Breath, Meet body.
Yeah, yeah, it’s me and that whole breathing thing again. This time we are going to engage the rest of you, as well. This is advanced breathing (I know; you thought you were already an advanced breather, having done so successfully for more than 20 years, right?), so make sure you've taken Breathing 101 (in the last post) before you try to register. Otherwise you'll have to wait in line all over again.
The goal is to quiet our minds and reacquaint ourselves with our bodies: that’s where the answers are, where peace is found, and where the truth lives. Becoming less cognitive and more embodied will change your life in ways that seem impossible and unrelated to the endeavor. It’s counter-intuitive, right? After all, isn’t our ability to think critically the reason we can solve problems? No, no it’s not. Nope. I mean, if one is talking about algebra problems, then, yes, absolutely; that’s a cognitive job. But the existential problems, the path to our fullest happiness, the reasons and remedies for anxiety and sadness -- those answers are all in your body. For that very reason, it is important to note here that those of us with significant trauma histories may want to practice going into our bodies with the support and direction of a therapist before engaging in somatic exercises alone, because trauma is locked in the body. As a result, going deeply into one’s body can be destabilizing if there is a lot of injury hidden away. So be gentle, go slowly, and don’t go solo if you have deep wounds under your skin. That said, as much as it may hurt when you first get in, locating that pain and experiencing it is the only way out. We cannot think ourselves out of emotional wounds; we have to feel our way out. And your brain isn’t much help in that area. It will misguide you, tell you that the source of your distress is right in front of you, when that distress may, in fact, be old content. You’ve heard the word: triggered. One is triggered when something in the present reminds your emotional memory of something from the past, and your lazy ass brain just shoots a metaphoric dart at whatever is closest, convincing you that you should freak the f*&k out RIGHT NOW. Next thing you know, you're panicked or grief stricken and not sure why but you bet it’s your partner/coworker/friend/crazy self who is making you feel shitty. That’s what your left brain will tell you. Your prefrontal cortex doesn’t even have to get out of its seat. It’s all, “What? You feel bad? Well…[looks around and points]…it must be them!” Your body, however, knows what’s up. And when you can choose to go inside and shut off the spinning in your mind, you will eventually find the roots of your pain, allowing you to make contact with them, uproot them, and plant instead clarity, peace, and, ultimately, expansive joy.
I know, it sounds like a crock of s*&t. But I’m here to tell you: it’s true. I watch it happen for my clients, and it’s happened for me. I still do these exercises almost every day, because, again, it’s a practice. One doesn’t get into their body and say, “Okay. Did it! Now what?!” The questions and answers are endless and fluid. There is always more to know about yourself, more to feel, more room to grow. And you, my lucky friend, can start RIGHT NOW. Be your best self. Live your life fully. Feel what is real. And when in doubt, remind yourself: the body keeps the score. Always.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Even if you master this exercise, you won’t suddenly reach nirvana. But you won’t reach nirvana without getting into your body, and this practice is one yellow brick on that road. What practice, you ask? Why, the Breath-Body Mindfulness Exercise, I say. Wanna do it? Come on. All the cool kids are. It’ll make you feel good. What’s the matter? Your mom won’t let you? Chicken!
If my peer pressure isn’t working, good. I have a better reason for you to give it a try: you deserve it. So there.
Below I have outlined in specific, step-by-step detail the Breath-Body Mindfulness Exercise. Don't let my verbosity scare you. The exercise itself is much "easier" than these protracted directions imply. Usually, I like to explain, model, practice, and review these exercises in session. But if you aren't a client, and even if you are, you can absolutely learn this on your own. And remember, you. deserve. it.
Wait: Why Am I Doing This?
The purpose of this exercise is to help you become easily aware of and familiar with your somatic (body) sensations. This is a first step towards giving you the ability and choice to move out of your head and into your body. Remember, this is a practice. It is not a mastery endeavor, nor is it designed to catalyze some dramatic, transformative epiphany. Rather, this is the foundation on which you will build your mindfulness, and awareness as you move closer to a place of trustworthy instincts and intention.
Extra, bonus benefits include but are not limited to: overall relaxation (I do this particular exercise when I can’t sleep); a feeling of general well-being, and an excuse to hide from your roommates, partner, or coworkers for at least a few minutes. “Oh, wow, thanks, I’d love to watch that video of you dancing at Burning Man wearing only your fake, $800, salon-purchased, dreadlocks, but I’ve got to focus on my own body today. Next time, though!” (Read: pretty much never)
What If I Can’t Do It?
Oh, you can! You definitely can. It takes a little practice, though. Following these general guidelines should help:
Before you take on this exercise, make sure you have practiced the pranayama breathing exercise outlined in the last blog post as well the sensory and body scans outlined in sessions until they are easy to remember. If you aren’t a client, simply email me and I’ll send you one-page outlines of the scan exercises.
Remember to breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose (this is the opposite of the pranayama exercise).
Don’t analyze or judge yourself. No judging or analyzing. Oh, and also: don’t analyze or judge. Or judge and analyze. None of that.
Your mind will inevitably wander away from your breath and body from time to time. That’s totally normal! When you notice your focus moving from your body to other thoughts, gently acknowledge it, notice where your mind went, and then gently return your attention to the part of your body on which you’d been focused. I should mention here one very important point: no judging or analyzing.
Do I Have To Read This Whole Thing?
Well, you don’t have to do anything. While this will be a longer explanation than is required for most exercises, it is not a complex exercise. Once you’ve read the steps and practiced a few times, the process should become automatic. You won’t get greater benefits if you memorize the steps right away, so, all of you overachievers --- yeah, I’m talking to you; you know who you are – should remember that the idea is relaxation for yourself, not competition with yourself. Also, the exercise can be amended to make it super brief, allowing you to practice wherever, one body part at a time, whenever you have a couple minutes free, even if it means you don’t lie down. If you can do your whole body at once while reclined, that’s ideal. But don’t let time be prohibitive. Do a leg here, an arm there, hit your back while riding home – whatever will work for you.
Okay, Fine. So What Do I Do?
1. Find a place where you will be comfortable and where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Lie on your back on a bed, yoga mat, or floor, whichever is most comfortable.
2. For a few minutes, simply focus on your breath, on the expansions and contractions in your body. Just notice; don’t analyze or judge…. just notice.
3. Once you are in touch with your breathing, direct your attention to any and all physical sensations you feel. Notice any places where your body makes contact with itself or the bed or ground; notice any spot where there is pressure or discomfort. Really feel your body’s weight as it sinks into the bed or mat. Breathe in through your mouth and fill your belly, hold it for a moment, and as you exhale through your nose, feel your body sinking more and more deeply into the mattress or surface. Do this a few times. Really feel that sinking on your exhale.
4. Focus your attention on your lower abdomen. Become aware of the changes in your abdominal wall as you inhale and exhale. Again, don’t judge or analyze, just bring your attention to the place where your belly expands and contracts. Take a few minutes to feel the sensations as you breathe in and out.
5. Having connected with the sensations in your abdomen, and as you continue breathing, turn your focus to your left leg. Trace the sensations in your limb; notice what is tingly or tight, achy or light, but don’t try to do anything about it. Just ….say it with me…NOTICE. Really feel your left leg all the way down to the toes of your left foot. Check in on each individual left toe. You may notice the spots where your toes meet, or a cramp, some stiffness, or maybe you recognize nothing but the mass of your leg. No matter what you feel, just notice it with gentleness and curiosity.
6. You’ve practiced the breathing, and you’ve tuned into your leg: now we join them. I think it’s easiest if you read the steps first, then try them slowly while reading, and then try to do it while lying down without the notes:
a. Prepare for a deep inhale. Open your mouth and begin to gently and slowly pull in air.
b. While you inhale, picture the air making its way down your windpipe, into your bronchial tubes, around your lungs, and down to your abdomen.
c. As you are taking your last sips of air and holding them, picture the air making its way from your abdomen to your thigh, then to your shin, foot, and toes. Hold the air in your foot. See it there.
d. Prepare to exhale: picture that air coming back up from your foot, really see it moving up your leg. Then bring the air through your belly, lungs, and chest as you breathe out. Leave the awareness of your leg and foot behind. You are breathing away from it. Trace your breath as it pulls itself from toe to lips, leaving your leg heavy with relaxation.
7. Repeat this a few times just to get the hang of it.
8. Now check in with your foot – every inch. Notice your ankle, the top of your foot, the bones and joints. Note any sensations you feel. Is anything tight? Is any spot achy? If so, take a deep breath and send the air straight to the spot(s) that you’ve located. You don’t need to follow it down the windpipe and into your stomach; just send the breath straight to the spot in your foot. As you hold it, picture it relieving the tension or discomfort, picking it up, and taking it with your breath as you exhale.
9. THIS STEP IS PARTICULARLY CRITICAL AND DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHER EXERCISES (sorry to yell): As you exhale, really let go of your foot. As you pull the air from it, take your attention with you. Your foot should hang effortlessly, unnoticed. As the air travels up your left leg, continue breathing out through your nose, tracing your breath from calf to shin to knee to thigh, then finally to your belly and out through your nose into the air around you! Again, you may want to repeat this a few times before you move on to the rest of your body. When you almost can't feel your foot at all, when it's truly left behind, you are ready to move on.
10. From bottom to top, do the same with your shin, knee, and thigh, just as you did with your foot. Check in; find any spots of achiness or tightness; and send your breath to wherever you feel something.
Repeat steps 4 through 9 with every part of your body, one part at a time. Most importantly, maintain curiosity and gentle awareness of the sensations in each part: buttocks, back, belly, chest, arms, hands, shoulders, neck, head, and face. As best you can, give each part of your body the same methodical and gentle attention as you did your left leg. Inhale and trace the air for awareness, and exhale leaving behind the body part you have explored. Send the tightness out with your breath. I like to picture my exhale as black air, air that has pulled out the distress and releases it.
For those of you who don't feel like memorizing, here's a cheat sheet of the steps, using your back as an example:
Notice your breath and make sure you are breathing in through your mouth, into your expanding belly, and out through your nose.
Notice any sensations in your back. No judging, no censoring, just noticing.
Send your breath to your belly and then to your back, holding it there for a moment before exhaling. Trace your breath as it travels in and around your back.
As you exhale, picture the breath coming from your back to your belly, land then out through your lungs, and lips.
Scan your back for any spots that are tense, tight, achy, etc. With a deep inhale, send your breath straight to the tight spot. Hold it for a moment as it soothes the target.
Finally, pull your breath from your back, leaving your back behind. Send the air and any distress it has picked up out through your nose.
After you have "scanned" your entire physical self, using the steps for each body part, sit for a few minutes and notice your body as a whole. Notice the breath flowing freely in and out – don’t control your breath; just feel it. Try to remain still for a few moments. This is often the hardest part, at least for me. Once I’m done, I want to be, well, done. However, just as in yoga practice, many of the gains are consolidated during the stillness. So, if you have the time, lie (or sit) for 5 minutes (or one minute if that's all you have) and try to stay in your body.
Look! You read the whole thing! That’s enough brainwork for a while. Seems like a great time to give this whole body thing a try, no? And, yes, once you have this one down you can consider yourself a Remotely-Certified Breath Badass. You can put that on your resumé. No, really, if you don’t feel better afterwards, I’ll donate $5 to your favorite charity. Go ahead. TRY ME.