by E. Yen Zak and Dr. Martha Eddy
True fitness increases by paying attention to bodily cues while engaging in all of life’s activities.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who would cut you off and respond to what they thought you were saying? Have you tried to have a conversation with someone who wasn’t listening?
In observing the relationship between the mind and body, it often becomes apparent that similar patterns happen—the conscious mind is not listening to the body.
Listening to and caring for the body are important. With the fitness revolution, there is a blossoming wealth of knowledge about the body and endless voices suggesting how we should exercise and take care of our bodies.
Even if fitness is prioritized and consistently scheduled into the day, caring for the body is often relegated to just those limited times—a handful of hours per week when the body gets a workout. During those times, the body is often forced and strained into some kind of preconceived “shape“ or into attaining a goal such as besting a time or winning a game.
This is to say we can actually stifle the beneficial effects of exercise by being obsessively goal-oriented in activities. Sayings like “no pain, no gain” still permeate attitudes toward physical fitness, and there is an idea that the body needs to be forced and disciplined into conforming to how it should look or perform.
How many people do you know who have injured themselves lifting weights, running, playing sports, or even dancing or doing yoga? Although the health benefits of an active lifestyle are undeniable, injuries during sports and working out are disturbingly common. They make up over 15 percent of all unintentional accidents leading to emergency room visits and over 3 million sporting injuries annually.
Abandoning the Body to Goal-Oriented Use
Injuries speak to a cultural habit of abandoning the body for goal-oriented use, often unconsciously. Our bodies can do a lot without conscious control. It is possible to let the deeper brain centers take hold while working, studying, shopping, or cleaning as well as while working out or pursuing sports. This is a good thing.
If we set healthy intentions, the body can flow into patterns that are controlled by our “low brain” but meet positive, right-brain goals. With a focus on the end goal, productivity, fitness, accomplishment, winning, or finishing, we are letting the left brain take an unbalanced, dominant role.
The end goal becomes more important than the means in which we treat our bodies. The results are harsh movements, repetitive use of the body, activities that are often not in accord with the structure of the body.
These rituals and practices lead the body to getting worn out or breaking down. Repetitive motion and stress-based injuries resulting in bone, tendon, ligamentous, and muscular strains all result when the quantity and intensity of activity or a goal are seen as more important than quality of technique and the experience of doing.
We don’t want to discourage anyone from working out or engaging in physical activity but rather to encourage the possibility of turning inward (tuning-in) and listening to the body’s cues as we move at work and at home, in leisure, household chores, and fitness or sports activities.
Embodied practice, in our case Dynamic Embodiment TM and BodyMind Fitness is an activity that places the felt, first-person experience of the body as primary. This process is a somatic process.
Somatic education techniques such as Alexander, Bartenieff, BodyMind Centering, Continuum, Feldenkrais, and the like all teach people to enhance their proprioception as well as their kinesthetic sense—two senses you may or may not know you have.
Proprioception is our ability to register the body’s positioning. Kinesthetics is the ability to feel how we are moving. Somatic education relies upon each and therefore teaches skills to heighten sensitivity to these systems.
What does somatic education have to do with fitness? Being “fit” can refer to meeting a predetermined set of criteria, or it can imply that there is a good match between an activity and the person engaging in it. We contend that true fitness increases by paying attention to bodily cues while engaging in any or all of life’s activities.
Somatics teaches you to listen into your body and respond with informed choice (freedom) based on the information coming from within. Dynamic Embodiment includes practices to transform any daily activity into an opportunity to feel and experience yourself with more consciousness.
Whatever the activity, we can support ourselves, enhance our systems’ function, and feel better by deepening the awareness of our body, allowing moments of self-inquiry to permeate our days and empowering us to take care of ourselves more fully.
Noticing your body, asking questions, and listening to it brings awareness to bodily cues. How does this relate to actively working out?
While working out, you can ask yourself: Is that sensation a discomfort of pushing the edge of my strength in a good way, or is that my joints, tendons, and ligaments sending warning signals, or is the sensation simply information and energy passing through the system?
It helps to have a baseline, to know what is “normal” and comfortably familiar. Somatic exercise is designed to be integrated with your life. Setting aside time for the body is vital to health and wellness, but it’s also important to check in again and again to cultivate this relationship with your body.
The work is slow and subtle. Slower and more-subtle movements allow the sensitivity of the nervous system to deepen and become more receptive toward internal cues. Fitness levels increase as we are respectful of our bodies and work more deeply within our healthy capacities.
Body Awareness Activities
Activity 1. Take a moment to feel the forces (muscular, energetic, skeletal) holding you up right now. How would you describe your breathing? Gently turn your body to look over either shoulder. How far you can see easily? Are you holding onto any part of your body that doesn’t seem necessary? Is there any particular sensation that stands out for you?
This can be done any time (right now, sitting at the computer; at work, home, waiting in line) whenever you notice your body feeling a little tense—or particularly good!
Activity 2. Here is an exercise to build coordination and neurogenic strength while staying somatically aware. Use a small 0.5- to 10-pound weight. A book can even work. The light weight is specifically chosen to provide a small amount of resistance to assist in locating your body’s space.
The emphasis is on ease of breathing and the subjective quality of movement. The goal is to disengage from habitual strain patterns and to access an awareness of the fluid self to support your activities. Once this baseline starts getting established, vigorous exercise will be more effective and safer.
1. Holding the weight in one hand, slowly and gently draw it close to your navel center where it may be held with minimal effort. Notice the support of the earth pouring up into your feet, through your skeleton, and into the weight.
Gently allow that flow of support to slowly push the weight further from the ground as high overhead as possible without straining. Balance the weight on your palm. Feel that vector of force from the center of the earth pushing up into the weight.
2. Shift your coccyx (tailbone) to point at different areas of your feet shifting weight from side to side and drawing tiny figure eights. Allow these small movements to travel up your spine. Notice where you feel the cleanest path of support rising out of the earth, through your skeleton, and into the weight. Allow this to be easy and only do as much as you can without holding your breath.
3. Slowly draw the weight in the direction of your core, allowing your elbow to continue to point downward. Check to see if you are keeping your elbows released. They may feel heavy. Repeat three times on one side. Place the weight down and take a small walk to feel the difference between the two halves of your body. Repeat on the other side.
4. Now how would you describe your breathing? Gently turn your body to look over either shoulder. How far you can see easily? Are you holding onto any part of your body unnecessarily? Is there any particular sensation that stands out for you? Exhale deeply with a soft sound. Pause.
5. Drawing up from the earth through your legs, with breath support, feel your head float upward as your shoulders widen and release downward.
How can this quality of deep listening carry into whatever you are doing—work, leisure, or exercise?
Activity 3. Many people find that music is a fantastic support for exercising. We do too. Music can be carefully selected to support different goals.
E. Yen Zak is an exercise physiologist, movement educator, martial artist, and disc jockey practicing in Berkeley, Calif. He studies with Dr. Eddy and can be found at Somaticeye.blogspot.com
Dr. Martha Eddy, CMA, RSMT, is an internationally renowned author and lecturer who founded BodyMind Fitness and Dynamic Embodiment Somatic Movement Training and currently directs Moving On Center-NY.
Thank you SO much for this article. It helped me convey my thoughts to my classes about importance of body awareness in exercise, and the deepening connection to ourselves.