Do you find you get so caught up in what's going on in your head that you forget to think about your body? Lots of us do. But being aware of your body and the sensations you feel in the present moment—what's known as "embodiment" or "embodied awareness"—is crucial for mental and physical health.
Many therapies that address the mind and mental health are now recognizing the need to bring embodied awareness into practices and its importance in achieving true relaxation.
A recent study of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—a widely accepted talking therapy for anxiety, panic attacks, depression, eating disorders and other mental health issues—suggested that integrating CBT with embodiment practices can improve outcomes for a variety of emotional disorders.1
Central to embodied awareness is the idea that the mind and body are not distinct entities, but integrated and interactive. Indeed, although emotional trauma used to be addressed purely in the realms of the psychological, it's now recognized to have long-lasting effects on the body as well as the mind.
As Bessel van der Kolk writes in his book The Body Keeps the Score, "We remember trauma less with words and more with our feelings and bodies."
Learning to become more conscious of your body and how you feel in the here and now can help to alleviate stress, anxiety and depression. Research suggests that when you are lost in the anxiety of worrying thoughts and cut off from your inner body experience, you're more likely to experience mental distress.2
A focus on the breath is often used as an anchor in mindfulness and embodied practices because breathing is very real, holds you in the present moment and, for most people, is a neutral experience.
A useful breathing exercise is diaphragmatic breathing, or "belly breathing," where you focus on breathing into your belly rather than higher up into the chest. Shallower breathing into the chest tends to be associated with stressful states such as anxiety and can lead to tension in the upper body.
The following exercises are designed to be playful, physical, mindful practices to help you reconnect with your body.
They are floor-based, so you can be more fluid in your movement (you don't need to hold yourself up from the ground) and easily release any habitual tension that has crept in and become the norm from stress, trauma and postural issues (such as poor sitting or driving posture, or the way you hold your phone).
These movements may not seem like you are doing much, but they move deeply into tissues and create a meditative focus in the body. This is especially helpful for those with anxiety or those who may feel "locked in" with still meditation.
Fostering embodied awareness in this way also helps with coordination and what is often referred to as "grace." If a person cannot access their lower brain and muscle memory—i.e. they are not embodied—they may move more awkwardly, from the higher brain—thinking into movement, rather than moving in an integrated way with the whole body involved.
Exercises for embodiment
Lie down comfortably with your legs bent, feet about hip-width apart and head supported so the chin tucks lightly into the throat. If you're tight in the lower back, place the feet wider, turn in the toes and drop the knees in toward each other. Find the foot placement where you don't need any effort to rest there.
- Place one hand on your belly, the other on your diaphragm at the lower ribs—where your shoulders and wrists can be fully comfortable. Tune into the movement of your breath at your belly; the rise on the inhale, fall on the exhale and any changes in breath that this awareness creates.
- Release your lower jaw to allow any tension in the jaw and neck to soften, and relax your upper body down through the whole diaphragm area. Allow the movement of the breath into the front, sides and back of the diaphragm, sighing out or expressing any noises that create a sense of release and emptying out with the exhalation.
- Do this breathing exercise for 5-10 minutes whenever you can, or during times of stress to release tension.
- From your position on the floor, reach out each arm one at a time to yawn and stretch, exploring this motion known as a pandiculation—where you contract tissues and then consciously release them to reset the nervous system via the sensory motor cortex or "brain map." This is the region that communicates to particular body areas and muscles.
- Animals pandiculate all throughout the day, which prepares them for normal sensing and moving, readying the brain and body for efficient functioning.
- Lying out straight, breathe here to settle into your whole body. Then on an exhale, let your head roll to one side, inhaling back to center. Just roll into an easy range of motion without pushing, so you feel opening space at the base of the skull.
- Change the breath pattern, so you inhale while moving the head to one side, reaching the opposite arm out from the body at about 45° from the hip.
- Exhale back to center, releasing fully, and move to the other side, so that you alternately reach down from the side of the neck to the fingers, in this motion that has a pandiculating affect.
- Bend the legs back up again, with feet as wide apart as a yoga mat, arms reaching above the shoulders where the hands can fully drop. On an inhalation, let the knees roll to one side, head to the other, rolling over the sides of the feet.
- Exhale back to center and follow this motion side to side, guided by the natural pace of your breath and full exhalations. This creates a spine undulation, where inhaling opens the chest as the lungs fill, and the emptying of the exhale decompresses back to the center line.
- At the center, walk the feet back hip-width apart and extend the arms out at shoulder height. As you inhale, arch the back to open the chest (tailbone moving toward the ground), and as you exhale, let the belly and chest drop (tailbone rises off the floor).
- Add in the arm movements to follow the motion of the ribs as you breathe. As the waist lifts with the inhale, turn both arms from deep into the shoulders to rotate them toward the head, thumbs toward the ground. As the waist moves to the ground with the exhale, turn the arms in the opposite direction, away from the head with palms to the ground and even further around.
- Let the head move up and down as feels natural and just move in as deeply as feels appropriate for each breath. This movement is a strong "lymphatic pump" around the diaphragm, so it gets fluids moving there to support immunity.
- Rest fully, comfortably, for a good few moments afterward to allow these effects to settle and become embedded into body tissues.
- Bring your knees up to your chest and hug around the top of your chest. Coming to this fetal pose lets your body know that you are safe, so that your breath can soften and soothe accordingly. Less room at the chest also brings awareness of the need to breathe into the diaphragm and belly. Roll around and massage with the hands in any way that feels good.
- Lengthen out the left leg and bend up the right, with arms about 45° out from the hips. On an inhalation, move the right knee over the midline into a twist, keeping the inside edge of the foot on the ground. Exhale the knee back to center, foot fully on the ground.
- Follow this rhythm on one side, arching into the lower back until it feels organic to reach the right arm along the ground from the shoulder as you inhale into the twist. Exhale back to fully relax, and during the reaching movements that follow, turn the head to look at the right hand. You can hold and stay in this position whenever it feels helpful to breathe and explore the sensations there.
- Move to the other side, taking time to start with the twist, so you only add in the reach when you have freed up the movement to do so. You may find you want to rush to the end, but take your time.
- Come back to the first side with right foot on the ground and interlink your hands behind your head, elbows out to the side. Begin with the same twisting movement (inhaling in, exhaling back), now with more openness through the side ribs, chest and armpits.
- As you twist, slide the arms and ribcage to the right without lifting the left arm, so you come into a side stretch, opening the whole of the left side of the body. As you exhale the knee back to center, slide the arms and head back to the middle.
- As before, hold this position whenever it feels good to feel the rhythm of the breath and also notice the pandiculating effect of reaching through the side body in this way. Let yourself fully yawn and sigh out as feels good. Slowly move to the other side.
- Back with your feet on the ground, inhale with one knee out to the side, rolling fully onto the outer leg (so the other buttock is lifted) while the other leg stays rooted to the ground. Exhale back to center and inhale while taking the other leg out, so the pelvis turns fully as you move side to side. Let the head turn away from the leg coming out to the side and lift up through the heart as you inhale and the lungs fill.
- Let the leg coming out to the side fully lengthen and begin to move it up and down along the floor, dragging rather than lifting so you feel the resistance up into the hip. Moving the leg further into its full range of motion (like "angel wings" with the legs), you can turn the head away from the leg as it moves down to the center and toward the leg as it reaches out to the side.
- Feel free to play with any other motion there that feels right through your body and into any yawning and stretching pandiculations that it prompts.
- After the second side, come back to the diaphragmatic breathing at the start to feel the effects of the movements on body, breath and mind.