Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Body Barometer to Emotional Health

When you feel overwhelmed or sad, where do you feel it in your body? Where do you feel it in your body when you feel excited, happy, confident?
What happens to your breathing in each of these states, or the way it feels around your heart, your head, your thoughts?

The amazing thing about our emotions is that they always have a physical component. Our bodies tell us how we feel. And our bodies often get their cues from the thoughts that are running through our minds at any given moment. If your body is feeling dejected and foggy, your thoughts probably are too.

Why is this important? Because once we start to notice this mind/body link, we can do something about it. If stress is making your heart race or if negative thoughts are making you slump over your desk, you can begin to ask--through the body's cues--if you'd like to be playing a different soundtrack in your head, one that would change the way it feels, literally, to be in your life.

It's an empowering moment when we realize that our body is actually taking in everything we think and believe and mirroring it back to us. But the opposite can also be true: if we can find a peaceful and open place in our bodies, we can often move ourselves to a different mental space, simply by shifting how the body is experiencing this moment. If you're feeling tight, tangled or foggy, take a deep breath and see if that changes your mental space. Give your body permission to unfurl, imagine itself on a beach in the sun, or take a few minutes to stretch and notice how the blood flow and movement affects you.

You can also do this experiment the other way around. Try thinking thoughts that are negative, judgmental and hopeless and watch what happens to your body: your posture, your breath, the sense of aliveness in the core of your body. Notice how this changes if you replace those thoughts with loving and open ones. How does your body respond?

Our bodies give us an important barometer not just for our physical but for our emotional health. They are like a litmus test for what we are doing to ourselves inside. If your body feels crappy, see where your mind is and try changing one or the other: with a different set of thoughts, a deep breath or a movement of opening that gets you away from your desk and into something more positive. Use your body as a reflection of your state of being and be willing to alter what's happening if it's not working for you.

Often we become aware of our dysfunctional reactions to life through our bodies first: the quickening of our pulse, heat, reddening. I will often ask clients to check in with their bodies in those moments to see if the reaction they're having feels helpful or defensive. One way to begin to shift our dysfunctional behaviors is to watch how the body experiences them and see if we can approach the same situation with a deep breath, with less charge and greater calm. Our bodies tell us when we're seeing red.

Try playing with using your body's cues to work with your emotions and your thoughts. If you notice tension or stress in your day, break down what thoughts might be creating your body's strong reaction and see if you can shift it. Alternatively, experiment with relaxing and opening the body as a way of relaxing and opening your mind and your perspective.

Our bodies and our minds are intimately connected and reflections of each other. The more we understand and appreciate this, the more we can use it to help us become healthier and more connected to the life we want to be living, the person we want to be living as.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Do Unto Others: The Body Ethic

When I was a kid, if I could get away with something, I usually did. I can remember being clever,doing my best to make something appear to not be my fault. As long as I succeeded at not being punished or noticed, it was as if my 'crime' didn't really exist.

Then a strange thing started to happen. Slowly, over time, I started to feel guilty anyway. It was as if I had--unbeknownst to myself--developed some kind of internal compass that told me when something wasn't right. Even if I got away with it, I still didn't feel good. Some niggling part of me knew it wasn't right, and that meant I needed to apologize, confess, or live with the consequences.

Now, all these years later, I realize that the way I knew something was 'bad' really was deeply rooted in the sensations in my body. A sludgy, slimy feeling would come over me that I couldn't escape unless I did the 'right' thing. I'd feel kind-of sick, distracted and dizzy. I could feel a weight over my heart and a feeling of darkness over my head.

These physical symbols had a doom-filled quality to them, and were unavoidable. I couldn't make them go away by talking myself out of them, telling myself I didn't do anything wrong. To this day, I can feel in my body in a spine-chilling way when I've stepped out of line with my own ethics. I've gotten better, maybe, at compartmentalizing so that I only feel the gross, slimy feeling when I think about the situation that created them. But my body's compass is still undeniable and very strong and clear.

The expression 'do unto others as you'd have done unto you' always made sense to me intellectually as the way I was 'supposed' to operate. But it wasn't until I started 'feeling' my ethics in my body that I realized I didn't have as much of a choice as I thought. In fact, it seemed that if I did something bad to someone else, I pretty much ended up feeling bad myself. The age-old statement worked in reverse too, and was somewhat inescapable.

I hadn't thought until recently about the way our ethics are enacted in our bodies, but I think it's an amazing thing that they are. The same place that 'gut feelings' come from also gives us information about what behavior is appropriate and what is selfish, what is loving and what is, well, wrong. I can still choose to ignore it, but that place of information exists. The ethics we're taught intellectually like 'Do unto others...' actually has a physical place in us as well.

As we familiarize ourselves with our body's language, we can feel when we're in the presence of a 'wrong' step. What are your cues? Do you feel sick to your stomach? Light-headed? Does your heart start to race? Rather than ignoring or shoving aside our bodies' wisdom, it might make sense to listen to it. After awhile, repressed knowing tries to show itself in other ways if ignored. Is there any knowing you've sat on for too long that turned into other physical symptoms: illness, stress, a panic attack?

When was the last time you listened to your body's way of communicating to you about what's right and wrong? Can you recall a time when your body told you loud and clear that something was wrong? What did it feel like for you? What happens when you choose to listen?

It's the simplest of ethics, the ethics of the body. We can literally feel when what we're doing isn't right. Which means we didn't really get away with it. So we might as well listen and correct it in the first place. Our bodies can show us how.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Embodied, Passionate Life

We all know the feeling when we are totally jazzed about something, 'on fire' with a kind of purpose or passion that fills us up.
We can feel it from our toes all the way to our fingertips. Sometimes it's hard to contain.

Our bodies tell us when something really matters to us, because they're more engaged in it. We actually feel it more fully: with heightened senses, energy, elevated heart rate, a change in our breathing.

Our bodies also tell us when the opposite is true, when we're dragging through our days, uninspired and sluggish. We can feel dragged down and exhausted even when we're not doing very much at all.

I wonder which of these two you feel more of the time in your body and in your life, because I think if we really listen, our bodies don't lie about how we really feel about what we're doing (or not doing). One wise client told me that a career coach she knew had said that she could tell what someone's true passion was by how much they moved their hands when they talked about it. More movement meant the person was more passionate about what they were talking about, less movement--not so much.

It may seem simple, but I think it's important to check in with our bodies to see how alive we really feel in the things we're doing in our lives. Why shouldn't we feel fully alive? And if we don't, what can we do about it?

Sometimes it's just a matter of shifting toward something we love, so that our lives feel more balanced and full. You can feel your energy shift when you start nurturing the parts of you that haven't been getting enough attention: taking a class in something that interests you, writing a blog, finding a group to meet with and discuss a favorite book or topic. When your energy rises, so does the way it feels to be in your body. And when things feels better and more alive in your body, you can bet it feels the same way to be in your life.

Finding out what your passion is can be as simple as checking in with your body. As you scan a list of activities, career options or even potential partners, watch to see how much heat, energy or excitement gets generated, even at the subtlest level, in your body. Notice for yourself when you talk about something how animated you get. On the other hand, also notice which things have you feeling like you're going through the motions instead.

Remember that feeling as a kid of jumping out of bed because you couldn't wait for the day to start? We've imposed so many rules and regulations on what our days are supposed to look like that we forget to check in with the delight and vitality available to us. Let some of your body's urges and impressions guide you more fully toward the things you love. You might have a novel in you waiting to be written in the hour before you go to bed; or a secret passion for baking cookies or following celebrity stories. Just pay attention to whether your passion adds to your energy or drains it. Then do more of the things that light you up.

Isn't that what life is all about?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Staying Connected Through the Cold of Winter


It's almost winter, that time of year when cabin fever can set in. On the one hand, our bodies acknowledge it by moving into a kind of hibernation mode--becoming slower, craving heavier, warmer foods.
We often fall into a pattern of slowness and stillness, spend more time inside. Rest, as we talked about last week, may bring us into contemplation and deeper thinking.

On the other hand, our bodies still crave and need activity. I think of running and sledding or having snowball fights outside as a kid, even in the fiercest of weather. Now that I'm in California, the seasons are more subtle and I can find myself going for a run or a hike in the middle of January, barring any rainstorms. But wherever you are, continuing to move your body through the winter months is essential not just for your physical health, but for your emotional health as well. Bound to inside, the body becomes restless, like a child. You might feel like it's crying out for an adventure, or just to unburden itself from the bundled clothing and into a stretch, a yoga class or run on a treadmill.

As much as we want to listen to the rhythms of our bodies, we also want to respect their need for activity and motion throughout the season of winter. If you could give your body a voice right now through your movement, what would it be? Would you go for a walk, even if it means wearing an extra layer, feeling like an intrepid traveler in the cooler air? Would you make time to go to that dance class you keep meaning to get to? The shift might even be as simple as stretching in front of the television instead of grabbing for the extra bag of potato chips.

It's too easy to get cut off from the body's needs in the vastness of winter. Much calls us to be inside and less active, but our bodies still want us to connect with them and use them. How can you be a steward to your body through the winter months, without cutting off into complete stagnation and hibernation?

If you need to, choose a buddy to remind you of your intention through this season. Take walks together or have a cup of tea followed by a stretch. If you have kids, let your kids' activity spill over into yours as they burst out into the excitement of a new snow or the chance to ice-skate. What would it take to join them?

Our minds crave the cave of winter, and our bodies certainly crave more rest and more substance. But they also don't want to be forgotten about, the connection to them lost under layers of clothing. I can remember growing up as a child in Maine feeling like the winter meant saying good-bye to the richness of my body's sensations until the warm sun of summer released them; when I finally started taking dance classes in a studio near my house, it was amazing to realize that no matter what the weather, there was a mirror, music and a wood floor waiting for me several times a week.

Make a commitment to stay connected to your body this winter, no matter where you live or what the weather. If it's snowing outside, ask your body what it would like to do to feel seen, stretched, experienced. When the sun comes back around next year, you'll both be ready to jump right in...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Power of Rest


Are you totally exhausted? Seriously. Do you think to yourself, 'I wonder how I'm getting through this day on so little sleep?' and then do it again, and again? I hear this complaint more and more among clients and friends--some who genuinely have insomnia or issues staying asleep; and some who just don't make enough time for sleep, getting up early with kids and then crashing after a long day of catching up on work.

Of course this isn't great for our bodies. More and more studies show us the value of sleep for our body's sense of rhythm, rejuvenation and overall health. And yet most of us are walking around like zombies, half-asleep, with a layer of exhaustion like a hanging fog in the horizon of our minds.

Our bodies know the difference between a good night's sleep and the sharp awakening that comes with an alarm clock too early in the morning or the kids knocking or dog barking outside your door after only five hours of sleep. Good sleep feels soft and warm, our bodies open like rising dough and greet the world with an innate sense of hope and lightness. Challenged sleep increases paranoia and literally makes us feel less stable. How many times have you bumped into things after a bad night's sleep, as if your internal balance is off?

Lack of sleep affects our internal regulation, our metabolism and our mental clarity. It affects mood, memory and visual acuity. And yet it's something, separated from our bodies and tuned into a fast-paced culture, we almost always prioritize last. Why is that? If we really valued how our bodies feel on a day-to-day basis, I wonder if we could do that. It seems that so many of us have a deep and longstanding call to rest, one that is constantly ignored for other priorities and needs.

I challenge you to value your rest as one of the most important gifts you can give this relationship you're building with your body. What if you created a different way of thinking about it for yourself, acknowledging it as essential rather than something you'll get if you can? How would that change your relationship to your body or your life?

I know, I know. You'll rattle off the list of things that tug on you, the impossibility of more time for sleep. So perhaps you challenge yourself to one good night's sleep a week. Or maybe one morning a week (and you might have to trade off kid duty with a partner to do this) when you get to sleep in an extra hour or so, or have the privilege of not getting up to kids or an alarm clock. Even one day reminds the body of who it is, and gives you you access to your body's true functioning, its greatest gifts (and your own).

Rest is also found in moments--a choice to step away from the computer and stare outside the window; or sit with a book; or listen to music. Sometimes with stressed clients I will actually assign a block of 'rest,' to be put in their appointment book like anything else. One hour of stare at the ceiling, let your thoughts wander, nowhere to be, nothing to do time. If getting more sleep seems daunting, try giving yourself a restful moment and watch how your body responds. You'll get better over time at knowing when you need them, your mind over-full and overwhelmed. Rest restores us to sanity.

We are moving into the season of stillness and cold, when the flowering of trees shifts to bare branches and stiff ground. Listen to how rest might be a natural part of this, calling you to rejuvenate your senses, deepen your awareness of self and soften your body into a trust and reliance on your ability to make time for what it needs. Listen to the body's rhythms--even if your mind calls it inefficiency--how it calls you away from the phone calls and toward the cup of tea, the open mind, the silence.