Our bodies are a living expression of our minds. From the communication of emotions through facial expressions and posture to the physical manifestation of more complex psychological issues that can influence our experience of life and play into our injuries or sickness, the body constantly signals the presence of the mind.
Being mindful of how we carry our experience of life in our bodies can complement a focus on healthy diet and physical exercise in promoting holistic health. This kind of focus on the mind-body relationship is fast gaining scientific validation with the growth of the field of neuroscience. It is now clearer than ever before that by cultivating a greater awareness of how and where life experience lives in our bodies we have an exciting opportunity to improve physical, mental and emotional health, promote vitality and build emotional resilience.
There are many practical methods offered in The Mindful Body, for improving our sense of wellbeing, managing stress and building emotional strength. All it takes is pausing for a few conscious moments in the course of your day and applying body awareness in particular ways. In The Mindful Body these pauses are referred to as Mindful Body Moments. They can be as short as 30 seconds and used at any time you might wish to. The power of these short pauses to rewire our brains and help us shift even age-old emotional patterns is explained in The Mindful Body. I invite you now to try out the Mindful Body Moments that follow for a sense of what body mindfulness can offer to you.
Ground yourself in your body.
When you first meet someone you might shake hands in greeting. To enter the journey of getting to know your body, you are invited to extend a tactile kind of greeting to yourself. This is as if to say, ‘Hello, here you are and here I am with you’. From there the relationship can begin to develop.
Place your hands on your head. Find the place for each hand that feels best, such as front and back, or top and bottom, where the back of your neck meets your head. Or you can hold both sides of your head. Go with what feels right.
Observe the effects on your thoughts as you hold your head. Touch is an effective connector of mind and body and this connection can be experienced in an instant. Your skin feels alive, awakening your body senses, and paying attention to the sensations and thoughts arising from this exercise helps the busy day’s ‘to do’ list slip from your mind.
Touch is proven to decrease the physiological effects of stress and anxiety, lowering levels of stress hormones like cortisol, lowering blood pressure, and slowing heart rate. It is also found to strengthen the immune system. Nurturing touch stimulates the release of oxytocin, the ‘cuddle’ or ‘love’ hormone, which can relax and clear your mind.
How would it feel to hold yourself with the same support and care as you would hold a person you love? Here are some self-holding options for your exploration. They guide you to give attention to different parts of your body and provide you with constantly available ways to self-support. You could use any of them for stress relief, to provide comfort, or simply to connect with yourself and relax at the end of your day. Try them out to find the ones that you like best.
How and how long to hold
Steadily hold each position for a few seconds, initially, to get a feel for it. If the position resonates with you, hold for as long as feels nourishing. Breathe naturally as you do so. Some positions might feel amazing. Others not right for today. Hold with a firmness or gentleness that feels just right. As you hold, feel warmth and support from your hands. Feel the pulse of life beneath your skin. Wait for a natural shift, such as an organic deep breath or just a sense that you have held for long enough, to let you know when to move on or let go. Explore the holds that you like best and use your favourite holds regularly.
MESSAGE: ‘It’s all going to be OK.’
EFFECT: Almost instantly reduces stress, especially where there is mental agitation. Can clear your mind. Shifts your attention to your body senses and allows you to access feelings, which can provide insight into a given situation.
One hand gives the opposite trapezius muscle a squeeze. Hold this squeeze for a few breaths. (Your trapezius muscle is between your neck and shoulder and is a common area of tension.) Repeat on the other side. To end, use both hands to rub up and down the back of your neck and over your trapezius area a few times.
EFFECT: Can release your breathing and relieve the sense of carrying the world on your shoulders.
EFFECT: Raises oxytocin or ‘cuddle hormone’ levels. Helps you sense your personal boundaries.
Another alternative to achieve a similar result and increase a sense of self nurturing or self love, is hugging yourself. You can either follow your natural inclination to wrap your arms around your upper body, or you can slip your hands under your armpits to hold the sides of your ribcage. Relax your elbows at your sides as you hold the sides of your chest in this way.
EFFECT: Mothers and self-nurtures. Putting a hand on your heart while speaking also displays sincerity and can positively in uence how others respond to you.
EFFECT: Grounds you, energises your legs and encourages a feeling of ‘get up and go’.
After holding this position, you can sweep both hands down your legs, front and back, a few times to enhance the grounding and energising effect.
EFFECT: Centres, reminds of prayer so you can say a little prayer for yourself, too, while holding.
Change your posture, change your mind
Stating the obvious: When you feel down, your posture slumps and your head hangs low. Even if you fight it, when you are feeling low your impulse is to stoop your body in a downward direction. What might not be as obvious is that your posture can
also perpetuate, or cause you to feel, a certain way and that changing your posture can change your mood and mind. Richard Petty, Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University, explains that the brain has areas that reflect feelings such as confidence, and when the specific area is triggered it is difficult to tell the difference between natural confidence and temporary confidence as a result of standing up straight. The brain responds in the same way to both. So your confidence can make you stand upright and standing upright can create confidence. The same applies to smiling. You can feel happy and smile naturally and you can smile to make you feel happier. Choosing to smile is seen to yield the same warm effects as smiling naturally, such as increasing ‘feel-good’ hormones like endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, reducing the stress hormone cortisol, increasing relaxation and increasing the sense of pleasure in doing a task.
Try it out for yourself. First try smiling for its own sake, and track how your body responds. Stay with this awareness for a few moments and absorb the feelings. Then, releasing your smile, stand or sit in a slouched position and look downwards. How do you feel now, and what kinds of thoughts spring to mind? Notice this for a few moments. Finally, try standing or sitting in an upright position with your chest open and your chin up. How do you feel now, and what kinds of thoughts and memories arrive? Experimenting with your body in these ways can give you a sense of how changing your body can change your mind, your mood and your outlook. Different postures also change you physiologically, influencing things like muscle tension, quality of breathing, blood flow, heart rate and digestion, which all contribute to the shifts in how you feel.
Harvard University researcher Amy Cuddy suggests that adopting ‘high power’ body positions for just two minutes at a time significantly boosts testosterone levels and lowers cortisol levels. The result is increased sense of confidence with reduced sense of stress or anxiety. A ‘high power’ pose is an upright, open body position (such as standing with hands on hips and head held high like a superhero).
Discovering how quickly and easily we can influence how we feel and think, simply by changing our posture or moving differently, is empowering.
Build inner peace through creative visualisation
Visualisation is another helpful tool that can shift how we feel and think. Here is an example of applying visualization to increase your sense of inner peace. You can use it at any time you might wish and turn it into a ‘Mindful Body Moment’ in the following way.
To start with, find an image that conjures peaceful, comforting feelings. You might imagine someone who represents loving care and support for you, such as a loving, supportive person in your life or an image of a person from a film or book that represents the qualities for you of comfort and support and whose presence you find warm and soothing. Some might wish to choose a meaningful spiritual figure or if you prefer a favourite beautiful scene in nature that feels soothing and supportive. Find the image that works for you. Once you have chosen your image, hold it in mind. Notice your image arriving and growing in your awareness and how it might shift your feelings. Let its presence continue to grow to feel strong and warm.
To turn this into a Mindful Body Moment, allow the feelings to seep into your body and being as much as you can. To help with this you might imagine breathing the image into and through you. Even if you can only allow a little bit in, let that little bit feed you. You might imagine what your life could feel like if this warm, soothing presence was with you more often. How might this make your life different? Or if you felt even a little more peaceful and comforted inside yourself, how might it influence a situation or decision that you face now?
Staying with the feelings, consider if there is a part of your body where the experience seems most noticeable, such as in your heart area or your arms or perhaps a warmth in your throat or head area. If you find a place, focus there for a few moments or stay with a general sense of inner peace if you prefer. Allow your posture to be influenced so that your posture reflects your greater sense of internal comfort or inner peace. With this
Stay with this posture for a few more moments, perhaps 30 seconds, in which you consciously breathe into your new posture and sense of self and allow it to really register in your brain and being. Then, as you feel ready, move back out into your day.
This is an edited extract from The Mindful Body by Noa Belling (Rockpool Publishing)