The Process of Developing Body Awareness: Practice
Updated: May 19, 2019
Because our bodies, our minds and our life experiences are unique, it is best to consult with a qualified professional who can customize the physical components of your practice to fit your specific needs. Whatever movements may be selected, the ideas about practicing that are discussed here will be helpful in applying the tools of body awareness to those movements.
What is “practice”?
The term practice can refer to the repeated performance of an activity or to a time during which the activity occurs. Sometimes it can refer to both. An activity done every day, at the same time and place, and in the same order is one kind of practice. When an activity is done only occasionally, there is a question of whether there is sufficient continuity for the benefits of practice to accrue. Regularity is required for a practice to work. Every session of practice is different. Sometimes a practice is mild, soft, releasing. At other times, the same practice is intense and inspiring. There are times when we can’t gather enough focus to even start the practice. The “best practice” on such days is to pause and contemplate why we are resisting an activity that we have committed to doing.
The effects of practice depend on attitude.
A big part of establishing a meaningful practice is having an attitude that is—as much as possible—free of judgment. If there is pain, respect it. Do not run from it; breathe into it. Do not despair or allow yourself to wallow in an emotional response. Whatever the sensations, accept them for what they are. Resist labeling sensations good, or bad, or desirable, or repugnant. Don’t jump to conclusions about what sensations mean or how one relates to another. Be patient with yourself. Every day is different. If a practice is going to be productive in the long term, we must follow the practice where it leads, and accept how it unfolds. Whatever your practice is today, let it be what it is and see how it goes. Have no expectations about your practice. Do the practice, but do not emotionally attach to an outcome. Practice as often as you can, but only because you choose to do so.
Visualization in the context of practice:
Getting the intellect involved in practice is important. A very effective way to stimulate the intellect’s participation is to study images of the body’s systems, especially the bones, muscles, and nerves. This imagery supports visualization. Anatomy illustrations and medical imaging are widely available online. Some of the illustrations are things of beauty. Find images that feed your imagination about the body and how it works.
As you cultivate a body-awareness practice, you may find that your intellect will find topics—such as anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, genetics, biology, psychology—are of more interest than in the past. Pursuing those subjects informs further exploration of the body, the mind, and how they work together.
Visualization is not limited to anatomy-based images.
Our experiences in nature have left us with images, some quite vivid and inspiring. For example: We stand with our feet and legs firmly rooted into the ground; from the roots energy runs up as we move our arms up and extend out and away from the trunk; as we move gently in every direction, we notice how the muscles engage on one side of a movement and back off on the other. We may find it possible as we move around to smoothly transition one area from “engaged” to “less engaged” to “relaxed” and then back slowly to “engaged”. As we repeat the movement, an image from nature may come to mind such as a majestic tree, alone on a hill, in a wind, with its limbs swaying and its trunk bracing. We imagine our bodies moving as the tree does and feel inspired to be moving as that amazing tree does.
Such nature inspired imagery frees us, energizes us, encourages our movement to be as healthy and natural as possible.
Visualization can also be abstract, guided by written or spoken words. For example: Words may ask us to bring our attention to the heart and the head and suggest feeling the connection between them; the words suggest that the connection may be visualized as energy or light. The words tell us to focus only on that and to give the bones and muscles no attention. The words suggest that the connection between the head and heart is essential to our function on many different levels of awareness; and that aligning heart and head with an awareness of the energetic connection between them will operate on the anatomical level to bring the bones and muscles throughout the body into a natural state of balance and alignment and that the mind will become quiet and at ease.
Not all abstract, poetic descriptions will resonate with us, but when they do, we can connect with our awareness at new, deeper levels.
Conscious breathing enables concentration.
Control of breathing during practice is important. Whether we are moving from one position to another or holding a position, we coordinate movement with breath as we explore the sensations in the body.
If our exploration is guided by abstract or poetic descriptions of how to imagine the body, precisely controlled breathing will help the mind focus on the suggested imagery and to find meaning.
If our exploration is self-guided, controlled breathing allows us to relax into focused concentration on how we are sensing our bodies. This allows us to notice subtleties about our bodies that are not apparent in everyday life outside of practice. For example, we might notice: how the spinal cord feels like as it passes freely through the spine in some places and is constricted in others; how our shoulder blades settle on our backs when we release tension and how that changes our spine; how our bones connect us to the ground and how that connection gets conveyed throughout the body; how our spine curves in and out from top to bottom; how our ribs move as we rotate; how the spine sits balanced atop the hips and sacrum, the pelvic bowl.
Allow yourself access to all the subtleties available about how movement changes sensation and how breath works with movement.
Things about practice to consider:
Be aware of the differences between engaging, stretching, and relaxing muscles. Engagement happens where muscles stabilize the body. Stretching happens where fixed points are moved apart. Relaxation happens when stretching is released and no movement is done. We should keep these distinctions in mind as we do our practices.
Small, slow movements can give access to important information. Keep movements simple and gentle. We may find a specific movement that eases or raises the intensity of sensation. Sometimes it is holding a fixed position that is informative. We can also explore the edge of the sensation and observe how the nature, the intensity, and the qualities of the sensation change as we move into and out of a position.
Deep relaxation: how to rest the body.
Deep relaxation is possible in many positions and individuals differ on their most comfortable position. One position is available for everyone, barring serious physical limitations: we lie on our back with feet and legs placed so they are comfortable (to keep tension out of the low back) with the arms resting on the floor, palms facing up, or with arms bent and hands resting on the trunk where most comfortable. Another excellent position for those whose body allows it is sitting upright with the head and spine comfortably aligned on the pelvis and the limbs resting comfortably in their joints. While the body is still, the mind may notice areas of tension in the body. Breathe into the tension with an intention of relaxing it. You will find that, if you send breath and energy into the tension, it will melt away like a pat of butter on a griddle.
Practices have phases and an end state.
Near the end of a practice, there is a transition. From whatever we have been doing, we gradually slow our movement. We consciously slow our breathing and make it deeper and gentler. The practice ends in a state of ease that in our brain resembles deep sleep.
In the gradually relaxing portion of the transition, we can focus on our awareness of the sensations in our bodies. The messages in those sensations may be clear or they may be difficult to discern. Follow perception where it leads. The goal is a more relaxed body. If exploratory movement seems appropriate, we should keep it smooth and no larger than necessary to explore sensation. Our endpoint is a position with as much ease as can be found.
The end of a practice session is the time to relax completely, to do nothing, to allow our focus to relax and go wherever it needs to go. In a state of complete relaxation, movement will stop (or become so slight as to be barely detectable). Muscles will release deeply held tension without any conscious effort on our part. In this state of mind, the nerves will have respite from the constant high level of activity that is required of them at all other times. Even conscious breathing will slip away. If someone observed us in this state, our breath would appear smooth and slow and so shallow it is barely perceptible; yet it is entirely sufficient to maintain us in the completely relaxed state. Sometimes, after experiencing a deeply relaxed state, people say they were barely aware of breathing, that it felt as if the air were breathing them.
In this state of complete relaxation, our body and mind effortlessly assimilate the information our nervous system has been collecting during the practice. This is the beauty of a body awareness practice: we can let the intelligence of our body do this unconscious work. Our bodies want to heal.
Practical aspects of a body awareness practice:
The relationship of body awareness and self-healing may seem abstract, but a body awareness practice is unquestionably useful in practical ways. Consider how the tools would be useful after an injury, such as a twisted ankle or tweaked knee or an abruptly irritable low back. Most of us know the basics of first aid and some of us know about rest, ice, compression, and elevation as useful tools when dealing with such injuries. But because we have learned how to concentrate deeply and use our focused mind to explore our bodies, we can turn awareness on the injury and gather new information. By comparing that new information with information that we have from before the injury, we can more accurately evaluate the damage. Over time, we can observe the body’s response to the injury and consider whether the body is recovering from the injury or deteriorating further or building a pattern of compensation or doing something else. This is all useful information in assessing the injury and determining what we might do to make it healthier.
By bringing focused awareness of our bodies into our lives, we can better understand our bodies and make better choices about how we use them. We can move in ways that are healthier, more natural, and less likely to cause injury.