“What is the body? That shadow of a shadow of your love that somehow contains the whole universe….” —Rumi
Most of us spend a significant amount of time focusing our attention outside our bodies, either intentionally or unintentionally. Even those experiencing body dysmorphic disorder, described by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America as “a body-image disorder characterized by persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one's appearance,” may, in fact, be having a disembodied experience in spite of their seeming obsession with the body itself. In a culture which attaches social worth to physical appearance, our bodies become our calling cards, our vanity license plates, the cause of much suffering, and sometimes prisons we cannot escape. The body, however, is so much more; it is our medium of experience. From the moment of birth we all are establishing connection to and understanding of the world through our senses. What we smell, taste, see, touch, and hear helps us develop reflexes and cultivate curiosity, and refines our very identity. To implicate our senses and our bodies as obstacles to our happiness is a kind of negation of the very thing which makes us human. The body is not an object to be molded and controlled, but an invaluable gift whose wisdom and sensitivity opens us to tasting our true nature and bonds us to the collective human experience.
The kind of de rigueur yoga practices which focus on the external achievement of poses or even superficial muscle tone or the ephemeral “yoga high” play into the kind of disembodiment epidemic inherent in our current yoga culture. It is a kind of “body-escapism” in spite of how much time is spent moving and shaping the body. The invitation extended by the practice of traditional yoga asana, to delve deeply into our proverbial, metaphorical, and physical core of being, is similar to inviting someone to walk through an unmarked door with no guarantee of what’s on the other side. Few are optimistic enough to take such a wager. And why should they be? Our human brains still follow a very primitive operating system which, in order to keep us away from any actual physical harm, downloads negativity and threat at a much faster rate than the experiences of joy, compassion, tenderness, or friendship. This is why one snarky comment from a friend or stranger can derail your entire day, in spite of the fact that you're an objectively stable, capable, and healthy person.
The kind of de rigueur yoga practices which focus on the external achievement of poses or even superficial muscle tone or the ephemeral “yoga high” play into the kind of disembodiment epidemic inherent in our current yoga culture.
Developments in the field of somatics, a methodology which emphasizes study of the felt or internal physical experience, link the body and mind in ways that yogis have for centuries, but using language our “go-get-’em” culture can understand. For example, let's start with the brain: The brain downloads experiences and information first through the limbic system, which can be thought of as the center of instinctual response. It is often called the “primitive” or “mammalian” brain. This part of the brain is the first to respond to external stimuli which immediately signals the nervous system’s response. For instance, the skin registers a drop in temperature and the body automatically begins exerting energy to maintain its core temperature. Or a car swerves close to yours and, without having any sort of internal dialogue, you swerve out of the way. This response is for our survival—it is highly instinctual and is the same biological response that all mammals have. The limbic system is our connection to mood, desire, instinct, and appetite.
The mind-body connection, however, is much more subtle and is, in fact, the focus of a practice like yoga, where we use our intellectual capacity to align with the already intelligent processes of our human body. The sensations of grief, sadness, disappointment, fear, or any other strong emotional response can be intensely uncomfortable, even threatening, which is exactly what our brains are wired to avoid. Think of the sensations that accompany terrible news about a loved one; there is a shortness of breath, a tightening of the chest, and a sense of internal collapse. Through embodiment practices, we can learn to use our awareness to notice an emotional experience as a sensory experience as well as an emotional one. Simultaneously being aware of the sensation and the mind’s response to said sensation allows for some degree of presence in the moment as opposed to a more reactive response such as mindlessly engaging in an activity to numb the feelings. We acknowledge that while strong emotions are occurring, so are sensations which are temporary and manageable through movement or breath.
The (very human) impulse to “put on a brave face” and appear as though all is well, or to numb the sensations we feel, is our mammalian response to terror. But the initial physical response to threat does not disappear just because we decide to behave as though we are fine. Once downloaded by the limbic system, if left unchecked (i.e., glossed over with posturing or avoidance behavior), this patterning of internal reactivity can become hard-wired into the nervous system, which affects every organ and function in the body. It is through awareness of and curiosity about the sensations that accompany our most basic impulses that allows us to process our experience in the present moment. In this way, facing experience through felt experience, we generate healing from our movement practices.
Dr. Peter Levine, creator of the Somatic Experiencing© method, calls these deeply internalized emotional events “corrosive stressors,” which can lead to the kind of systemic illness Western medicine has not been able to treat. The reality is that the nervous system shapes the body in response to perceived “threats,” even when that threat is our own mind or an incident we “let slide.” In other words, we get “bent out of shape” when we don’t deal with the stress at the point of physical response. When we bypass our physical experiences and go, instead, to external distractions (which can even include going to yoga everyday!), the body holds the shape of “readiness” for defending itself and becomes more and more resistant to long-term change. Again from Dr. Peter Levine: “Through rationalizations, judgments, shame, and fear of our bodily sensations, we may disrupt our innate capacity to self-regulate, functionally 'recycling’ disabling terror and helplessness.” In other words, “getting out of our heads” through movement is not the same as getting into our bodies.
Now how does this relate to yoga practice? Well, if the nervous system is in a holding pattern of stress, anxiety, chronic muscle tension, or emotional disturbance, it is quite literally in our hands (and feet) to reform the pattern. Utilizing an intentional, slower-paced asana practice that focuses on grounding (seated or standing poses) and breath awareness can not only stabilize the nervous system, but also allow us to become aware of how we’ve been (unconsciously) dealing with our stress. Noticing that I hold my breath and drop my head down in every chaturanga opens up the conversation of “Am I pushing too hard? Is this actually helping?” Conscious, systemic movement (as opposed to performative or fast-paced “catch-me-if-you-can" sequences) can bring habitual stress patterns to consciousness, where they can then be transformed. Think of the difference between holding virabhadrasana II (warrior II) for two minutes and flowing through it with hardly a complete breath. What do you feel? How do you respond to what you feel? Once we become conscious of our psychosomatic (mind-body) response to discomfort, we can engage fully in the processing of our experiences or internal obstacles, greatly reducing the need to be in constant motion and allowing for greater empowerment through our movement practices.
In order to be embodied we must listen to the impulse of the body itself (which speaks through sensation), and engage with feeling as opposed to bypassing, manipulating, or trying to control it.
As a yoga teacher, I believe in the benefit of following a sequence of specific movements and refining habitual movement patterns through this method. However, I am certain that just getting on a mat and following a prescribed sequence does not necessarily lead to embodiment. Embodiment is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling.” In order to be embodied we must listen to the impulse of the body itself (which speaks through sensation), and engage with feeling as opposed to bypassing, manipulating, or trying to control it.
Here is an embodiment practice drawn from Somatic Experiencing© and Expressive Art Therapy techniques to help you initiate the process of deepening movement into embodiment.
Sense. Begin standing or sitting comfortably. Track a sensation in your body. Perhaps you feel a tingling in a joint, or stiffness. You may notice heaviness somewhere in your body, or the sensation of stretch, depending on your seat. At first you may notice several sensations. Simply choose one for this exercise. Close your eyes and focus your breath into this sensation (as though your nostrils were actually located at this body part). Allow yourself 10 to 20 breaths to feel the sensation. Notice if it shifts location or changes in quality.
Listen. Is there a movement or an image elicited by this sensation? If you had to show someone how this sensation feels, what would the gesture, movement, or image be? Get specific by giving the sensation time to take form. Allow yourself to move curiously for several minutes, or doodle with a pen/pencil, pastels, or even paints! (I like to set a timer for myself. As a writing teacher advised once, “When you think you’re finished, keep writing. Same rules apply here: When you think you’re finished tracking, keep going.)
Engage. Once you have distilled the expression down, move with it as though it were your dance partner. This is not a performance, no one is watching, there is no choreography to “get right.” Enjoy the engagement and spend 5 to10 minutes moving with yourself.
Neutralize. Drop the effort. Lay down whatever instrument you’ve employed (pen, paintbrush, arms and legs) and rest your body by lying in a neutral position. Allow your attention and effort to settle completely on the breath.
Now, after some deep internal activation has occurred, would be a great time to practice a 15- to 20-minute alignment-based asana sequence to help contain the body after your somatic exploration. After all, that is the purpose of asana, to reinforce the walls of the vessel that is the body and refine the patterns of energy moving through it. You may notice a subtle or profound shift in your practice. You might even feel more like yourself. Now that your energy flow has been brought to consciousness, consciously hold it as the precious cargo it is. In this moment, the whole universe is unfolding.