Historically, psychology as a field has heavily focused on the brain–and arguably, the mind as localized above the neckline–as being the way out in terms of psychological freedom. In the past, the field of psychology has overlooked the body and the role of spirituality.
The mind and intellect have gotten many people far in their lives. As such, people can easily get out of touch with the body and its signals; they may forget the body has a lot of wisdom to offer.
In my work as a clinical psychologist, I see how it helps to blend the mind and body because it gives people more access to themselves. Sometimes with talk therapy, people can feel stifled because the psychospiritual element is missing.
Prior to the 17th century, people understood the mind and body are one, but then French philosopher René Descartes changed things when he popularized the idea the mind and body are distinct from one another.
A way to get back to oneness and engage in therapy in a more holistic way is to use embodiment techniques. As a yoga therapist certified through the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), I’m a proponent of yoga therapy.
Yoga therapy is not the same as going to a regular yoga class. As a yoga therapist, I work with a person holistically assessing their specific symptoms or conditions, as well as their emotional state of being. Engaging in yoga in such a tailored way can help a person get back in touch with the gestalt of themselves, which is the focus of my work. I aim to address the whole person and help with the integration thereof.
Why get back in touch with the body?
Getting back in touch with the body means hearing your internal “knowing.” Getting back in touch with the body means hearing your internal “knowing.” For instance, knowing what it means on a physical level to be hungry, to be full. It means knowing when you’re angry or sad. Those feelings are important because they are indicators of which direction to go in life and are an avenue into knowing the self.
Feelings translate into making more informed choices, and they enable a person to live the life they want to live rather than the life they “should” live or have fallen into. The inner knowing, which can also be called intuition, will signal whether a person is a good match to be in a relationship with, or if a job is a good fit.
If a person has experienced trauma, it can take a long time to get back to that “knowing” place, but doing so can help a person heal. And it’s possible to do so!
Coming back into the body can also mean a person is in less physical pain or they become aware of what physical pain means. If their neck hurts, maybe someone or something is literally becoming “a pain in the neck.” Awareness of the emotional state that is sometimes behind physical pain empowers a person to do something about the root cause of the pain.
Ways to use the breath
Now that we’ve talked about the benefits of getting in touch with the body, what are some ways to do so? I like breathwork or pranayama, which has the potential to decrease anxiety and help with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as insomnia, hypervigilance, and irritability or anger outbursts.
Here are three breathing techniques I like to use with my clients:
1. “Noticing your natural breath”
- Breathe in, bring awareness to the breath, and pause slightly at the top.
- Then breathe out.
- Breathe in, filling your lungs fully and then pausing slightly at the top of the breath.
- Then breathe out, exhaling all the way.
2. 4-7-8 breath
This breathing exercise should not be done more than four times consecutively.
- Breathe in quietly through the nose for four seconds.
- Hold the breath for a count of seven seconds.
- Exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound for eight seconds.
- Again, repeat this cycle only four times at a given time
3. Three-part breath
The “three parts” of this breath are the chest, solar plexus, and belly, deep in the bottom of the lungs.
- Isolate each part, breathing first into the chest, then diaphragm, then stomach.
- Especially focus on the belly breath and breathing deepest into the bottom of the lungs to allow the belly to expand out.
- Then exhale all the way allowing the belly to deflate.
Examples of yoga postures
Another way to get back in touch with the body is by using restorative yoga techniques. The modality can be very useful as a complement to depth psychotherapy. I use both in my practice with incredible results.
If you are confident practicing on your own, I suggest gently easing into a restorative practice. When you are still and quiet, there is much space for the thoughts, feelings, and memories to bubble up in the psyche. If you have a trauma history, please be gentle with yourself and do not expect your practice to be further along than it is.
Supported Child’s Pose
I like to introduce my patients, clients, and students into restorative postures and sequences slowly and with purpose. I find that starting with a pose that is helpful for inner child work, reparenting the self, and intervening with symptoms of panic, anxiety, or PTSD is strategic and beneficial. The pose, or asana, is supported child’s pose. The Sanskrit word for this pose is salamba balasana.
An alternative is to use two bolsters placed end to end. If there are complications with your knees, feel free to extend the knees behind you or fold (or roll) a blanket to be placed in between the calf and the hamstring. Set a timer for 3 minutes and then slowly and gently turn your head the other way, keeping it there for another 3 minutes. This pose is one of surrender. In this pose we surrender any judgment and expectation of the self and other.
Supported Heart Opener
A supported heart opener can be a follow up to the supported child’s pose. This type of pose has the potential to be helpful for forgiveness and self-love.
An example of a heart opener is supported bound angle pose, or salamba supta baddha konasana. If there is ever discomfort in any part of the body, please modify as needed. For instance, placing a bolster, rolled up blanket, or pillow underneath a person’s back, allowing their upper body to be elevated, may create discomfort in the lower back. I suggest using a prop lower to the ground (one to two blankets instead of a bolster, for example).
Work up to 10 minutes in this pose. Start out by setting your alarm for 3 minutes and see if you can add a minute on each time you practice. Allow for lots of space for your feelings to arise without judgment and without expectation.
Lastly, a posture that’s beneficial for letting go and potentially helping with depression is corpse pose, or supported salamba savasana.
Death is the ultimate act of letting go. It is one we practice each evening as we settle in for a night’s sleep. It is one that can be effortless and full of ease, with practice.
To practice salamba savasana, place a bolster under the back of the knees, a rolled-up blanket under the ankles, and folded blankets under the wrists, and neck. You could also use an eye pillow and a sandbag on the lower belly to deepen the pose. Please let yourself have at least 15 minutes in this pose.
Not everyone wants to come back into their bodies, and that’s fine, they don’t have to. But for people who want to live fuller, richer lives with more connection and authenticity, pairing embodiment techniques with talk therapy can help them flow with that goal.
- Glock, C., Alfred, R., & Bellah, R. (1976). The new religious consciousness. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Damasio, A. R. (2004). Descartes error: Emotion, reason and the human brain. New York: Quill.
- Walker, J., & Pacik, D. (2017). Controlled Rhythmic Yogic Breathing as Complementary Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Military Veterans: A Case Series. Medical Acupuncture, 29(4), 232-238. doi:10.1089/acu.2017.1215
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