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What is Embodiment? Somatic Explorations in Healing

As a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner in training, I can't say enough about the role of the body in healing. It is essential. In fact, I am so clear on this, that it is the main lens through which I see health, and the inspiration for my private health practice, "Embodied Health". Cultivating embodiment is essential in finding wellness. But, what is embodiment actually? And why is it so important, especially in healing pain? We'll explore that, and much more, below.

Let's talk embodiment!

Christine Caldwell coined the term "Bodyfulness" in her book "Bodyfulness: Somatic Practices for Presence, Empowerment, and Waking Up in This Life" and I just love it. Just take a moment to say the word out loud (really do it!) and notice how it feels. If you're anything like me, you might notice it feels kind of yummy (or as one of my favorite teachers says, "juicy!").

Like mindfulness, bodyfulness insinuates an awareness of the physical body, not just the mind, as a path toward awakening. I think Peter Levine said is perfectly in his book, "Freedom from Pain", when he says:

"...embodiment and awareness are described as the 'twin sisters of mercy', because in addition to being essential for effective self regulation of emotional and physical pain reactions, embodied awareness is a master tool for personal enrichment and self-discovery"

Yes, there's the juicy!

So let's start with the basics and break this down a bit.

Embodiment & pain

You live in a body.

That might seem an obvious statement, but it's not so obvious to our cognitive mind, that likes to think that we are using our wise and wonderful brains to make decisions that guide our lives. But, in reality, long before information reaches the conscious brain, the autonomic nervous system steps up and the body is in action. You might encounter this yourself when you hear a loud noise and your body tenses in protection before you know the source of the noise or the level of danger. You might also encounter this in yourself when pain or other symptoms arise and you're not sure how or why. Or when you're on the yoga mat, and you suddenly realize you aren't breathing as you move. The body is a huge part of how you experience the world. But, despite that fact, our logical brains often like to deny it, when, in fact, we do live in a body.

Your body offers you essential information about your state.

I'll venture a guess that it makes sense to you when you experience a queasy stomach before you give a speech, or your cheeks flush when you are embarrassed. These responses offer you essential information about how you're doing, and can often guide your behavior, thoughts, and emotions. So, even though it's normal to feel resistance to the same message about pain, it's just as true! Pain is actually one of those essential pieces of information too. Remember, pain is a danger meter, not a damage meter. Pain tells us our brain thinks we are in danger and asks us to turn towards it to understand it better. Whether or not that is actually true is why mindful awareness of the body is so important. Relating to your body's experience with curiosity, allowing its messages to be heard, is key to your healing journey.

The Pain Trap

The trouble with pain is that it often makes us scared of our bodies. So much so that it's not uncommon to constrict or start to deny the body altogether. And that's where we get trapped. The body is trying to give us information, but we become dead set on avoiding it because it is the very source of our suffering. The more we resist the experience and avoid the body, the more we fear it, and the cycle continues. Pain also often reduces curiosity and mindfulness and that gets us even more stuck.

embodiment & healing

Your body holds your stress responses.

The field of somatic trauma therapy has contributed immense knowledge to how we understand stress responses. Primarily, it points out that stress responses cause physiologic changes in our bodies that are enacted in order to return us to safety. If those responses are not completed, the shifts they insight can sometimes stick around. I see this manifest in many of my clients in chronic bracing or guarding. Sometimes, it turns into pain. If that's you, remember, these responses are here to bring you back to safety, so they're not bad! But, if they aren't allowed to complete, that's when you suffer. Bringing awareness to the body helps these processes unfold and release their hold on you. And the first guessed it...embodiment!

Your body is an essential part of regulation.

Besides being a way for us to let go of stress responses, the body also offers a pathway to regulation, that is, if we give it the attention it deserves! As I often say, "what got you into this mess can also get you out of it". If you've ever taken a deep breath during a stressful moment, you likely know the power of the body to create shifts. As one of my teacher's repeatedly said, "one breath can change everything". That's because the body is an essential part of regulation, and can be an incredible (and very credible) source of safety, letting the brain know you are okay. Bringing awareness back to the body allows us to access this well of regulation (plug two for embodiment!). But, it takes curiosity and it also takes courage to build connection with the body in a way that fosters regulation.

How to get started with embodiment

1. Start by getting curious.

Explore the body through sensation regularly by practicing yoga nidra or some other type of body scan. Know that it is normal that your mind may more quickly come into awareness of places you are used to monitoring, especially those parts that experience pain. But, remain curious and notice what else is present too. What if you widen your internal gaze? What else do you uncover?

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2. Connect with what is going well.

Some of the best thought leaders in somatic approaches to healing, including Peter Levine, Deb Dana, and Richard Miller of iRest yoga nidra tout the importance of finding safety in the body. It's a powerful and important starting place, and one that can support you in innumerable situations, both on and off the mat. Whether that be with orienting, glimmers or finding your inner resource, getting connected with your felt sense when things are going well is invaluable.

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3. Get in touch with rhythms of change.

We are in constant flux. But, being in pain often grabs our attention so thoroughly that we miss the fact that what was present one moment, actually fades away in the next, only to return in the next. Noticing rhythms of change is important in embodiment because it helps us realize we're never truly stuck. The saying, "this too shall pass" becomes without a doubt true when we are embodied. And that experience alone is often important in building capacity for really living this life, in a body, moving between the many states that are inevitabley a part of it, including joy and pain, peace and challenge.

4. Explore regulation through your body.

I love yoga because it teaches me so much about myself through direct experience, and also offers an incredible library of practices that are regulating. The simple practice of lengthening your exhales, for example, stimulates natural down regulation, and allows both body and mind to move closer to safety. Now that's good medicine, especially for pain! Regulation can also come through changing body posture, noticing your ground, humming, singing, or letting go of tension. The important part of this step in an exploration of embodiment is to acknowledge that what is regulating for one person may not be for the next. The key is to notice the shifts that happen in you as you practice. If you find you move towards more flow, spaciousness, or confidence, you're likely on the right track.

5. Check in: "What's up today?"

Bring your body into your everyday life with this simple practice inspired by my teacher and mentor, Chinnamasta Stiles. Start by cultivating a mindful state, and then, with love and compassion for yourself, check in,

What's up today:
  • in your body?

  • in your breath?

  • in your heart?

  • in your mind?

Take your time with each step, and really let yourself slow down as you sense into each aspect. And if you're eager for more, move next into organic movement, allowing your body to move or take any shape it would like. Notice what shows up, and cultivate a welcoming stance towards what your body shares with you today.

Check out our class: Meditation: Organic Movement

Embodiment can bring challenges, but, I promise, it also offers a path to healing that empowers like no other. Living embodied shows you that you have the answers, and that the power of healing is yours, and no one else's. And that's a powerful place to be in when you're healing pain.

Beyond that, my deepest wish is that becoming embodied also shows you, again and again, that you are sacred, just in being you.

So, remain curious, be compassionate, and explore your own terrain. I know embodiment will guide your healing, and can't agree enough with Peter Levine, that it will also become "a master tool for personal enrichment and self-discovery" that will support you in this beautiful life, wherever it takes you.

For the full embodiment series, click here.

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