Friday Featuring … Embodiment

Not to be deterred by a good mixed metaphor, I opened a can of worms while researching last week’s post (Friday Featuring … The Shakes) and went down the rabbit hole looking into “embodiment”. What do we mean when we use the term? If we aren’t embodied, what are we? Floating? What are the benefits of embodiment practices, for ourselves and for society? Where can we sign up?

There is an enormous amount to be said on the topic, so I thought it might be helpful to set out a brief collection of what I have turned up so far. I’ll walk through it in three parts:

We begin with, “How do I relate to my body?” Physically, can I sense my feet on the ground? Am I aware of the size and shape of my body, my arm, my hand? Can I feel my belly, my heartbeat? Is my mental “body map” accurate?

In the trauma releasing exercises (TRE) workshop that I attended (see Friday Featuring … The Shakes), Steve Haines spoke about “dissociation” – losing connection with our thoughts, sensations or feelings, and the opposite of embodiment. He described it as a state which arises as follows:

  • Ideally, we can see possibility. We feel completely the presence of ourselves and our vast capabilities (I know this feeling; this is one reason why I do yoga).
  • Under pressure, we orient – checking around and narrowing possibilities.
  • As pressure increases, there is shift of internal focus from our lower body to our head, and especially to our neck and eyes. A heightened state of awareness – hypervigilance (also a symptom of PTSD and anxiety) – can become the norm.
  • Under threat, we choose a path, we mobilise to fight or flee, and have a strong sense of urgency. We must act at all costs to avoid real or assumed danger or impending death.
  • If we cannot act – if there is no escape route, or based on previous experience or cultural learned response, we assume that there won’t be one – then we freeze. We are overwhelmed, stuck, paralysed. Ultimately, we may end up ‘playing dead’, in a catatonic state.

Steve calls this the “defence cascade” and it is a natural survival response designed for real, imminent, life-or-death situations. To some extent, most of us are disembodied most of the time. We don’t know where our big toe is, we aren’t aware of our breath or using the full capacity of our lungs, or our jaw or fists are clenched for no obvious reason.

Thankfully, this is not the only way to respond to pressure. We can intervene in the cascade by using a technique such as massage or TRE and can self-regulate using embodiment practices. Yoga, martial arts, qi gong and dance come to mind, but really anything can be done in an embodied way. Certainly, all of these practices can be performed without body awareness.

But, “What are the benefits of this awareness? What can my body have to tell me?” I absolutely love the idea of intuition, having a gut feeling, knowing in your bones the path you should take. Perhaps I aspire to these things because I am a natural reviewer-of-options (i.e. a terrible decision maker). I know that my body is much more than a vehicle for my brain, but I have struggled to access this “inner voice” – where is it? What am I listening for?

Well, it seems that our sense of ourselves, of having a body – our interoceptive awareness – comes from a number of sources, including our fascia, the brain in our guts and our vagus nerve (each a fascinating line of enquiry unto themselves). If we can ground ourselves, becoming aware of more of our body in a given moment, we are able to lower our heart rate and blood pressure and shift ourselves from a state of fight-or-flight to rest-and-digest.

Over the longer term, this has been shown to have an enormous range of positive benefits, reducing stress, tension, inflammation, risk of heart attack, and helping with anxiety, depression, chronic pain and digestive issues.

On the other hand, dissociation – lack of awareness of our way of being – can mean we aren’t aware of our needs, and on a deeper level, what we want to make of our lives. This means it is challenging to make decisions that account for our own needs. It can anaesthetise us; not just from our own sensations, but from the suffering of others. It follows that, if we can self-regulate, we can turn towards pain, we can see suffering and act with empathy.

So we are led to ask, “How then can I become more embodied, more aware of what my body is saying?”

It seems that making a habit of enquiry is the key.

Make a practice (and I emphasise practice, as it isn’t a quick win) of something that makes you feel grounded and present, beyond just feeling good. Choose an activity and a mindset that lets you pay attention to how you’re feeling, with curiosity, and putting aside any inclination to judge. The examples above – yoga etc – are all easily accessible. Move slowly to help build your awareness. Steve Haines gives simple examples you can weave into everyday life, such as pressing your feet into the ground. From lying down, press your back body into the ground and allow your belly, chest and throat to open. This vulnerable position opposes our tendency to flex or contract as a response to stress.

For teachers, you can help your students become embodied by making eye contact with them (where appropriate), by inviting them to explore their current sensations (by way of sight, smell, sound, touch or taste), by bringing their awareness to their breath, perhaps suggesting a breath count, or to their skin, the frontier between their body and not-their-body or (with their permission) by touching them gently.

Through my friend and massage therapist, Charlotte Preston, I’ve become aware of a movement against using pain to resolve pain. Deep and lasting relief can come about not from pushing and pulling tension out of the body, but by gentle interaction with its own intelligent systems.

For a lot of people, the experience of embodiment can be an “unknown unknown” – until we have some sense of a fully embodied state, we aren’t aware that we can be living richer, more joyful lives. Pre-yoga, this was certainly the case for me.

These are just some preliminary thoughts on a huge topic. I know there are lots of different embodiment practices, and a mass of related research.  With this in mind, I would really welcome your thoughts. Please share your resources! I’m so passionate about the impending revolution.

Breathe, make space, be compassionate.

Susie xx

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Much of the above is informed by Brooke Thomas’ excellent podcast series Liberated Body, in particular her interview with Steve Haines and her interview with Mark Walsh, as well as this article by Bo Forbes on how eye pillows work and this article entitled The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure, about the vagus nerve.

I gave a brief bio on Steve Haines in last week’s Friday Featuring… and there is lots more information about him and his offerings on his website. For more information on ways to improve vagal tone, have a look at his article, Vagus, baby Vagus!

Charlotte Preston, from whom I’ve learned so much about the subtlety of movement, touch and awareness, is a massage therapist and yoga teacher based in London. Find out more about her work here.

[If you are thinking about how becoming a more embodied person might impact on how you act in the world, then so was I! In the next installment of Friday Featuring …. I explored how our practice impacts our lives.]

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