.