I remember the first time somebody asked me what was happening in my body and I had no idea what they meant. I mean, on a conceptual level I understood that they wanted me to somehow check in with myself in an embodied way somehow…, but in practice, I did not know how to do that. What was I looking for? Something profound? Something subtle? A feeling? A sensation? Some other kind of signal or experience? Was I looking for something throughout my whole body, or just in one place?? My mind was so busy thinking about my body, that I could not even begin to be in my body–and this makes sense given the culture I live in!
Most of us Westerners are conditioned to operate in a cognitive space most, if not all, of the time. Being aware and in tune with what is happening within the body is not something we are used to being asked to do, but there are ways to learn and practice bringing more awareness to our bodies, and operating from a more holistic body-mind space.
Over time, I have learned some really accessible ways to practice body awareness that have not only helped me strengthen my ability to check in when asked, but also my ability to be more in my body and less in my head, and to trust the wisdom my body-mind offers. I will share a few of these practices here.
but before we get into our bodies….
It’s important to talk about safe embodiment. If we have trauma, sometimes it can be hard to go into or be in our bodies. But this is not always the case for everyone! In either case, it is helpful to have a reliable way to ground and find a sense of safety before going into the body. That way, if anything comes up that feels like it is out of our window of tolerance, we can pull ourselves back to the present moment. This might look like:
an affirmation or mantra that we can say to ourself
a breathing exercise (ex: box breathing, or 4-7-8 breathing)
a check-in with our five senses (ex: 5-4-3-2-1)
holding a comforting object, or looking at a special photo
or anything else that helps you feel safe and grounded!
What is most important is that you have a technique that works for you! If you are feeling uncertain about your ability to ground, but are interested in doing some embodied work, I encourage you to talk to your therapist about trying out some practices in session together. That way, you have support with you right there if you need it.
5 Ways to Practice Body Awareness
1. Where is basic aliveness?
When we are just beginning to get to know our bodies, it can be helpful to start with sensations that we are familiar with. Two great ones that everybody has are the breath and the heartbeat. Chose one to be with at a time, and ask yourself the following questions:
Begin by taking three deep breaths with full attention. Allow your breath to return to a resting pace while holding your attention there.Notice, how do you know you are breathing? Perhaps you hear a gentle “whooshing” sound as you inhale and exhale. Perhaps you feel the cool air as you inhale, and the warmth as you exhale. Maybe you feel a rhythmic rise and fall in your chest or torso.
Ask yourself, does my breathing feel deep or shallow? Easeful or labored? Open and expansive or tight and constricted? Does each breath feel similar to the last and even, or different and sporadic? Where else in my body do I notice a sign that I am breathing (ex: head, throat, arms, chest, stomach, pelvis, legs, feet).
Notice your heartbeat. You are welcome to place your hand on your heartspace if it would be helpful, or if you prefer, feel into that space in your chest. Now, noticing, how does your heartbeat feel? Light and restful, or heavy and pounding? Does each beat feel quick or slow? Do you notice the boom-boom, boom-boom double-beat quality to it?
Where in your body do you feel it beating the most? Perhaps towards the front of your chest, or maybe more in the center between your front and back body. Maybe you feel the beat stronger in your upper back. Where else in your body can you feel the pulse of your heartbeat (ex: head, lips, ears, throat, arms, hands, fingertips, torso, pelvis, legs, feet, toes)?
2. Labeling with sensation words
Having a wider range of words to describe our experience in our bodies can be a helpful way to create more space for exploring what is there. Here are some sensation words you can use to begin to expand your body awareness vocabulary:
Use this list however you would like! If you are looking for specific practices, here is one you could try:
Read over this list mindfully, one word at a time.
For every word, take a moment to see if any sensation or feeling in your body could be described that way right now.
If not, can you remember a time where you did feel that sensation, and can you bring to mind what that felt like. (ex: my arms feel jittery right now; I remember feeling a knot right in the middle of my stomach).
3. Using imagery to deepen our awareness and understanding
Some of us might be more visual than sensual, and have a hard time describing or feeling into sensations. You may find it easier to use imagery to describe what’s going on in your body. For example, does it feel like you have a hard metal coat of armor on your chest? Does it feel like there is a string attached to your shoulders holding them up tightly near your ears? Is there a thick, knotted rope in your stomach? Or a tiny kitten curled up in your heart purring as it sleeps?
This kind of imagery can provide a lot of information about what is happening in your body, and can be an easier way for some people to access body awareness. Some images might feel weird, or like they do not make sense. I invite you to notice these thoughts and judgements, and remind them that this is all practice, and that there is no right or wrong way to feel in our bodies!
4. Use movement and touch as ways to explore
If we are still having a hard time feeling into what is happening in our body while sitting still, or by trying to picture it, give movement or gentle touch a try! These are two ways our body can practice noticing and tracking sensations.
To experiment with movement, try waving your arms around for a few seconds, or taking a gentle and slow stretch. Right afterwards, notice if anything feels different than before you moved. Do you feel any energy in your arms? Are they tingly? Pulsing? Warm? Fluid? How else would you describe the sensation? Did you feel a gentle pull in the back of your legs when you reached down to touch your toes? Does your lower back feel more loose and open? Do you feel any tightness? Perhaps you notice other sensations in your legs as well.
To experiment with touch, try holding one hand on your cheek. Do you notice a change in temperature in your cheek? Does the pressure of your hand feel firm or gentle? Do you feel a tightness or looseness in your law? Take your hand away, and notice if there are any lingering sensations on the cheek where your hand just was. Did the temperature change? Is there any tingling, pulsing, or tenderness? What other sensation words do you notice?
5. Try it out: What does this emotion feel like?
So, now we have some tools to practice body awareness and embodiment. What do we do now? The next time you notice a strong emotion come up, I encourage you to pause and check in with your body, just as we practiced. Notice what sensations, thoughts or images come up. How would you label this experience in your body? Where do you notice the strongest sensations? What image comes to mind? Does this experience feel new or familiar?
You might become aware of many sensations at once, only notice one or two sensations or images, or maybe you do not feel anything in your body at all. All of these experiences are equally valid, and equally useful! There is no one way to experience our body, so we can make room for, and honor each and every one of our experiences.
And finally, always remember to offer yourself and your body acknowledgement and/or gratitude for taking the time to check in, and for building a new way of communicating and being with yourself. This is hard work, and it takes time and practice to get used to being in our bodies, especially when uncomfortable sensations come up. Practicing regularly can help us build an aware alliance with our somatic selves. This can teach and empower us to be more authentic with ourselves and others, identify our own wants and needs, practice self-care, learn to trust our bodies, and heal our whole selves, like we deserve.
Sending you lots of warmth,