Connecting with life through Body Awareness
“Our bodies know that they belong; it is our minds that make our lives so homeless. "
- John O'Donohue
Our bodies live in the present. Which means that they are a gateway to life's energy and intelligence. However, the rush and stress we experience in daily life compel us to gradually shift from fully inhabiting our bodies to a shallower, less satisfying, existence in our minds. As Tara Brach points out, “we experience our lives through our bodies whether we are aware of it or not. Yet we are usually so mesmerized by our ideas about the world that we miss out on much of our direct sensory experience.”
Adding on this, we have this natural tendency to pull back when unpleasant situations or sensations arise. Yet, resisting discomfort only creates more tension in the body, which ultimately means more pain. Also, when we resist life our psyche still knows something’s there and that we’re pushing it away. This creates this impression that there's something around the corner that we will not be able to handle. If done consistently, we begin to identify with this resisting, defending, controlling, and fearful self.
Altogether, this habit of inhabiting our minds instead of our bodies leave us feeling disconnected from the mystery and peace of our deepest nature. As D.H Lawrence puts it, we live "like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe."
So, how do we "plant ourselves again in the universe"?
The answer is Body Awareness. Body awareness or kinesthetic sense is the body's sense that collects information about our body’s position, movement, and felt state. It's the sense that puts us in touch with our body's natural movement and sensation.
There are numerous ways to develop and grow body awareness (e.g. physical exercise, conscious movement, most meditative practices ... ). Here I focus on the three pillars of my daily body awareness practice: body-part exercises, yoga, and meditation.
The first step is to observe the selected body part with full awareness, e.g. the hand. Raise your hand and slowly recognize the shape of your hand. Perceive the size of it. Identify the various edges. Recognize the different textures. Bring curiosity and tenderness to the observation.
Afterward, move this body part and focus on the sensations that arise from that movement. Start by moving it slowly up and down and then side to side. Feel the position shifting, the air resistance against your body, and which muscles are contracting. Experiment around with different directions, speeds, and strengths.
Finally, use touch to rediscover the different sensations and textures in this body part. Explore the outer sensations such as the different shapes, edges, forms, and textures. But also the inner sensations of being touched, such as pressure, heat, pleasure, tingling, numbness. Play around with different speeds and strengths
In yoga exercise, the practitioner is encouraged to always be aware of how the body is positioned in space. With constant repetition, this creates new neural pathways that improve the ability to sense where and how movement is taking place (e.g. Studies 3,4).
In particular, Yin Yoga is a slow-paced passive style of yoga that combines breath work with stretches and static postures. Rooted in Taoist Yoga, the majority of the poses are performed seated on the floor or laying down and are held for longer periods, between 3 - 5 minutes.
An important difference between yang and yin yoga is that the latest's targets the deeper layers of the body, in particular the connective tissues - tendons, fasciae, and ligaments. This not only increases circulation in the joints (protecting them) but also improving the body's flexibility.
Lastly, body awareness meditations are often underestimated, yet they offer a simple effective way to deepen our connection with our body (e.g. Studies 5,6). The basics? Slowly move your attention throughout your body and assess how each part of the body FEELS. What parts of the body were the easiest to feel? Which ones were the most difficult? First focus on the parts of your body where you can feel sensations most easily, like the hands or feet. This will help you strengthen your awareness.
Then, slowly move to other parts of the body, like the arms or legs. And if you can't feel them right away, it is ok, go back to the parts of the body that you can feel. With time, as body awareness develops, so will your relationship with each body part.
Finally, you will see that once you start giving attention to your body, most of the emotional knots that have been somatized in there will untangle themselves. According to Donohue, "when we are in rhythm with our own nature, things flow and balance naturally. Every fragment does not have to be relocated, reordered; things cohere and fit according to their deeper impulse and instinct." So, make it a daily practice to be mindful of how your body feels and moves throughout the day.