Your Embodiment Lowdown: Elevate Your Self-Care to the Next Level
Updated: Mar 14, 2022
Published in Inside Fitness Magazine
With mental health a global priority today, a growing number of us are taking over the reins when it comes to our health and wellbeing. Covid in particular has further propelled self-care as a focal point in our day-to-day life. We try to eat well, move more, and seek mindful moments in our days. This self-initiated approach empowers people to nurture their wellbeing in ways that are meaningful to them, but as varied and unique as our self-care rituals may be, embodiment practice is one piece that everyone should have in their toolkit.
What is embodiment?
Being embodied is to be grounded in the present moment through our emotions and physical sensations while maintaining a state of equanimity. Mindfulness, as it’s portrayed in popular culture today, promotes a detached awareness of the present moment.
Embodiment, on the other hand, offers a sensory route to awareness: we inhabit our bodies more fully and are attuned to its visceral and physical cues to guide us, rather than relying on reason or intellect alone.
The way we currently “do” mindfulness in our self-care practices can disconnect us from our body wisdom. As a much-needed counterbalance to modern living, mindfulness helps us stay present and gain clarity into our lives – our jobs, our relationships and ourselves. Unfortunately, gentle awareness sometimes isn’t enough and can even keep us in an indulgent state of detachment. Whereas the mind can sometimes distort our perceptions and lead us astray, the body never lies. We need to feel into the emotions and the felt senses that float up from mindful inquiry, without getting swept away by their stories. A meditative bubble-bath won’t cut it.
Why is embodiment important?
Since most self-care regimens place an emphasis on feeling good, we may be limiting ourselves from experiencing deeper and genuine wellbeing. Tranquility does little to process difficult emotions. Because our bodies can hold onto our emotional pain, if we don't find a way to process them, we can develop dissociative habits such as self-limiting mental patterns, bingeing, food restriction and over-exercising. Embodiment practice digests those unresolved emotions that can keep us stuck in the mental and behavioural patterns we wish to change. It also keeps us resilient and limber, ready to receive intense circumstances that greet us in the day to day and to move through them with a sense of connected-ness. With embodiment, we don’t repress or by-pass the hard stuff.
If embodiment isn’t currently a part of your self-care regimen, you might need an upgrade, especially if you’ve tried everything to improve your health and lifestyle but just can’t seem to make your progress stick. Embodiment practice can be rigorous but it’s necessary. You’ll get better results from this practice than if you only stick to meal plans and journaling. We can’t truly take care of ourselves without an openness to the unfiltered information within our bodies. Unfortunately, we’re not that proficient in its language.
Instead, we know happy-speak. Toxic positivity, prevalent in wellness culture, reflects our strong bias towards positive feelings and attitudes. It promotes an excessive optimism to the extent that when we’re upset at someone or when we’re in the doldrums, we feel we should rise above the negativity and beatifically downplay our feelings. We don’t give them their due care and attention, and this reinforces a mind-body split.
How does embodiment make us healthier?
The hand-off between mind and body may feel a bit like jumping out of a plane. The temptation to take shelter in our old but familiar ways is strong, even when we know those ways repeatedly hurt us. Long-held unprocessed grief, anger or trauma can keep us stuck in our health journey and personal growth. It can even make us sick.
Profound gains have been made in psychiatry in establishing the biological underpinnings of mental health. Cellular biologists have found that our memories and significant life experiences are stored in cells throughout our body, independent of the brain. Some even suggest that healing these cellular memories can cure illness and disease. Although it feels safer to do so, we simply can’t analyze our way through the mind-body impasse. With a regular practice of intentionally dropping out of our head and into our body (our hearts), we are familiarizing ourselves with that which overwhelms us: I am lonely, I hate my job, I’m angry at …. Befriending those intense feelings has a physiological effect, which is why some gastroenterologists will prescribe psychotherapy and mind-body therapy as a form of treatment. It promotes neuroplasticity in our brains, imprinting into our nervous system a sense of safety in moments when active states of fight-or-flight would typically kick in and compel us to our numbing behaviour. From this sense of safety, the formation of new and beneficial habits is possible with mindful intention.
How can we incorporate embodiment into our self-care regimen?
We need multiple modalities in our self-care toolbox to include those that support body attunement and internal sensitivity: Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, grounding meditation, and mindful eating are some ways to cultivate these skills, and if we have, or suspect we have, a history of trauma or unresolved conflict (like many of us), we can benefit from professional help like EMDR and somatic psychotherapy.
Once we’ve established some foundational embodiment skills, they can be integrated into our day-to-day life, where being mindfully embodied is no longer an exercise, but a way of life. This doesn’t mean it will become effortless. Embodiment is an ongoing effort in compassionate scrutiny, integrity, surrender and resilience. It is to strive for a continual synergy between mind, body and heart. In your own practice, know that any unsavoury emotions and physical sensations you greet will move through you. They’re as fleeting as the happy, pleasant experiences we wish would last.
The recent upsurge in our preoccupation with self-care reflects a long-overdue shift in the perception of mental wellbeing as a critical part of health. It also points to institutional failings in mental illness treatment and prevention. Much work is still needed to fix this. It’s important to note that while we have a personal responsibility for our wellbeing, individuals should not be expected to diagnose or treat mental illness themselves. Self-care is not a solution for systemic deficiencies.
We do, however, need to continue to articulate to ourselves what mental health and wellbeing means to us personally, and to courageously heed this call. As our circumstances change throughout our lifetime, so will our needs, and how we take care of ourselves must also evolve. Embodiment practice maintains an unfettered communication with our whole selves and thus safeguards the responsiveness of our self-care choices to our true needs. It is a constant reminder that authentic health is found in the hard-won trust we cultivate in our innate wisdom, and not through mindful sips of our matcha tea.