A big part of my work as a strength coach and a movement instructor is to help my clients feel their bodies with more clarity and accuracy.
I might, for example, ask a client, “Can you squeeze your shoulder blades together? Can you feel your mid-back expand into the floor as you inhale? Can you lift your big toe? Can you press it into the ground?”
On the surface, my work with clients is about improving movement quality in order to assist strength and performance outcomes.
Below the surface, however, my work is about helping people get out of their heads in order to live more fully in and from their bodies.
This is no small endeavor in a culture whose economic structures, food structures, social structures, religious structures and even medical structures demand that we ignore and disavow our physical sensations and impulses.
During sessions clients often ask, “Why am I doing this? What muscles is this working? Am I doing it right?”
I often respond, “You tell me,” as an attempt to bring them back to their immediate embodied experience and away from their imagined ideas of what the experience should be.
I also often say, “Don’t overthink it. Movement is not an intellectual endeavor. Just keep going.” These reminders are as much for myself as for them, because the desire to bring the experience into cognition, to analyze it and tell stories about it is strong on both our parts.
Movement is an embodied practice. It is entirely experiential. Once we talk about it, movement ceases to be movement and instead becomes theory.
Life is a movement practice of its own, one that demands we keep going, keep experiencing no matter the intensity of it or our own confusion with it. Once we start thinking about it, life ceases to be life. Instead it becomes a story.
Can you feel your body as easily and as often as you think your thoughts?
Pause in this very moment. Can you identify the sensations inside you?
If you’ve never spent time consciously attending to yourself in this way, you might find it difficult or even impossible to identify specific sensations. That’s OK. Keep noticing anyway.
Do you feel tingles or twitches? Pulsing? Buzzing? Itchy? Fluttery? Full? Damp? Dull? Energized? Numb?
Can you feel multiple sensations at once? Do some contradict each other?
Your ability to notice, distinguish and, when needed, interpret body sensations is an essential tool for nourishing health and for creating a meaningful life that aligns with your highest values.
Here’s an example of how this might play out in practical terms:
Something triggers a hot balloon of shame to begin inflating inside you. The pressure is intense.
If you are not skilled in working with and through your body sensations you will likely look to your thoughts to explain the shame and its associated swell of hot pressure. You will create stories and solutions. You will look for someone or something to blame. You will get angry at a loved one or a stranger. You will go shopping or zone out while surfing the internet. You will eat everything in sight or you will eat nothing for days.
This mostly happens unconsciously, of course, and very quickly. It takes practice and patience to just begin noticing the ways in which we attempt to avoid feeling our body sensations.
When we become skilled, however, this situation might not prompt us as quickly into emergency action mode. Instead, we can notice the hot shame swelling. We can feel the pressure, knowing that we will not burst because of it. We can linger with it a little longer. We might cry, take a walk, read inspiring texts, talk it over with a trusted confidant. We can still take action, but that action can be supportive instead destructive. When we are aware of and comfortable with our body sensations, we can experience fully the most challenging of human feelings without piling on additional devastation. We can simply (and not so simply) let sensations run their course.
In her book, Living Well With Pain and Illness, mindfulness teacher Vidyamala Burch writes about how learning to be with her own body sensations has been an essential tool for helping her cope with chronic back pain that she has lived with for 40 years as a result of a traumatic accident and its subsequent surgeries. “I was using my mind to escape my experience. I was never giving myself to the earth beneath me. I was always pulling away from the earth, pulling away from my experience. It’s better to be embodied, because that’s a truer way of living than trying to continually escape the body. Do a body scan. Something will happen. Soften and let go down towards the earth, because the earth can receive all that stuff,” she said in an interview with Tami Simon.
It starts with noticing.
Check in with yourself during the day, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, and simply notice the sensations in your body. If giving words to the sensations helps you to notice them, do it. But do not create stories around the sensations about “why” they are happening. Do not label them “good” or “bad.”
As best you can, simply notice.
If you have the time and desire, take 5 minutes to devote yourself entirely to scanning your body and noticing sensations.
Sometimes our body sensations are telling us to take immediate action. A tensing in your belly tells you not to walk down that particular street. A stab in your knee tells you to stop running the marathon. An ache in your chest and reverberation down your left arm tells you to go to the hospital!
Most of the time, however, body sensations are not emergencies. They might be clues that illuminate the world around us or that guide us closer to ourselves. Or they might just simply exist for no particular reason at all. Sensations of every shade and sort go hand-in-hand with being alive.
Can you notice your body sensations during challenging situations. When you are stressed or sad? When a fellow driver is honking at you? When your kids are fighting? When your boss is lecturing?
Can you feel the sensations as they dance and wiggle and storm through you?
Can you allow those sensations to exist as part of your experience without trying to quell or control them?