Moving Through the Body
(Extract from Feeling Wisdom, published by Shambala)
To this point you have been looking at the transformation of your feeling and emotional life and its underlying energy winds. It is helpful to recognize that as feelings arise, they also need to be “digested” or moved through the body in order to be fully released. When my oldest son was a baby, he had an incredible way of expressing joy and excitement. His body would vibrate, and with his arms stuck out in front of him, he would emit an excited gurgle. It seemed to me to be a mixture of laughter, pure satisfaction, and what one might call “feeling the force.” It was wonderful to witness total joy without inhibition, his capacity to allow energy simply to move and flow through him. Nowadays, of course, he is a cool teenager with a lot of control over his emotions.
This direct link between feelings and the body becomes very apparent when you look at any young and healthy child. We can see this in the immediate response of thwarted toddlers, stamping their feet or lying on the ground kicking and screaming to express how they feel. It is natural to cry when upset or to want to hide when frightened. Gaining a sense of control over emotions is part of growing up; however, this is a mixed blessing, and often a lot can be lost in the process. Of course we need to know boundaries and what is appropriate, but the danger is that we lose the capacity to allow feelings to move and release through the body. For many of us, this is suppression in a quest to appear normal; for others it can be a frozen response to severe trauma. It is also a reflection of the lack of support and general understanding in our society of the need to allow emotions their natural place. There is a lot of fear around the expression of strong feelings, especially grief and anger. Even joy is often expressed only after a large dose of alcohol. As a result, many people have become so tight and held in their body that it can be devastating to health and general well-being.
Connecting with emotions through bodywork and movement can begin to reestablish the physiological links between the emotions and the body. How one might work with this varies with each individual, depending upon the person’s capacity to tolerate being in connection with her or his body and feelings. At one end of the spectrum, someone who has been very traumatized may well have needed to find ways to dissociate totally from the body and its sensations. At the other end, one might encounter an emotionally robust individual who is sensitive enough to be in contact with feelings and sensations as they arise. Working with emotions through movement can support
a process that opens to and allows what is there in any moment so that the energy held can find its natural expression. In doing this it is not uncommon that uncomfortable feelings arise, and so it is important that the process is held by the therapist with care and compassion. Part of this care is to recognize the limits of each individual. This means that when feelings arise that are hard to tolerate it is counterproductive to push a person to stay with them. Learning how to tolerate the intolerable is nevertheless a useful part of the healing process. As a person becomes stronger in themselves they will be more able to bear emotions they hitherto could not. Allowing this process to evolve naturally is essential in holding a safe space that supports change rather than entrenching old patterns.
There are many ways of working with emotions through movement. My own preference over many years is now to work with Rhythmic Healing, a form of spontaneous, nonstylized movement that facilitates the embodiment of what is arising moment to moment. One of the core principles of Rhythmic Healing is to support a sense of trust in one’s own rhythm. Through this there is a growth of the capacity to be with oneself and one’s body energy without a need to push or hold back. This brings us back to our core nature as well as connecting us more deeply with the rhythm of the earth we live on. This supports the capacity to listen and open to the natural dynamic of energy in the body and allow its expressionthrough movement and stillness. This can be done alone once a capacity to stay with a process has been developed. However, it is possible to go much deeper when there is someone present who is experienced in holding the process with a quality of love, care, and compassion.
In order to reestablish or deepen our capacity for this listening, it is helpful to be able to develop mindful awareness of sensation and feeling in the body, a capacity to “receive oneself.” It is then possible to begin to open to the natural impulses for movement, whether they are very gentle and subtle or more physically expressive. This is a natural process, as we are moving all the time in response to our environment. Our bodies are highly tuned in this way, both as a survival instinct and as a necessity in our daily lives. With practice we can become more present and aware of how we respond and how our body moves in relationship to our internal world as well as what is outside.
As mentioned above, an essential ingredient of this approach to movement is that we begin to connect with our own rhythm and timing. If we allow ourselves to feel when and how we want to move, a process can awaken that will align us very deeply. Much of life these days is spent being out of relationship both to the natural rhythm within ourself and to the rhythms of nature and the earth. Learning to sense what needs to move and when encourages a capacity to honor an intimate relationship with ourself.
This intimate relationship is not so different from any other intimate relationship, in that it is fed by feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Building a relationship with ourself that allows a sense of nourishment and satisfaction enables a capacity to know when our energy is flowing in a healthy direction. This is a natural and innate gift we all have, but in the highly structured world in which we live, it is often driven out of us or suppressed from an early age. For example, as children we may not have been allowed to stop eating even when we were full because we were required to eat all that was on our plate. We may have been made to sit still in class even though energy was coursing through our body so that we wanted to move and express ourselves physically. Many of us have been taught to ignore what satisfies and nourishes. Rebuilding this capacity to feel for and follow what is satisfying may not always be easy, but it is very profound. It brings a gift of alignment with ourselves that draws on a natural capacity that, once reawoken, can have a huge effect on how we live our lives. Even when we touch difficult emotions, if we are working with them in a way that is potentially transformative, we will often experience asense of rightness or satisfaction that has to do with connecting with a healthy flow of energy. This can be felt in the sense of relief when dammed-up tears can at last flow in the wake of a great grief, in the satisfaction of clenching our muscles and growling when feeling frustrated, or stamping our foot when we feel angry.
An important aspect of working in this way is developing the capacity to be in touch with the felt sense. It gives us the ability to sit with ourselves, be in touch with our body, and witness our emotions as they arise. Because we are then less identified with emotions, there is greater spaciousness, making it easier to allow the process to unfold. This can enable us to get underneath habitual movement patterns. These patterns are there for a good reason. They are a protection from being in touch with emotions and feelings that have remained unresolved, usually because they were too much to tolerate at the time they originally arose. As such, these habits are a holding pattern. They are in place to enable life to carry on through difficult times, but ideally they do not stay forever. They make it possible to live with what is unresolved until we enter an environment that is safe enough to begin to open up to what is held and allow it to be released through the body.
A simple example of this is how tension in the shoulders can hold feelings that have been given little space to be expressed. Connecting to these feelings through body awareness and movement can enable a dynamic process of deep unraveling in the body and the whole being. As the capacity to be with this process increases, we will discover the ability to allow emotion to be released and transformed. When the emotional and physical connection becomes stronger, there can be a natural sense of what is needed, be it a gentle shake of the arm or a more vigorous movement. The potential here is for the energy to arise and be expressed in a way that naturally results in an embodied release that is both satisfying and a true letting go.
One of the beauties of connecting to the body through movement is that it is not necessary to understand what is happening intellectually, and in fact, it is often beneficial to drop beneath the need to understand the process. In letting go into what is happening, the body can begin to allow a healing process to occur spontaneously. Getting involved cognitively in the story is not necessary, although, of course, sometimes it will feel helpful. Often the process goes beneath what is conscious and takes us into what has hitherto been unknown. One client described how this touched her in our sessions: “I arrived feeling distracted and deeply tired. I sorely needed the opportunity to come back into relationship with my body. Although I noticed the usual tendency for my mind to take charge and make my movements graceful or purposeful, I gradually allowed myself to settle and be moved by my body in an instinctual way. Soon my thoughts were taking
more of a backseat.”
With those who are new to using movement as a tool for healing, it often helps to give a more specific focus, such as connecting to a particular part of the body. This could be an aspect of the body, such as the muscles or skin, or a particular part, such as the spine or feet. Focusing in this way can help to ground the process and gives many people a sense of security and structure from which to work. In observing a person moving, it often becomes clear to me where energy is held or where there is a particular strength. Focusing on or exploring this area of the body will often be helpful. Our body holds so much information that connecting to any part will be a rich experience. I have also found specific exercises such as these to be a good way to warm up a group or an individual to his or her sense of connection to the body. As people become more in touch with the body and its responses, they will also become more attuned to what works for them as a focus. For example, a client began to notice that her thighs were a place of strength and stability, and so putting her attention on them helped her to be more grounded and in touch with herself. Becoming aware in this way opens up a resource that can be taken into daily life and can be very empowering.
Facilitating a larger group often requires a more generalised approach and more specific guidelines. For example, during a recent retreat there were a number of people in the group, notably most of the men, whose movements I noticed had a particularly linear quality. I suggested that they explore moving in a more circular fashion. This brought about some amusement but also a sense of new ways of perceiving themselves in relation to their inner processes and what was around them. It gave them a means to open to a different aspect of themselves that had not been so apparent before. It was wonderful to see them twirling around the room with a sense of liberation in their energy.
Working with emotions through movement can result in very dynamic physical expression or a deep sense of stillness. It can also facilitate a connection with subtler movements of feeling and energy. When the space is held safely, it can offer the possibility of healing deep trauma. A client described a process of “re-membering” her body as she became reacquainted with herself through loving touch, healing the brusque, offhand way that she had been treated and touched as a child. Another client I have been working with has been through a profound process of allowing herself her own rhythm. Here it becomes clear that not having to move is the important thing, and what is needed is to be allowed the space to let movement come in its own time. This client says, “After years of working on my deep patterning of ‘doing’ to get loved and accepted, I am now finally getting the message into my bones and flesh to allow what I long for: just to be there with and for myself while being in the presence of others. Not only is it okay to do nothing and just be, but that doing nothing is powerfully transformational.”
I am always inspired to hear when someone begins to find how she or he can use movement as a resource in daily life. Another person I work with described how she deals with waking in the night with anxiety. “Basically, I wriggle around, but in a slow way, flexing, stretching, and generally moving all of my body in a way that feels very relaxing and comforting. Then I stop moving and relax completely and monitor how the anxiety feels. Mostly, it has dissipated. If not, then I repeat the movement until I feel completely relaxed and able to fall back into sleep again.”
There are two dimensions to this work that I would like to describe. One I will call the technical and the other the transpersonal or “spiritual.” When I first started working with people I was more oriented toward using methods and techniques that enabled a deepening connection and experience of the body. This echoed my own positive experience of relearning to connect with myself in this way. Through my own journey I was able to enjoy my relationship with my body and find expression, healing, clarity, and inspiration. My aim was to feel more “embodied,” to be able to stay more in touch with myself as I moved through the world. Being in touch with my own processes as they arose, I discovered, also enhanced my ability to be in touch with what was around me and increased my sensitivity to others.
Over the years of working with movement in relation to emotions, what has become more and more clear to me is the relationship between the body and what we might call spirit, or the transpersonal. There is a significant value in the connection between the grounding quality of relating to the body through sensation and feeling, and opening to something beyond our secular understanding. It is of course the case that every spiritual path has its body aspect, be it yoga, tai chi, or any other form. What is not so obvious in these paths, however, is how to incorporate and work with emotional states in a way that our Western psyche can relate to. I have found the degree of disconnection to the body that many people experience benefits from this more direct approach. What is vital, however, is that the spirit is not left out. More than that, the process of directly opening to spirit both quickens and enhances the process. This has been enhanced for me through the training I received in Rhythmic Healing1 and has evolved through the work I have done since with individuals.
I feel that the depth that my clients now reach in sessions, as in the examples I have given above, is very much supported by this. Connecting in this way enables a greater capacity to open my heart and be present with compassion. I feel this is the result of allowing myself to ask for and receive support. What might be happening or causing this is beyond my ordinary understanding, but what I feel is that placing myself in relationship to a spiritual presence allows me to sit in a truer place. It encourages a sense of humility that knows the healing is not from me but from something beyond. It reminds me of my small place in the world, allowing me to be a conduit for energy rather than just a facilitator. Bodywork and movement can be effective without this relationship; however, my experience of this deeper connection is that very remarkable and beautiful shifts can be made.
(Not to be copied without permission of the author.)
(For information on Feeling Wisdom go to www.mudra.co.uk