Most of us have innocently lost a conscious appreciation of a fundamental part of our human experience….our bodies.
In other words, we are barely aware that we live in a body exquisitely sensitive, communicative, mobile, graceful, erotic, emotionally expressive and alive from head to toe. Its language reflects important information about our emotional and spiritual state.
The body is often under severe stress and tension, mirroring the inner stresses and tensions we experience consciously and unconsciously.
In our rationally based culture, we live to great extent from the neck up. Our heads are often in a whirl of thoughts, fears, judgments, stories, fantasies, shame, anger, sadness. We forget to breathe and be still, to feel, to move…to be present.
There are times we may unconsciously disconnect from the body altogether to avoid feeling a painful experience we may be undergoing emotionally.
In already stressful times, additional tensions are created in the body and psyche by our cultural imperative to soldier on, in a stoic manner, in what’s considered a noble and responsible way. Until we break, or we break something else.
The body is an analog of our conscious and unconscious stress.
Our emotions express in the body through specific, pre-programmed, involuntary, instinctual, physical gestures. The physical gestures are choreographed from autonomicly driven contractions or tensions of muscles and nerves. These physical encoded gestures, show up subtly to overtly as frowns, tears, smiles, clenched fists, open arms, a knot in the throat and other involuntary movements. The body is an exact expression of what we are feeling, consciously and unconsciously.
All the fears, shames, angers and sorrows that our public persona tries to hide or repress, are still being expressed within the body. When we feel we have to hide our feelings, we are using opposing muscular tension to try to hold back the body’s natural expression of the emotion.
The panorama of things that may be going on within us unconsciously, has a tremendous influence on the posture, tone and tension in the body at amy given moment.
Most of us carry and are affected by negative stories, projections and self-judgments that are playing out routinely in our unconscious. These were mostly formed in early childhood at critical junctures in our emotional and psychological development.
These unconscious beliefs about ourselves can generate strong emotions, when triggered by situations or other people that in some way represent that first wounding. When we try to hide what we are feeling, by trying to “mask” what we are feeling, our bodies hold these withheld and hidden stories/beliefs/emotions as muscular tension in specific places in the body.
We learned in early childhood how to cover up the feelings these generally negative to very harsh unconscious beliefs about ourselves created in our inner mythos. We learned to “armor” our emotions and our bodies, to hide what we felt, and defend against discovery of what we truly felt.
We experienced that showing our feelings in certain situations could meet with disapproval, punishment and rejection, or for some, more severe consequences.
Our efforts to hide or mask what we are feeling is a physical act.
Tensions in the jaw, throat, shoulders, over the heart, the belly, tell the same story as the tension-filled drama playing out in the unconscious. A common story for many of us bears the unconscious message…”you’re not good enough or smart enough or attractive enough or brave enough.”
These negative self-judgments are alive in our bodies, as well as our unconscious. The body is the physical version of the story and the dark emotions we might feel about ourselves. The self-judgments show up in our body as tensions and discomfort if not pain.
Our bodies can be physically traumatized daily in our self-judgments. Accumulation of these tensions over many years can bring the pain to disease level.
Our bodies are fraught with dis-ease…muscular, nervous system, bio-chemical tension.
From birth, our bodies are encoded with hundreds of physical gestures to represent what we are feeling in the emotional and unconscious aspects of our being. Smiling, frowning, crying, arms reaching out to be picked up, kicking our legs in anger, for example.
Gestures are added as we transform through the physical stages of growth. These developmental stages of transformation occur when we first start to crawl, when we stand erect, and at puberty. Along with these distinct physical transformations, there is a corresponding addition of emotional and psychological function, that coincides with these physical stages. Basically, our bodies and psychology go through the stages of the evolution of life on earth - crawling/ reptile, standing upright/mammal, puberty/hominid.
As we grow through these early stages of life and experience emotional trauma or suffering, we develop a protective psychological armoring, an attempt to protect us from further trauma. This armoring happens in the unconscious realm where the emotional trauma(wound) and the protection strategy(shadow) now reside. This armoring also happens in the body.
When we attempt to hide that we are afraid or anxious, sad, ashamed or angry, this triggers muscular tensions and contractions to cover-up the instinctive gestures these emotions would normally express through the body. These counter muscular tensions are added to our unconscious physical repertoire.
For example a small child’s arms instinctively open wide and it runs to mother when the child sees its mother enter the room. This is a programmed body language that is not taught. It is instinctive. It is fearless. It is joyful.
When a child’s natural exuberant, physical joy is traumatized, or isn’t met with a loving, safe response, it will begin to hold these joyful, open gestures back. The child’s unconscious protections will physically restrain the natural opening of the arms, or smiling brightly. This requires muscular exertion from opposing muscle groups to create a counter force against the instinctual gestures.
Over time, we accumulate scores of these restraints and tensions in our bodies to protect ourselves emotionally. We unconsciously hide what is true emotionally, literally bury it in the body. The body, over decades, can become misshapen, rigid, muscularly armored, atrophied.
The physical and emotional body are intimately connected. They are reflections of each other. The unconscious stores our judgmental projections about others and ourselves, and all the negative emotions associated with those judgments. It stores all the things about us that we hide or attempt to hide or deny about ourselves.
These internalized judgments can have a significant impact on our emotional and physical embodiment in any given moment.
Under acute distress, the emotions of fear, anger, sadness or shame can overwhelm the psychological and physical armor that hide them. The muscular ways we attempt to appear “normal” break down. Involuntarily, the body slumps, a foot taps rapidly, we avert our eyes, our throat tightens, stomach knots, we tear, blush, stiffen.
These physical gestures of our emotional truth, all involve specific muscles, nerves and bio-chemicals. Parts of us, our unconscious(shadow/protectors) try to protect and preserve our public persona and cover up things we don’t want others to know. It does so through counter muscular responses to hold back the true emotions another part of our unconscious is shaping our body into.
This generates tension in specific points in the body, where the emotion being held back. The emotion literally gets stuck in the temporary stand-off between the express gesture and the hide gesture.
Common tension points of stuck emotions are the shoulders, throat, jaw, neck, gut and over the heart.
If we get to a place of extreme distress, in the circumstances of our lives, the power of these stuck emotions, like a wall of water accumulating behind a dam, can burst thru the shadow-protector’s physical efforts to block them.
In that moment, the body is flooded with this held back emotion and moves uncontrollably into the body’s instinctive expression of the emotion. But under these circumstances, the gestures come out in an excessive outburst. We may “fly” into a rage, “break down” in tears,” tremble” in fear, “shrink” in shame, or shut down, disconnect and fall into a catatonic depression.
These intense moments in our lives are often an expression of a back-log of repressed emotion. They are released through exaggerated physical gestures. These explosions of emotion often have little to do with the immediate triggering event.
In the unconscious, our personal mythic stories are being played out. Many of our inner myths have a dark edge about the kind of person we REALLY are. The message of these myths is generally demoralizing. It can leave us rooted in fear, shame, anger and sadness.
One healing pathway to help resolve the inner conflicts we experience is to begin inquiring more deeply into our unconscious beliefs, personal myths and repressed emotions. This is especially important if we find ourselves hovering near the extreme edges of our emotions.
Talk therapy may offer some insight and perspective. But the power of the emotional content of the internal issues we face are almost always more potent than our rational perspective. Consequently, finding resolution of these types of tensions and conflicts, may require exploring more emotion and body centered approaches to healing core issues, such as depth psychology, bio-energetics, centered processes, or shadow-work facilitation to name a few.
Another powerful pathway can be to work directly through the body analog of the same issue.
While the emotionally charged negative judgments we carry unconsciously about others and ourselves does shape the emotional and physical body, it is also possible to shift the emotions and the unconscious stories at any moment directly through work at the body level.
More specifically through conscious movement, touch and stretching the body, we can literally “move” to a different POV with a different body state…and therefore feeling state. The emotions express through the body.
Developing a movement practice doesn’t change the facts or circumstances of our life now, or our past. But conscious breathing, movement, touch and stretching practices have the potential to shift our emotional/physical embodiment in a given moment and allow us to be more present.
Being present means we are not in our heads in thoughts and emotions about the future or past, or distracted, distressed and unable to focus. We are more alive and grounded in our body, our breath, and moving towards a state of joy or peace.
Most of the inner thoughts we get lost in, consumed by, are about the short-term future or the past. There is often nothing that can be done “right now” to resolve what we are locked onto. Yet these relentless thoughts are consuming precious moments of our life. All the judgments, worry, anger, sadness we may be stuck in, are keeping us in a disconnected state. We are not at our best to look deeply at what ever the issues are, that are keeping us from being present, nor are we able to enjoy, what may be a deliciously fulfilling moment that might be right in front of us.
To illustrate some aspects of how a movement practice can help shift attention away from the head and to a state of presence, I will give examples from a male client I have worked with.
R began seeing me to learn what was holding him back from the deep intimacy and physical connection he and his partner sought to have with each other.
He acknowledged that he felt fear, shame and embarrassment about the awkward, unsycopated movements in his body when he intimately or sensuously touched, danced with or massaged his partner.
In essence, he led with his fear, shame and embarrassment, rather than his masculine core. The masculine in dance or movement leads, advances and engages in a way that is compelling, but not bullying. The feminine follows. This is regardless of biological gender.
From our earlier discussions, I learned how R was ridiculed, criticized and beaten down by his father, starting in early childhood. He wasn’t tough enough or he was a “momma’s boy”. The father acted in the same critical, abusive manner to R’s mother. R developed a deep devotion to his mother in a number of unconscious ways. It led him to make an internal vow to never treat his partners with anything that resembled anger. In fact he went out of his way…overboard…to make sure he never “hurt” a woman by showing his anger.
R’s relationships as an adult always revolved around him being like a sweet, anxious puppy around women. He had resolved as a boy to never treat a woman as his father had.
Additionally, the fear and unconscious belief or internal messages he took in from his father….that he was not good enough, strong enough, man enough, lovable enough… had manifested deeply in his body. Both in armoring it and in limiting his natural instinctive movements.
What he experienced in his unconscious beliefs showed up in his body. He was for the most part not consciously in his body. He was unconsciously in his body and it reflected the fear at the core of his inner life through his timid withheld movements.
I put some music on, with a good soulful beat. I had R sit on the floor and begin by just connecting to the music, taking long slow breaths, while sitting still. I suggested he start from there and let his body move how it wanted to move, and see where it led. I gave him ten minutes alone to try to find what his body wanted to do uninhibitedly…to find his personal dance.
When I returned, R still sat on the floor. The music had a long slow groove. His arms were jabbing and punching the air in a herky-jerky motion with dozens of movements. He looked uncoordinated, gangly and out of rhythm. His head bobbed similarly. The rest of his body sat rigid.
I had R stand and add the rest of his body to his dance. I encouraged him make his movements more pronounced.
While he had been sitting in his jittery dance, when I first entered the room, I had sat down back to back with R. At first, my intention was to use my body to guide R’s body into a slow, smooth synchronization with the beat. This had no effect. R’s body stayed steady in its off-beat dance.
I then tried to “listen” to R’s body, sitting still against R’s back, letting his back muscles move mine in synch with his.
It was quite startling to feel the way his body was moving. I thought I might begin to feel some groove R’s body was in. But all his movements felt random to me and not connected to the music.
It was of course quite meaningful to him. But it was like his body was hampered by weights, harnesses and restraints that distorted his body’s movements.
I was witnessing, I believed, a shadow counterpart to the natural movement of the body as it dances its personal dance. I define the “personal dance” as how the body will move when it is free from all the tensions stored all over the body, and when it begins to shed years of stored or kinetic, physical energy and movement. In the first stage of the shadow dance the movements burst from the body like a tripped spring. Other parts of the body may still remain frozen solid, taking longer to thaw.
For someone who has been severely disconnected form their bodies for decades, this shadow dance isn’t capable of being on the beat or in rhythm or graceful. If given the freedom, permission and a safe place, the body, after years of being tightened down, can uncork like a volcano, spewing in every direction. Chunks of anger, fear, sorrow, and shame flying everywhere. With some intention and awareness, these movements can shift from unconscious, spontaneous releases of physical tension to the conscious punching, swinging, jumping, shrinking, convulsing aspects of anger or fear, sadness or shame. Then these movements can become more like a controlled release of numerous stored emotions and physical tensions.
The body also does something similar in an uncontrolled release in emotionally unsafe ways. When we “blow our tops, punch the wall, slam our fist down on the table, scream red-in-the-face invectives, or throw ourselves down on the bed in uncontrollable sobs.
Developing a practice learning to release these physical tensions in a healthy way can allow us to be more present and grounded in our bodies.
The practice I use, I call MyYoga .
MyYoga is personal. It is your own unique movements, guided by “listening” to your body as you move. Whenever your movements lead you to notice a strain in a muscle, you can learn to use specific movements to stretch, compress and release the tension in that spot.
It is related to the idea of the personal dance, but is more intentional in terms of helping you to be more present and releasing muscular tension. In other words, more like yoga (stretching postures) or tai chi (movement).
Yoga consists of precise individual asanas or postures designed for a specific set of muscles to be stretched. A pre-programmed, piece by piece and localized workout for the body. This is similar to Tai Chi as well.
MyYoga is fluid and personal. There is no disruption between postures. The flow of movement is seamless. Besides being an all-over tonification and conscious connection to the body, it can work with precision when you locate a tension in some part of your body. MyYoga deploys a wide range of self-directed movements and counter-movements, adding or subtracting parts of the body you are moving, and the speed, rotation, direction, and depth of the movements. With the amazing number of parts of the body you can move, the infinite array of movements available, that you can be standing, sitting, kneeling laying down, allows you to home-in on the precise movement and posture to reach even the most difficult places in the body, and start to release the tension in the muscles there. Recall these are not only strains in the muscle. They can also be stored emotions whose natural physical expression has been physically held back. Using MyYoga to start opening these channels can support emotional healing and release as well.
You will know how to move by “listening” to your body. Improving as a good listener is a powerful act in itself in all levels of communication, and another high-impact tool to getting present. By listening deeply and observing closely, you are disconnecting from the frenzied chatter and agenda of the ego-mind. By listening instead of thinking, already judging what is being said, and focusing on your own response, you are moving towards a state of being present.
In MyYoga, as you move, you keep all attention on what you feel in your body. If you find your mind wandering off, come back to observation of what you feel in your body, in any of the movements you are making. This focus on your body is rewarded with a conscious, stimulating, soothing connection to this amazing and significant part of your being.
Allow yourself to just observe. Notice anywhere you feel something. When you observe any strain as you move, experiment with that area. Slow the movement down, shorten strokes, rotations, go back and forth, in and out of the strain, in smaller and smaller movements, to further distill movements that stretch or compress the area. You can add counter-movements with other parts of the body. Explore it further with micro movements. What decreases or increases the tension. What movements stretch or compress it further.
Just listening to and exploring your body this way is a powerful technique to begin to gain more awareness and appreciation that you DO have a body. And it is amazing how versatile, complex, expressive and informative the body can be. And how large a role it plays in your life.
You never stop moving during a MyYoga session. The movement is intuitive and spontaneous. You are not thinking about how to move, “you” are observing how your body wants to and can move. Movement makes the body come alive. And you begin to feel alive. Feeling alive means you are feeling your body. And also feeling your emotions honestly and authentically, or moving past that emotion to one connected with your intention and natural body-state of joy.
If you had been in stories in your head beforehand that resulted in your body being in a state of worry, fear, sadness or anger, movement can literally shift those feelings from the body. In its place your body will have moved on to a state that is more calm, less tense, and your awareness will contain less worry and doubt. You may start to become aware of the feeling of being grounded or more deeply connected to your body.
Whatever the method, I encourage you to develop some conscious intention and practice that helps you connect with your body in deeper ways. Your body will reward you with the amazing array of ways it can express the profound experience of your life. Develop this practice with your partners and you will both experience the rich enlivened awareness and intimate connections available in every moment you are together.