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Practicing Embodiment Is Changing My Mental Health + Can Change Yours, Too

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While we live in a world that is arguably more connected now than we’ve ever been, there are more and more things that keep us out of our bodies. It’s challenging to feel connected to ourselves when we have work to worry about, or are scrolling endlessly on our phones to distract ourselves from the stress of work-life, the political climate, or the actual climate doom we’re faced with.

We are also constantly fed stories about how we “should” be thinking about our bodies or how our bodies “should” look.  It’s hard to feel connected to ourselves when there’s so much that makes us want to disconnect. 

This may be because our bodies sometimes feel like a hard place to be in or we are told that we should put our mind over matter or mind over body. The way our language has been constructed over centuries tells us that the mind and body are two different things, but they are very much intertwined. Yearning to come back into our bodies holistically–be embodied–may just be the tool we all need for a less stressful, more connected, and grounded life.

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What is embodiment?

Embodiment is the practice of being present in our bodies and not just thinking of our bodies as something we have, but as something we are. It’s acknowledging that our minds and bodies are not separate. They are one and are working in tandem with one another, speaking to one another, and in collaboration to create our mental, emotional, and physical reality.

Once we sit with the reality that we are our bodies, we can also start to consider how our experience in our body is shaped by society and the experiences around us. Because our bodies exist within a social-cultural context, embodiment allows us to unearth all of the narratives we’ve been taught about our bodies such as how they are bad, or a thing that needs to be controlled, or an object that has to exist in a certain way. Embodiment is unlearning those ideas that we are taught to be truths.

How has embodiment changed my life?

As someone with a chronic illness, I tell a lot of stories to myself about my body. I have told myself that my body is broken, useless, or bad. As someone who was raised a woman in the cis, hetero-normative, patriarchal society, I have internalized narratives telling me that my body is better when it looks a certain way or tells me that I have to perform gender a certain way.

The truth is, we cannot shame ourselves into feeling better and these systems do not serve us. Perpetuating this negative inner narrative keeps me further away from my body and further away from wellness. Once I started to listen to my body and the cues it was sending me, I realized they were all trying to tell me something. My body is also never doing something because it is bad or broken, they are simply signs it needs care and compassion.

My body is sending me all the signals I need to listen to in order for me to take care of it, which has allowed me to move into a more gentle place in my chronic illness. Instead of thinking of my body as this separate object that is either good or bad, fixed or broken, embodiment has allowed me to pause with intention to listen to the signals my body is sending. It’s allowed me to treat my body as something I am in collaboration with, not something that is working against me.

What does embodiment look like in practice?

For me, embodiment has looked like being more mindful when I eat by not scrolling on my phone so I can listen to the cues my body is sending me about being full. It’s looked like taking moments in the middle of the day to notice my body and see if I need to shift the way I am sitting to be more comfortable because I tend to sit in discomfort without even noticing it.

When I notice a negative thought about my body pop into my brain, I ask myself: what system taught me this? Where did I learn this from? When I ask these questions, I can begin to unpack the reality that my body isn’t bad or broken; I was taught to believe it was. Once I find the root, I can begin to unearth it and plant a different, more compassionate thought. 

Another part of practicing embodiment and learning to inhabit myself is moving towards healing that is body-based. When many of us go to therapy, we often participate in more talkative-cognitive modalities, such as CBT or DBT, that allow us to really talk through what’s happened to us or what we are experiencing.

While those are valid, we are now learning that trauma is stored in the body and we may need different ways to heal. This can look like finding a practitioner who is trained in EMDR or Somatic Experiencing (go to the Inclusive Therapists database or Psychology Today to find a practitioner near you), which are more body-focused approaches.

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How can we practice embodiment?

Unearthing our inherited thoughts and actions of disembodiment doesn’t come easy, but there are steps we can take to begin this process. Psychologist and author, Dr. Hillary McBride, invites us to try the following exercise in her book, The Wisdom of Your Body, as your first introduction to embodiment. 

She writes, “Use your dominant hand to hold the forearm of your opposite hand in front of you. Imagine your dangling arm and hand as an object. You might use your dominant hand to jostle your non-dominant arm and hand around to see how your fingers move, flopping about.

Do your best to mentally categorize your hand and hand as a thing. Notice how they hang there, limp and motionless. Then, set your non-dominant hand onto your lap, as if it were a part of a machine being operated from the outside. Try to notice how this makes you feel. What would happen if you really started to think about your arm and hand this way?” 

Then, she then goes on to invite us to imagine our arm as ourselves, as an alive and conscious thing. She says, “You can decide how you would like to move your hand, [...] the movement comes from the inside out.” She suggests that when we think of our body parts as a part of a machine, an uneasiness may arise, but when we begin to move freely, it reminds us of our agency and the “pleasure of making choices about [our] own bodies.” 

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Try These Practical Embodiment Exercises

This can be a pretty heady exercise, especially if you are just now being introduced to the idea of embodiment. So here are some other practical embodiment exercises to try:

  • Start simple and do some mindful meditation. This may not be accessible for everyone, but there are great apps like Headspace that can help you take your first step into mindfulness and embodiment.

  • Reframe your next workout. Think about it as something you are doing to take care of yourself, not because someone told you you had to or because you think you “should.” Notice how it feels to move your body for enjoyment. Meditate on the agency you have over your body.

  • Take a dance class or turn on your favorite bop at home. There is nothing more embodied than fun, joyful movement. Don’t think about it too much. Just let yourself feel the music and move in spontaneous ways. Fun fact: dancing is a great way to relieve muscle tension or stress that’s held in the body.

  • Pause. Next time you are feeling angry, sad, or even excited, pause to notice the sensations that are coming up in your body. Where in the body do these sensations come up? Journal about what you are feeling.

  • Stay present. Notice how long you can stay present and mindful with something that brings you pleasure or joy before your attention floats off. Gently bring your attention back. Ask yourself: why do I want to be away from the experience of something pleasurable instead of present in it? What is it like to notice that? Can you let yourself sit in that pleasure for a moment longer? 

  • Prioritize self-pleasure. Notice what it is like to savor the sensations your body offers you. 

There are just a few ideas to help you become a present, embodied person with a few more tools to live a connected life.

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Ashley Rollins

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