Letting go is a practice. As much as we like to say that the things that happen to us are “water under a bridge” and that we “rise above” things that bother us, a lot of us do not truly know how to let things go. Sometimes, we equate letting go with “denying” or “pretending as though” a situation never happened. To me, letting go is something very different. From my perspective, letting go involves you ACKNOWLEDGING the situation that happened, VALIDATING the impact the situation had on you, RECOGNIZING that staying with those emotions/thoughts will not continue to serve you, and thus PRACTICING a shift out of that state.
SITUATION OCCURS ---> ACKNOWLEDGE SITUATION ---> VALIDATE IMPACT OF SITUATION ---> RECOGNIZE WHAT WILL SERVE YOU BEST ---> PRACTICE LETTING GO
Of course, we will get into some strategies to practice letting go, but before we go there, I’d like to articulate why the heck it’s a useful thing to practice!
Why Let go?
(There are likely more reasons, but these are the top ones that I identified.)
Even though there are good reasons to practice this, letting go can be really difficult! Trust me, I’ve had the experience where I go venting to a friend about something that has gotten me all riled up, and she responds with “Just let it go. It’s not worth your energy.” I can feel my head want to explode at the same time as wanting to grab her and shake her and scream “WHAT DO YOU MEAN JUST LET IT GO?!?!? DID YOU NOT HEAR ANYTHING I JUST SAID?!” Even with the understanding of how difficult it can be to let go, I still advocate that it is easier to practice letting go than it is to keep carrying stuff around that leads to suffering. Just like anything else, the more you practice, the easier it becomes, and then… eventually… it feels more like a choice in the moment, and less effortful. That being said, it does start as a practice, so…
How do you practice letting go?
Practice One: Exhale what you are letting go/Inhale new truth
In a situation in which you are experiencing a reaction that you’d like to let go:
Practice Two: Shake it out
This practice is pretty literal. With becoming mindful of when you are holding onto an experience, you will very likely notice that your body becomes tense. Your body literally “holds on” through tightening. Typically from a body level, this would be preparation for some sort of action, but if you don’t do anything with the impact of a situation other than hold onto it, then your body just remains tense. Therefore, part of the practice of letting go is releasing tension from your body. Here are my suggestions for tension release:
Practice Three: Let nature take it away.
From the shamanic perspective, nature works in such a way that what is toxic to one being is absolutely essential to another being (i.e. we exhale carbon dioxide which plants need and plants exhale oxygen which we need). Therefore, we are actually doing a service to the world when we let go of what does not serve us because it will inevitably be nourishment/fuel to something else. Whether engaging with this idea from a literal or metaphorical place, we can harness this perspective as a practice by intending for different elements of nature to take away whatever it is we are trying to let go and being assured that it will be utilized in a productive way by something else out there in the universe. Let’s say that you are feeling angry about something that just happened, and after acknowledging and validating your anger, you realize it is best to let it go. Here are some ways to invite nature to help with this:
If you do opt to start practicing letting go, there are some particularly powerful blockages that can hinder being able to shift into a more neutral state. It is very likely that you will run into at least one of these blockages, so here is a heads up about them:
Blockage One: If I am not impacted, was what happened okay/justified?
There is a misconception that the reaction to an event is what defines the nature of that event. In other words, if someone were to insult me, sometimes it feels as though it is the reaction of me getting offended that defines that situation as being insulting. The question being, if I don’t get offended, then was what the person said still not okay? From my perspective, my reaction does not define the situation. Whether or not I get offended, the person was acting from a perceived place of malice. That doesn’t change. Perhaps I feel the sting of the insult, and notice I do feel a bit hurt. From here, I could move through the steps and practice letting go, or I could let that hurt spin out into feeling full blown offended/victimized. I might feel compelled to be offended in order to highlight the rudeness of the person. This is exactly my point. We sometimes have the misguided idea that our reaction alone defines the nature of a situation, when in reality, our reaction to an event can be a completely separate thing that does not embellish nor diminish the original event.
For another example, in the recent superhero show Luke Cage, one of the antagonists named Bushwacker is set on seeking revenge for his mother’s brutal murder (among other atrocities). From the moment this tragedy occurred, his whole life has been focused on seeking vengeance, and he perceives that this is the only way he can find peace and resolution. His life is generally full of rage and hurt. In his pursuit of revenge, many more loved ones die. Now, if we rewind back, and pretend that when his mother died Bushwacker was able to miserably grieve, acknowledge what happened as an unjust tragedy, but then eventually somehow make peace with what happened to his mother, does this lessen the brutality of that heinous event? NO! It is STILL AWFUL. But, dedicating your life to keeping that event alive only brings suffering to the person still reacting to the event. It does NOT bring more validity to the nature of the event itself. People feel like they “should” be angry or hurt, and if they don’t remain so, then whatever happened must not have been so bad. Like, not remaining affected is the equivalent of never having been impacted. However, remember, letting go is NOT about being completely unaffected. Letting go involves the acknowledgement of impact, and then working towards shifting out of that state that will not serve you.
Blockage Two: Do I need to stay wounded?
This may seem like a weird question, but believe it or not, sometimes there are compelling reasons to stay wounded. This is a more neutral way of explaining the cringeworthy idea of “playing the victim.” Let’s try to remove judgement from this concept, because the reality is that we have all partaken in this dynamic, and for good reason! For example, if you are still in recovery from something that happened to you, often times loved ones have lower expectations of you, and/or put less pressure on you to perform or succeed. As much as I hate being sick, when I am ill, the only thing my husband asks of me is that I stay put on the couch. It is kind of nice! As I get better, all of my normal life responsibilities come back and more is expected of me. It is a tempting thought to prolong my recovery and delay that entry back into my normal life! This process happens with all sorts of things from physical illness, to other life experiences that have been intense or traumatic.
Also, being wounded can be a “good” reason to not try something new. For example, if you were on a very scary plane flight wherein you were terrified that you were going to crash, that can become a “reasonable” factor in not wanting to try other things where you feel out of control, such as going on a speedboat. It could even translate into fear of taking a “leap” with going for a new job because of potential perceived risk associated with that move. Now, PLEASE understand that being fearful after something intense such as a terrifying plane ride is completely normal, and that something like this will likely understandably impact your life. My point is that sometimes we unconsciously keep ourselves from moving through that final phase of challenging beliefs that may have been formed, which leads us to remain wounded. AND, that the reason we may not go through that final phase of healing is because there is a benefit to us in that we have a “reason” not to fully go for things that are risky and save us from the potential devastation of failing.
Blockage Three: Don’t I need to carry other people’s crap?
You may have been taught to take on other people’s struggles. If this is the case, there is usually some sort of belief underneath along the lines of “if I take on this for them, then they will be available to show up for me.” Not so much. It is a hard lesson, one that people usually experience over and over and over, but typically, if you take on other people’s problems for them, they usually just let you keep doing it with little or no reciprocity. Taking on other people’s problems is NOT the way to remain cared for and connected. I promise. Also, taking on other people’s crap can be a lovely distraction and way to avoid things that need your attention. For example, if your time and attention is absorbed in tending to your friend’s every need after he experienced a breakup, you “don’t have time” to deal with the growing distance happening with your own partner. Because there are fears (conscious or unconscious) associated with what would happen if you do confront this reality, there is benefit to avoiding this through becoming over involved in your friend’s struggle. In this case, letting go of carrying other people’s struggle does mean having to face your own reality. Not everyone is up for that!
Blockage Four: What if I automatically latch on to things?
If you’ve gotten into the habit of holding onto things, then your brain and body have been taught to do so, making it a habit or a pattern. It will simply take time for your brain and body to learn a new way of processing life experiences, thus requiring practice.
Don’t get discouraged!
If you really want to let something go, it’ll go. Nothing stays with you unless part of you wants it to stick around. You are empowered in this way. If you are finding that things are lingering no matter how hard you practice letting them go, ask yourself, what do I fear will happen if I let this go? This is a profound question taught to me by Richard Schwartz as part of Internal Family Systems therapy, and I find that it always leads me to more understanding of why things are the way they are. With all that being said, again, this takes practice! Please have patience and compassion for yourself. Stick with it. Once letting go becomes your habit, an ease and freedom of choice in your life will be worth the hard work!
As we develop from a baby to an adult, we learn to move in three different dimensions: the horizontal dimension (side to side), the vertical dimension (up and down) and the sagittal dimension (forward and back). Interestingly enough, our ability to move in each of these dimensions develops as we grow from a baby to a toddler and has associations with different tasks of each developmental phase. Even MORE interesting (to me anyway), is that over time as we grow up, we develop patterns and affinities for types of movement in each of these dimensions that reflect how we feel about ourselves, relationships and our environment. Over the next three blog posts, we are going to take a closer look at each one of these dimensions and each one´s implications for how they inform and impact how we move through the world.
We start with the horizontal dimension. What exactly is the horizontal dimension? Moving in the horizontal means moving from side to side. Think of stretching when you first get out of bed, or shivering when you face the winter cold first thing in the morning, or sneaking along the wall when trying to scare a friend, or trying to make yourself really small to fit behind a tree when hiding from a friend after they are freaking out because you just scared them. These side to side types of actions utilize the horizontal dimension.
The horizontal dimension sets the stage for tasks of the first year of life: attention, exploration and communication. That´s right! The horizontal is the first dimension that you learned to navigate as a baby because it was essential to your survival. The base movements of the horizontal dimension are known as ¨widening¨ and ¨narrowing¨. Envision yourself as a baby that has not yet learned to walk. The only way you could survive is by reaching for things that seem interesting or useful (widening) and shifting away from things that seem dangerous or unpleasant (narrowing).
Horizontal Dimension: Widening
The first base movement we will explore is widening movement. When inhaling, the ribcage widens, providing breath support to the torso and limbs for expansion. From a developmental perspective, widening is associated with a young infant´s ability to take in nourishment. A nurtured infant will widen in a smile at the sight of his/her caregiver, and will open his/her arms and body to take in the good feelings (whether it be physical or emotional nourishment) of the environment. This openness demonstrates a trust that the infant feels safe to be seen and exposed in a full way. With this very functional aspect of movement as a foundation, widening also underlies more advanced concepts as we continue to develop into adults. As alluded to above, widening movement expresses that you trust the surrounding environment. You feel comforted by being seen and receiving from the environment around you. Because of this, if you are a person who widens, you likely enjoy being in the center of attention or the ¨spotlight.¨ For you, it is actually a comfort to take in all of the good things from the environment. Widening is also associated with giving to the environment, which leads to patterns of generosity. When you see someone in need, you extend a hand to help them up. Offering a hug to someone is a good example of how widening offers the comfort of both receiving and giving. Opening arms wide demonstrates that you trust the person will not harm you, and you receive the joy of both taking in the other person as well as offering comfort to the person whom you are hugging.
This may sound really great, but an overabundance of utilizing widening as a movement pattern can lead to some not so great things. For example, a pattern of widening without utilizing narrowing to balance it out can lead to a need for constant external approval and validation from the external environment with little ability to self soothe or self validate. In other words, your sense of self may be almost completely reliant on the feedback you are receiving from the environment. Also, because this widening movement pattern tends to communicate positive feelings, you may find yourself unable to receive support when struggling due to a lack of ability to communicate distress. Putting it another way, you may be the person always making a joke or throwing a party, but you may not know how to let someone know that your feelings are hurt. Overabundance of utilizing a widening movement pattern can also lead to others taking advantage of your giving nature. Lastly, it can lead to an over idealistic, naive worldview that can lead to a genuine lack of discernment regarding potentially dangerous situations.
Mindfulness Exercise: Widening
Explore widening with different parts of your body.
As you are exploring this type of movement, ask yourself the following types of questions:
Horizontal Dimension: Narrowing
As mentioned above, the other base movement in the horizontal dimension is known as ¨narrowing¨. When exhaling, the ribcage narrows, bringing the sides of the body closer to the center. When an infant utilizes narrowing movement, he/she may purse his/her lips or bring his/her limbs and shoulders in close to the body. This is an infant's attempt to separate from the environment because it is overwhelming, dangerous or unpleasant in some way. It is also a manner in which an infant expresses discomfort. This functional movement pattern is the foundation for other more complex concepts as we continue to develop into adults. This pattern of movement helps us communicate that we need help, aid and support. If you utilize narrowing movement, you are likely slow to trust others and the environment. Because you do not naturally reach out, you may be mislabeled as cold or emotionally distant when really you are just uncertain about the surrounding environment and uncertain about the motives of the people in that environment.
An overabundance of utilizing narrowing as a movement pattern can also lead to problems. If you narrow all the time, you move through the world with not only a mistrust, but also an inability to take in the good things the environment has to offer you. With enough time spent being deprived of nurturing things from the environment, you will form belief systems of being undeserving of positivity, support and nourishment from the environment, which has devastating impacts on overall well being. Also, if you move through the world narrowing away from others and the environment, people may assume that you do not want help or nourishment and give up on trying to connect. As humans, we require connectedness (literally, our brains are wired to grow by learning through outside sources) to thrive, so constant narrowing is essentially cutting off an essential resource.
Mindfulness Exercise: Narrowing
Repeat the exercise above, but explore narrowing movements rather than widening movements.
When you have a balanced ability to shift from widening movements to narrowing movements depending on the circumstances happening in the environment, it suggests that you have a relatively balanced ability to communicate your needs, give and receive support, self soothe and discern times when you feel trusting versus times when you do not trust what is happening in the environment. By becoming more comfortable with these movements in the horizontal (if you are not already comfortable with them), you will likely find that it has a positive impact on your ability to navigate the environment and relationships.
Mindfulness Exercise: Exploration
Bring awareness to how you utilize or avoid utilizing movement in the horizontal dimension throughout your day. For example, maybe you work on a computer most of your day, sitting and typing. Do you ever take a moment to lift your head and scan the room with your eyes, or reach over to the person next to you to ask them to lunch? Is there that one co-worker that you instinctively narrow away from when they approach you with a question? Once you have brought awareness to how you are or are not utilizing horizontal space, explore making different choices. What would it be like to sit in your college class with a widened, solid posture rather than trying to take up as little room as possible? How do people respond differently to you when you make different choices? Explore! Play! Notice!
Your body holds your story.
Did you know this?
When I say this, you may be thinking about the scar you have from a tumble when you were little, or the permanent indent on your eyebrow from that piercing that never quite healed. I am actually referring to something beyond the external look of the body. I am referring to the idea that the cells, bones, nerves and muscles of your body are sacred houses to your personal history.
Well, all of the details on how this happens can get quite complicated. The super basic gist is that your body is the vehicle through which you experience the world. All of the senses of your body- sight, smell, taste, touch, sound, proprioception- are encoded as part of your memories along with felt body sensations and movements. Because of this, your memories are less like a two dimensional painting and more like a live action sequence. We can even take it up a notch! You see, because the memory center of the brain is linked with the area of the brain connected to your current bodily processes, at any given time, those memories can be roused by stimulus happening in our current life.
For example, it is autumn now. There are moments in this season when I walk outside, feel a specific crispness in the air, and all of the sudden feel as though I should have a field hockey stick in my hand. Wierd? Kind of. You see, I spent years playing field hockey in the fall, so when I feel that ¨crispness¨ in the air in my current life, as it is registered for me, it automatically gets linked with memories of playing field hockey in that particular kind of weather. I also typically then recall some fond memories of those times, and it colors my overall view of autumn weather with a pleasant association.
Unfortunately, this means that our current life can also awaken some not so pleasant memories from our past, and lead us to react in ways that are colored by our previous experiences.
For example, let´s say that you recently raked your lawn, but the wind accidentally blew the leaves into your neighbor's yard. The neighbor sees them and starts loudly reprimanding you in a very rude manner. In your head, you want to assert yourself, but you find yourself frozen and unable to speak. You may even feel younger or childlike. After the incident is over, you may be at risk for criticizing yourself for not saying more, or reviewing in your head what you ¨wish¨ you were able to do in that moment. It is likely that in those moments, your present experience and your past were in co-existence. Something about the neighbor, whether it be the person´s aggressive manner, tone of voice or even gestural movements ¨woke up¨ a similar past experience (perhaps being reprimanded by a strict teacher as a child), and with this your body was programmed to react in the same manner as it did in the past.
If you find yourself reacting in situations in a manner that feels out of your control, it is likely because your body has shifted into a sort of ¨autopilot¨ based on your past experiences. In these situations, your brain literally shifts into a different state that actually makes it very difficult for you to have control over the manner in which you choose to respond to the situation. The good news is that you are not ¨weak¨ or ¨stupid¨ or ¨bad¨ for not being able to respond the way you want to respond. The tougher news is that in order to feel as though you have choice in those situations, you need to help the body learn a new way of responding, which could take some help.
Helping your Body Learn New Ways of Responding
Many people are hesitant to acknowledge their past, and thus, move through the world with the mindset of ¨leave the past in the past.¨ I am writing to tell you today that this is not possible to do. The more you ignore your past, the bigger the job of your body to hold it for you, and thus, the more connected to your past your body remains. This creates a disconnect between your head and your body. If you have the courage to acknowledge the impact of your past, then the memories that your body holds will have less intensity to them, and the more room it will have to be in the present moment.
You may need help! This is a CORE function of many mental health professionals and healers. We are trained to help you understand how your past impacts your current life, and then to help you shift it. We exist because this can be a tough challenge! Please do not be discouraged if this seems daunting. The mere step of starting to be aware of moments when your past may be coexisting with your present is a HUGE STEP, and it will really help you make sense of your life in different way. To me it is a beautiful thing that our bodies hold our stories for us. If we allow ourselves to be open to moving through our story, we can exist in a manner that is both free and also appreciative of all of the experiences that helped shape who we are today. This is a profound journey that ends with feeling at peace with yourself, with your past, with your present and trusting in your future.
Taken to an extreme, having your past memories be activated by your present experience is one of the fundamental struggles involved in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a current stimulus triggers a past event that was so intense that it has not been able to be integrated into all parts of the brain, and the result is that you lose touch with present reality and feel as though you are completely (or almost completely) re-experiencing a past event. A common example of PTSD would be the struggle of many returning veterans from war. Perhaps a soldier has returned, and she is walking down the street when she hears an airplane overhead. In that moment, the sound of the airplane triggers unresolved traumatic memories of needing to run for cover out of fear that she is getting bombed. With PTSD, she would literally lose touch with her current reality and feel as though she is back in a foreign country, and she would physically take cover the same way she did in the past. She may find herself in a bush a few minutes later and be confused as to how and why she is in a bush. There is a continuum of experiences and symptoms involved with PTSD, but a central experience is that the past to a large extent takes over your current reality. If you think that you or a loved one could be suffering from this, help is certainly needed in order to heal. Please reach out to me, and we can figure out a way to move forward (whether it be through working with me or utilizing other resources).
Don't be scared! I am not about to recommend dancing naked in front of a fire (unless you're into that sort of thing) or sacrificing a goat or anything like that. I know that the term ¨ritual¨ can be a charged one, as it has many types of associations with it. However, when I refer to the word ¨ritual¨ it is referring to a set of consciously taken steps, done in a particular order with a certain purpose behind each step. Each step builds on each other in such a way that it creates a path to accessing a larger ideal or experience.
I will give an example. Let´s use the process of making a cup of tea. Everyone has seen this process, and some of you may even do this on a daily basis. Making tea involves some version of the following: First you boil water, then grab a tea bag or gather loose leaf tea leaves, then you add the hot water to the tea, then you let it steep, then you pour the steeped tea into a mug, adding honey/milk/sugar/lemon before or after as you prefer.
Is this a ritual? Nope!
As of now, this is simply a process, perhaps even a daily habit… but you could make it a ritual, and cultures such as Japan and China still perform complex tea ritual ceremonies. What makes the Chinese or Japanese tea ceremony a ritual is that there is an explicit intention for the ceremony and each step in the preparation and execution of the ceremony has a distinct function that leads the group towards that overarching intended experience. The intention of the ceremony is to create a harmonious and intimate connection with architecture, landscape gardening and Japanese artwork in all of its forms, as well as create a connection with the essence of the tea and with each other. There is no action taken, nor a word spoken that does not serve some purpose in creating this intended experience. For example, the actual preparation of the tea doesn’t start until the host brings in the tools and cleans them in front of the guests before using them. The cleaning of the tools is aesthetically done with concentration and highly graceful movements. The way in which these movements are performed is of great importance, as they are intended to continue the creation of balance and harmony within the ceremony.
The good news is that you do not have to become an apprentice of the Japanese or Chinese tea ceremony in order to create a ritual out of the process of making tea! The steps are already there, now they simply need to be imbued with purpose and focus. If you wanted, you could create your own daily tea (or coffee) ritual. Later on in this post, I will outline three simple steps to creating a movement ritual that could be applied to this effort.
So now that we have a bit of basic info about what makes a ritual, what is different about a movement ritual?
The point of doing any type of ritual is that it prepares you and provides a path to being in the ideal ¨state of mind¨ or ¨space¨ to experience something desirable for you or the world at large. The steps taken in a ritual organize your awareness, so that you are completely drawn into a particularly focused attention. As in the tea ceremony described above, there is typically some aspect of physical action in most rituals, but movement rituals specifically emphasize the use of body movement as a means of evoking that larger ideal or experience through the act of embodying certain qualities that are essential to being able to experience your desired intention.
One poignant example of a movement ritual is a specific shamanic ritual. Yes, this will bring up more stereotypical ¨dancing around the fire¨ images of ritual, but stay with me! This is interesting stuff...
In many shamanic practices, there is some form of movement ritual involving dancing as a particular animal for the purpose of accessing the power ¨medicine¨ of that particular animal. Some of the preparatory steps to these rituals involve costumes adorned with animal skins, claws or feathers, meditation practice, drumming and singing/chanting. Because of the steps taken in these ritual dances, those who are moving as animals often experience feeling as though they are actually becoming the animal (rather than just mimicking the animal). This is the desired experience because, according to shamanic beliefs, it means that the animal's spirit body has accepted the invitation to help that person by offering the person its powers and guidance. The person then must continue to engage in rituals even after the ceremony in order to keep the animal ¨pleased¨ so it stays within his/her body.
Have you ever tried a movement ritual?
You may be practicing movement rituals already, but just haven't thought of them as rituals. For example, you may do a morning yogic Sun Salutation practice. This can be a movement ritual! Each part of this asana has a purpose building towards a larger experience of honoring and greeting the Sun, as well as feeling energized for the day. All of the movement pieces in this asana have a unique contribution towards this purpose. Simply engaging in this practice can bring you energy and positivity for the day, but you can also add complexity to the ritual that could deepen your experience of the overarching intentions. For example, utilizing a mantra or saying a certain affirmation during each breath of the Sun Salutation could deepen the ritual experience. Purposefully choosing to face the direction of the rising sun, so that you are physically positioned to ¨greet¨ the sun also can deepen the ritual experience, and even more so, getting up and engaging in the Sun Salutations at the time of sunrise again adds to the depth of the ritual making it potentially even more powerful.
If you don't currently have any movement rituals in your life, I highly recommend creating your own! Here is an idea of how to develop your own movement ritual. You may find your own organic way of creating a ritual for yourself, and if that happens, then by all means go with it!
Create a Movement Ritual in 3 Easy Steps
Step 1-Think of something you would like to experience in your life. For this example, let´s say you are creating a movement ritual to experience more gratitude in your life.
Step 2- Keep the idea of gratitude in your awareness, and, without thinking too much, do a few movements that you feel relate to or capture the idea of gratitude.
Step 3- Repeat these movements, and notice if each movement has a certain unique quality in and of itself. For example, maybe one movement is opening your arms out wide, and so ¨openness¨ becomes one of the steps to feeling gratitude. Perhaps another movement is bringing your hands to your heart, and so another one of the steps becomes ¨connecting with the heart.¨ Before you know it, each of these movements take on their own purpose that contributes to being able to access gratitude.
Note: It may take a few times before the ritual really solidifies itself. You may find that the movements flow better in a different order. Or, perhaps you realize that a particular song comes to mind when doing your movements, so you decide to play the song while doing the movements, and thus, playing the song becomes one of the steps in performing the ritual. Remember, as long as each step has a known purpose or intention, then it is fair game!
There are a couple of keys to movement ritual (well, ritual in general really). The first is that you must be completely focused and committed to the purpose of each step as well as the overarching intention. If you are doing one of your movements, but thinking about what you are going to have for breakfast, this greatly diminishes, if not extinguishes, the power of the movement as ritual. Secondly, a ritual must be repeated consistently. The idea is that when you are engaging in a ritual, you are walking a path that ends with you being in a space where you are prepared to experience your intention. The more the ritual is repeated, the more worn the path, and thus the more powerful the access to the state of mind where you can connect with that desired experience. This is why ancient rituals can be so powerful. They takes us down paths that are well established and known to lead to profound states of attention. They are passed down through the generations of their tribal lineage specifically for this purpose of passing on a road map to important and profound states of existence.
If you are interested in more established forms of movement rituals, feel free to contact me. I facilitate all kinds of movement rituals including shamanic ceremonies and Authentic Movement for both group and individual practices.
Most of us attribute muscle tension to stress, which is true, but not the whole truth. One of the primary functions of muscle tension is to initiate action. If that action is not taken, then the muscle simply remains tense, and it continues to build and build within the body until we find ourselves at the point where we can not turn our neck to check the blind spot while driving because the tension is so bad! In this writing, I will explain basic mechanics of how muscles work to allow us to take action, explain how this impacts our physical comfort and emotional/mental well being, and review some ways we can use this information to take better care of ourselves.
Basic Muscle Mechanics
In order for an action to take place, at least one muscle group contracts, bringing a certain level of tension to the muscle. This contraction provides potential energy needed to initiate and support movement. Depending on the complexity of the action, when the movement happens the muscle group can then release the tension and other muscles may be simultaneously contracting to support continued complex movement or momentum. If you want to explore this for yourself, try making any simple movement and identify the muscle area that contracts in order to initiate the movement… There is always at least one!
Okay, so you may be asking yourself how this is relevant to you. You see, this means that throughout the day, your body is most likely naturally reacting to certain situations wanting to take action. Your body is designed to take action in order to keep you safe and maximize your potential to thrive in an environment. However, societal norms may dictate that you consciously or unconsciously resist the urge to respond in the way your body would naturally like to respond, because your brain knows that such actions in the given social environment would have negative consequences. When your body begins to initiate action through muscle tension, but then is not able to complete that action (for whatever reason), the energy gets stuck and creates lasting tension.
For example, let's examine a scenario in which you get called into your boss's office, and you find that you are getting some difficult feedback from your boss. It is very likely that your body is responding in this situation. Perhaps you notice your jaw and neck muscles become tight. This could indicate that your body really wants to speak, make sound or yell, perhaps even cry. Perhaps you notice your legs tense up. This could mean that your body wants to run out of the room. Perhaps you notice your shoulders and arms tense. This could mean that you want to punch your boss in the face! (not recommended!) Or, it could also mean that your arms want to embrace your torso in a self soothing form of comfort.
The type of action your body wants to take is completely personal. Because of potential consequences for your actions, it is likely that you will automatically shut down the action without necessarily consciously thinking about it, even if your body was telling you that it wanted to move in a certain way.
So, what does this mean?
Well, it means that if some sort of action is not eventually allowed to happen, the tension will remain in the muscles. No matter how much you try to relax or distract from it, the tension will still be there. Sometimes, in order to deal with tension, you may implement passive means of trying to get to a place of relaxation. For example, you might come home, plop down on the couch and watch television, or take a nap. Some of you may even try to sit and meditate, or take a bath. Don't get me wrong! All of these self care strategies can be really useful and beneficial! I am a big advocate of all of them in the right time and place. However, what I am saying is that for the purposes of relieving muscle tension, it would benefit you to do some movement before these forms of coping in order to get the maximum benefits.
The ideal way to handle this build up of muscle tension is to allow times throughout your day where you can appropriately move the action energy out of your body. Here are some simple ways to do this:
However, it could be that you may not be able to address these things until the end of your day. If this is the case, here are some additional ways to recuperate that may take a bit more time:
Emotional/Mental Bonus Points
Although simply doing any of the above movement activities will help release the needed trapped energy in the body, you will get bonus emotional/mental well being points if you can connect the movement to the circumstance that led to the tension in the first place. For example, if you decide to go on a jog after work in order to release some of the tension built up from when you wanted to run out of your boss's office, spend some time visualizing that moment in your boss's office while you are jogging and feel your body getting the opportunity to ¨run out of the office.¨ It will help you ¨rewrite history¨ in a sense, and you will feel less stuck or trapped when recalling the experience in the future.
I would also like to note that the above lists are simply suggestions that require different levels of accessibility and time commitment, but please BE CREATIVE with what works to help you actively relieve built up tension in your body. As long as what you choose to do does not cause you injury or pain, there is no wrong way to move, so please use your imagination and really go for it!
Then, AFTER you move your body a bit, feel free to bring in those soothing, relaxation methods that work for you such as watching your favorite television show or reading your favorite book. You will find that the benefits are enhanced by releasing that tension first because your muscles will be able to achieve a deeper level of relaxation.
I highly recommend implementing this as a daily practice, whether you are able to take small amounts of time throughout your day, whether you take time at the end of your day, or both. Stick with it for at least two weeks, and you will notice a big difference. Because you may have built up levels of chronic tension in the body, it could take a bit of time to clear that out, but keep things consistent for a bit, and you will not only feel better physically, but you will likely gain insight into patterns of how you react in certain situations throughout your day that you will find useful. So... get moving!
The body holds wisdom that is essential to truly understanding both your deepest pain and your strongest capacities. Because of this, it is important to learn how to access and listen to this wisdom. Unfortunately, in an increasingly technological and intellectual world, communication from our bodies has become easily ignored, dismissed and feared. Even basic physiological cues, such as hunger, have become feelings that are to be avoided and mistrusted, rather than acknowledged and honored. This growing separation of mind and body is dangerous, as it has serious implications for well being.
As a dance/movement therapist, I have been trained in guiding people on a journey of connecting to, exploring, understanding, honoring and integrating the wisdom of the body. The body speaks to us in three basic ways: body movement, physical body sensations and somatic symptoms. Today, I will expand on each of these three basic ways that the body constantly tries to speak to us, and I will offer ways you can begin to explore for yourself how to translate communication from your body in a way that broadens your self-awareness.
1. The body speaks through movement.
The way we move through the world reflects who we are and how we feel about the world in which we live. For example, how do you enter a room with strangers? Do you walk with solid footing? Do you move directly into the room or stay along the outside? Do you approach someone or wait until someone approaches you? Each of these answers tells you a little about yourself and about how you have been physically patterned to move through the world. Changing any of these movement patterns will likely be loaded with emotions and anxieties, as well as highlight belief systems that you have learned about yourself and the world. With this understanding from the body, you can choose if there are ways in which you would like to change the way you move through the world and notice the psychological/emotional response to that change.
Start to notice ways in which you move and hold yourself throughout your everyday life and explore what happens when you make a change. For example, if you typically sit with your back super straight and your legs crossed, notice what it is like to allow your spine to rest on the chair and/or what it feels like to let your legs be outstretched in front of you. When you are standing, do you typically have your weight shifted to one side? Notice what it is like to stand with your weight evenly dispersed on both feet. How does this impact the rest of your body structure? Now, you will likely have thoughts like, ¨This is just awkward and uncomfortable. I stand the way I stand because it is comfortable.¨ This is true… AND… it is also likely that you find it comfortable because of psychological/emotional associations that come with holding yourself in that manner. If you stick with it long enough, you will start to have other thoughts that are more about how you feel as a person rather than just how you physically feel in these changed positions. Be curious about those thoughts and continue exploring!
2. The body speaks through physical sensations.
The body is constantly communicating to us about how it is understanding the world around us through physical sensations. For example, have you ever had the experience of walking out of your front door for the day and getting a tingle in your body that tells you that you need to go back inside? When you do, did you find that you forgot to lock the door, or forgot to turn the stove off, or forgot to feed the dog?
This is the body communicating with us that it is picking up something in the environment that our intellectual brains can't comprehend. Some people refer to this as the ¨spidey sense¨ and others refer to it as ¨animal instinct¨ but I tend to view this as body intuition. Regardless of what you call it, I would venture to say that everyone has had some experience where there was no rational reason why you would take a certain action, but something inside your body tells you that you need to act, and it ends up being true. This is not coincidence. This happens because our bodies understand the world in a different way than our intellectual/rational brain understands it. Becoming familiar with our body´s capability in this way can become a really important resource!
In moments throughout the day when you think to yourself, ¨I am overwhelmed¨ or ¨I am anxious¨ or ¨I am really happy,¨ follow that thought with the following question: ¨How do I know?¨ Then, bring awareness to the sensations that are happening in your body that are telling your brain that you are feeling a certain way. For example, ¨anxious¨ could be made up of sensations such as rapid heart rate, tension in the shoulders and butterflies in the stomach. Noticing your anxiety as simply a cluster of body sensations can help you to address the anxiety by tending to your body.
Another way to approach this experiment is to simply pause randomly at a certain point during your day, and take an inventory of the body sensations that are occurring. When you take the time to notice what your body is telling you, you will be surprised at what it is saying! You may discover that your mouth is dry, so you need water. Or you may feel stiffness in your legs and realize that you need to move around the office a bit. Addressing these cues will ultimately help you stay physiologically regulated, present and tend to your body's basic needs.
3. The body speaks through somatic symptoms.
When emotions and experiences are not addressed, the unresolved active energy gets trapped in the body and eventually can lead to somatic symptoms and/or illness. For example, have you ever gotten really angry with someone, but instead of letting it out, you bottled it up and tried to pretend like it didn't happen because you don't want to be an ¨angry person¨ or hurt the person´s feelings? Perhaps an hour, a day or even a week after this event, you find yourself getting unusual headaches, migraines or nausea? Again, this is not a coincidence. Anger is strong and active energy. If it is not released, it does not just disappear! Instead, it will manifest itself somehow and someway within the physical body. This is true of all emotional experiences. All emotions manifest as clusters of physiological experiences in the body, and if you do not allow them to be experienced as they happen, the energy associated with each state must find a different way to exist within the body, which can result in a myriad of somatic symptoms. Exploring the possibility that a somatic symptom is related to emotional/psychological distress often leads to a body-based intervention that will alleviate the symptom.
The next time you are experiencing a symptom that is a nuisance for you, pause and go through the following steps: 1) Focus your attention on the symptom; 2) Get yourself to be curious about why the symptom is happening (rather than critical or intellectual about the symptom); 3) This may sound silly, but the next step is to ask the symptom variations of the following questions- ¨Why are you here?¨, ¨What are you trying to tell me?¨, ¨What energy are you holding for me?¨ and any other questions that your curiosity compels you to ask the symptom; 4) Pay attention to the natural intuitive response that you get! I know it sounds goofy, but you WILL get an answer. Be mindful of that answer, and take action based on the response that you receive.
In summary, the body speaks to us through movement, body sensations and somatic symptoms. I could spend a lot of time digging deeper into each of these ways in which the body speaks to us, and I probably will do so in future writing! However, I hope this leaves you with a basic sense of how you can start to become aware of how your body is constantly and consistently giving you very important information. Please know that, often, what the body has to communicate with us can't quite be translated fully into words. It can be difficult for us to accept that we do not always need words. However, we do not always need to understand something intellectually in order for healing to take place. Do we need to articulate how bones regenerate before a broken bone will mend itself? No! Sometimes, we need to just experience what it is like to move through the tension and stuck energy in our body so that it can be released and regenerated. Body-based psychotherapy allows this process of communication to happen, and guides you into a healthy relationship with your body's wisdom and innate capacity for resiliency.