Our bodies hold vast intelligence. While we often think of our feelings, emotions and processing capacity as being in our minds, in fact our bodies also respond in powerful, intuitive ways to every aspect of our experience. Our minds and bodies are inextricably interconnected.
This awareness of the mind-body connection is integral to ancient Eastern healing traditions and indigenous knowledge in cultures around the world. And it’s also becoming increasingly understood in the West. Cutting-edge neurobiology and trauma research by practitioners such as Peter Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing Therapy, and Bessel Van der Kolk has shown that thanks to direct communication between the brain and nervous system and our organs, the physical and emotional aspects of our experiences are interwoven. Our minds have a direct influence on our bodies, and vice versa.
This understanding has important implications for our mental and physical wellbeing. Working with the mind-body connection not only helps us to heal from trauma, but also increases our capacity to deal with stress and anxiety, improves cognitive function and emotional regulation and supports digestion, immune health and sleep.
Attuning to our bodies
Attuning to our somatic experience is a wonderful way to increase mind-body awareness. Our bodies are a rich and reliable source of information. We all have inbuilt physical signals for tiredness, stress, excitement and so on, but we often disconnect from these. Learning to understand our bodies’ signals can improve our emotional awareness and support our mental and physical equilibrium.
Emotions all have a physical impact within our bodies. For instance, fear is often accompanied by a tightening sensation of the stomach, raised heartbeat has and faster, shallower breathing, while happiness may bring sensations of expansive breathing, more easeful movement and relaxation of our facial muscles and jaw.
Attuning to these sensations can help us to better understand what we’re feeling and to respond in healthier ways. Emotions often register faster and more reliably in the body than in our minds, which can be skewed by our thoughts. For instance, you may notice that anxiety manifests physically through tension in your chest and a sinking feeling in your stomach. By paying attention to your inner sensations, you can start to become aware sooner when you’re feeling anxious. Awareness of these physical cues can help us to avoid being unconsciously hijacked by our emotions, and to take positive steps to regulate our response.
This process also works both ways. Just as emotions evoke physical sensations, physical sensations can evoke corresponding emotions. For instance, wrapping a blanket around yourself on a cold day can translate from a physical feeling of comfort to an emotional sense of security and happiness. And healthy and supportive body work – from a soothing massage to an uplifting run in the park or calming breathing exercises – creates chemical changes in our bodies that positively influence our emotional state.
These somatic resources can help us to regulate when we’re experiencing stress and anxiety and create positive feelings of safety, comfort and relaxation. Attuning to our physical experience also helps us to align with the natural rhythm and needs of our bodies. This allows us to be more guided by our bodies’ innate intelligence, rather than prioritising only the push and pull of our minds, or external demands.
A somatic awareness practice
Connecting to our bodies is an inner journey of self-discovery. Paying attention to our somatic experience with love and curiosity is an organic path to developing greater awareness and living in integrity with ourselves.
The following practice is a great resource for learning the language of your own body.
1. Find a comfortable, seated position.
2. Close your eyes and take some slow, steady breaths. Notice the connection between your body, the chair and the floor.
3. Begin to scan slowly through your body, noticing the sensations in each part. If you’re feeling an emotion, observe how it manifests physically for you.
4. Describe your physical sensations silently to yourself in words, noting any colours, shapes or visual imagery that you associate with the sensations.
5. Try to observe the sensations without judging or resisting them. If some of the sensations are uncomfortable or intense, move your attention between these and others that feel more pleasant.
6. Notice how the sensations shift as you continue to observe them.
7. Does your body feel like it needs any kind of movement, release or resource? If so, what might that be?
8. When you’re ready to complete the practice, take a moment to feel gratitude for your body.
9. Take a few deeper and fuller breaths, then slowly open your eyes.
Practice this technique for a few minutes each day, and gradually build up over time. With regular practice, you will naturally become more aware of your somatic state as you go about your daily life, and will reap the benefits.