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Guest Article: Start in the Body

May 01, 2020

 

A Voice Movement Therapists reflection on Psychologist Leonard Carr’s Article entitled “Hope for the Best. Be prepared for the worst”

During the early days of the CoVid 19 pandemic a number of people warned that we might also be faced with serious mental heath crisis. There is no doubt that five weeks into lockdown the pressure is having a significant impact on the mental health of many.  Esteemed clinical psychologist, Leonard Carr, responded early on with a most valuable and still relevant article entitled “Hope for the best. Be prepared for the worst”. In the article he clearly unpacks a number of the psychological aspects of the crisis and offers some insightful growth-focused ways of thinking about and responding to our current situation. Carr’s article spurred me on to respond in a parallel way from the perspective of the embodied modality of Voice Movement Therapy of which I am a practitioner. I hope that, through this article, I can provide you with a starting place, a first step towards deepening your sense of embodiment as a personal resource for well-being.

 

Deepening Our Understanding Of What We Are Experiencing  

 

In our attempt to find ways of coping with the stress and trauma of living during this pandemic we would do well to accept that the body and the mind are in fact one and the same, the bodymind. And so, any attempt to tend to our mental and emotional health demands not only a cognitive strategy but also, and equally importantly, an embodied one. Take a moment to close your eyes and remember a most joyous or beautiful moment in your life. Remember and imagine in a good amount of detail the settings, the sounds, smells, and the others who perhaps shared that moment with you. What you might notice is that your body, right now, tangibly responds to this positive memory and its associations by relaxing, releasing and expanding. The opposite is true if we think of a negative experience; the body will tighten, breathing will become more restricted and one will feel a tangible sense of contracting. As embodied beings we respond to our environment, quite basically, by contracting or expanding, by closing down or opening up; indeed not unlike a muscle on a seaside rock, or a snail in the garden.

 

At the moment many people are experiencing a phase of contraction. Fear, anxiety, anger, exhaustion and overwhelm are having a contracting effect on our bodies and on our minds.  So your muscles might feel tight and your throat tense, you may be clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth at night, you may be experiencing headaches or a change in heart rate. On the other hand you may feel a lack of strength in your body, your posture may express a sense of collapse or retreat.

 

One thing that is common to many as a result of this state of contraction, is restricted breathing. Breathing is either more shallow, rapid, or tighter or you may be unconsciously holding your breath. If we want to feel better, feel happier, positive and empowered then we must actively find ways of experiencing a sense of radiating expansion. There are a number of breathing techniques that I use with clients to de-stress, open the body, to nurture self-awareness and to integrate the bodymind; here is one that might be useful to you right now in inviting your body to enjoy an experience of expansion.

 

  • Imagine the most exquisite flower you have every seen or even imagined. Perhaps you remember been gifted such a flower or perhaps you spotted it on a nature walk. Have a clear image of this flower in your mind. Be specific about the colour and texture of the petals and think also about its fragrant smell. Now place your hand on your solar plexus area, that is the place just below your sternum bone where the ribs meet in the front of your body. Gently be in touch with this area with the tips of your fingers…. Now imagine that your exquisite flower, as a bud, is here in this solar plexus part of your body. And, as you inhale, allowing your body to relax and open up as you do so, the flower opens a little more until it is in full bloom. Give yourself some support in this experience by opening up the fingertips as you inhale so you can feel the sensation of the flower opening on your skin.

 

  • The second part of this imaginative breathing exercise is to tap into your sense of smell. You can choose to use the fragrant smell of your exquisite flower or you can think of your favourite or most pleasurable smell. This might be the smell of freshly baked bread, baked by your grandmother. Or it might be the smell of someone you love or loved. In any instance it should be a smell that you can’t get enough of. Now connect with this smell as you take a deep inhalation. Breathe in this pleasurable smell, as much of it as you can. And enjoy the somatic sensation of relaxation and expansion. Feel that even your nostrils, sinuses and respiratory passages open up.

 

When negative experiences result in a contraction of self; physically, mentally and spiritually, we can use breath, movement, imagination and embodied memories of positive experiences to facilitate a journey back towards an expanded sense of self.

 

Approaching self-care from an embodied perspective enables us to effectively re-establish our balance and nurture our well-being through listening to our body. Is my body in a state of contraction or expansion? What can I do to help myself expand?

 

  • When we tune in to what our body is telling us about how we are we can make mindful choices about what to allow into our bodymind and what to reject. For example if you come across something on social media that pulls you into a state of contraction, perhaps it is time to make the choice to take a sabbatical from that platform or group. The same might be true with individuals you are in contact with. Make the choice to listen to and act upon what your body is telling you about your well-being. The body never lies!

  

Bring Yourself Into The Present

Connecting more consciously with the body and its movement, the flow and rhythm of breath, the resonance of vocal sound, the sense of touch and smell, the sounds of people and nature around us, are essential to being able to be present in this moment. It is the body which connects us to time and space. At this time many people are either living in the nostalgia of how things used to be (often hoping things will go back to ‘normal’), or living in a state of fantasy of how the future might be. Both of these states, the past and the future, exist only in our imagination. Spending too much time in either serves only to detach you from the present, from yourself and the others who are in this moment with you and all the gifts and opportunities that are being offered to you right now. In other words, it is the embodied self that grounds us and provides us with the ability to find for ourselves a sense of safety and support.

 

Being in the present can be challenging. It requires us to quieten the mind and focus on connecting to the deeper layers of the self and our truth (including our difficult emotions) and at the same time to connect with the environment and people we find in front of us.  It is in being fully present that real connections are made with oneself and with others.

Being present requires us to be grounded. It also requires our senses to be alive and our hearts to be open to this moment.

  • In a standing position with bare feet, soften your ankles, your knees and your hips.
  • Now focus on a point in front of you. Zoom in on it. And then, as your breathing becomes more expansive, allow your focus to slowly open up and soften. See through ‘gentle eyes’ becoming ever more aware of your peripheral vision. Allow more of the space you are in to be incorporated. If you spend time softening and being with peripheral rather than sharp-focused sight for about 5 minutes your brain will go into more of a relaxed Alpha state.
  • From this open, relaxed and aware state allow your body to find some very gentle movement. Perhaps just a sway. Now become aware of the soles of your feet. Feel them in contact with the ground. Become aware of where you place the weight of your body on your feet. Is it more forward or backwards towards the heels for example. Or, do you favour the outside edges of the feet for support. Allow your weight to move around to explore the feeling. Now try to find a more neutral weight distribution on the feet.
  • Make sure your joints are soft. Feel the weight of your body.
  • Now imagine that your feet are in relationship with the ground. As if there is a personal meeting of your body and the ground. Feel the weight of your body in relationship with gravity – there is an equal and opposite force. Allowing your feet to move around, feel the stepping or shifting of weight as a meeting or connection with the ground and then a pushing away from the ground. In other words, find movement through smoothly pushing away from the ground through the feet. It may start to feel like a tender dance with the ground.
  • Become more aware of how this movement feels in the spine and in the rest of the body. Remember to keep breathing and the joints soft and feel your weight’s relationship with gravity. Allow your breath to open and expand gently as you enjoy the sensation of being supported by the ground.
  • When you come back to a neutral and still position find a sense of your body being a vertical column with energy moving both downwards into the ground and at the same time energy moving up through the body and then through crown of the head towards the sky.

 

When you feel yourself being knocked off centre and out of balance, or pulled into the contraction of anxiety or fear, bring yourself back into the grounded present moment. Right now I am breathing, I can smile, I can move and go outside, I can… (this or that) I have the time to… I have a voice… I am grateful for… I can see the clouds and feel the sun (or rain, or wind) on my skin. In this moment, this very moment, I am fine, neither the past nor the future exist. And then ask: can my next choice be one that supports my well-being? If something is not supporting your well-being and offering you a sense of expansion in some way it’s probably time to make different choices.

 

The Key To Well-Being Is Embodiment

 

If we can actively nurture a sense of embodiment in ourselves and are able to be present in the moment with an open heart and gentle eyes we will be better able to connect with and support those around us in this time of stress. We can only embrace change if we open and expand ourselves to the expereince of this moment. When we can find a more fluid, grounded and ‘breathed’ sense of self and being in timespace we can relax into the certainty of change. (The phenomenon of balance is achieved through movmement and not rigidity.)

 

One’s sense of well-being is ultimately a function of how grounded you are in the present moment. Self-care is nurtured in and through the body and the ever-deepening connection with the bodymind self it provides. If we listen carefully to those inner voices and to the truthful impulses in our bodies, if we can put aside our self-judgements, embarrassment and shame, we can feel the fundamental and ancient human instinct that invites us to dance and sing our selves and our souls through this. Play your favourite song, or one which matches your mood, and move your body, follow the impulses your body is providing you. Take a deep breath and sing the songs you love and need right now, sing them like YOU wrote them for this moment.  Your bodymind and soul will thank you.

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