Why is the body so important in healing trauma? In this episode, we discuss several body-based/somatic practices and how they can help build a foundation toward resolving trauma and coming back to our "whole selves."
In this episode, Janice explains why is the body so important in healing trauma. She also shares some body-based (somatic) practices that can help us build a foundation for addressing trauma and coming back to our "whole selves" by:
Over time, we can build the capacity to handle more of the emotional charge when diving deeper into healing trauma, walk away from harmful situations earlier, be more present in the moment, and feel more alive in our bodies.
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Hey y’all welcome to The Soul’s Work Podcast, the show about uncovering our authentic selves through doing both light work and shadow work. I’m your host Janice Ho, and thanks so much y’all for joining me.
It is March 21, 2022, and this is episode number 3 and my first solo episode of Season 3 of the podcast. And I’m getting back to our ongoing series on Healing Trauma which started in Season 2. And, as you might now, in the first three episodes of this series, I shared some of the education I’ve been learning on what is trauma? How does it develop on the level of our nervous system and in our bodies? Why do we get triggered or activated by things in our present-day life that are connected with past experiences? Why can’t we just let that shit go?
And then, in part 4 of the series, I talked a lot about my experiences doing therapy as just one part of a larger, holistic approach to healing. And this series is really about me sharing what that holistic approach has been – all the various aspects of it, from healing at the level of the body (which is what we're discussing today) to bringing in the mind and reflection, and cognitive awareness to influence change (that more thinking piece), to developing relationships that provide a safe-enough container in which healing can happen, and so on.
And I really want to emphasize that this my one, personal, unique experience healing from trauma. Other people’s experiences, I’m sure, will look so different. So, please keep that in mind. Also note that I’m not a so-called expert in any of this stuff. I’m not a therapist, yet. And yes, so much of what I’m talking about is based on the trauma psychoeducation, research, etc. I will link to resources in the show notes so you can explore more, if you’d like. But it’s really important to me to always stress that I’m just here to share my story so that people, one, might feel less alone in their own life challenges, and, two, that you might get curious about something new that you didn’t consider before but that might lead you down your own personal exploration to greater healing, growth, etc.
Okay, so as I just mentioned, today, as well as in the next solo episode, I will be talking about healing trauma through body-based approaches – also known as somatic approaches. "Somatic" is just a fancy word that means "of the body, especially as distinct from the mind." And particularly over the past couple of years, I’ve been really diving deeper into exploring healing methods that are less about talking and analyzing and using our higher thinking brain, and more about feeling and sensing and tuning into the physical sensations as well as emotions that arise inside my body.
So I wrote a blog post at www.thesoulsworkpodcast.com called “The Missing Piece: Healing Trauma through Somatic and Mind-Body Therapies,” where I wrote about a lot of this stuff. So you can read that as a pretty detailed overview of some of the things I’m gonna cover here.
And I want to do this conversation in at least a couple of parts, because this is such a huge topic. So for this episode, I'm going to first talk a bit about why this topic of somatic or body-based healing, therapy, practices, approaches, etc. is so important, like why should we care so much about the body? What does this have to do with healing trauma? What are some of the beneficial outcomes? Just to give some context there in case this is really new to you.
And then, second, I'm going to talk about specific somatic practices that I’ve been doing that have helped me to learn, or perhaps relearn, how to be in greater connection with my body. So, how I can really develop the capacity to feel and hear those important messages my body is communicating to me. How I can stay more present and open to my environment and people around me, so that there's opportunity for deeper, more authentic connection. As well as how I can stay more grounded and be with the emotional charge that I might feel during some of the challenging experiences and sensations that will inevitably come up for me, for us, because that's life y'all.
So, that's today's episode. And I want to preface this part of the conversation with the request to please not listen to today's episode in isolation. And that when I say things like these somatic practices have helped me to experience things like less hypervigilance, greater connection, etc., I don't mean that it's only been due to these somatic practices alone that have led to those outcomes. The whole point of this trauma healing series is to show how holistic my personal healing journey has been, and that I really think for a lot of people it takes addressing different facets of our life, from the body, to the mind, to relationships, to our environment, etc. for us to really see the transformations we want.
So, I do think what I'm gonna share today is really foundational, but also just by themselves, these practices and approaches wouldn’t have been enough for me anyways to heal complex trauma in the ways that I have. And as with any kind of practice in the healing space, for lack of a better term, a practice can be used both for our healing but also to bypass certain experiences that might feel uncomfortable but might be where a huge opportunity is for growth to happen. And that bypassing is often done unintentionally, but that can happen, even with things like meditation, yoga, etc.
So, in my next solo episode, I'll talk more explicitly about how I’ve experienced the healing of specific past traumas through combining body and mind approaches. So, again, today, I’m talking about practices that can help develop our capacity to become more connected with our body’s internal experience. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that those practices are done in the specific context of working through or healing some kind of trauma. And bringing in some of the more cognitive awareness pieces to that kind of work can look a bit different and be really important as well in healing trauma. I’ll also touch on somatic or body-based therapies that don’t bring in the mind component as much but that are also specifically for healing unresolved trauma.
So, don’t worry if this all sounds really abstract right now. I’m gonna dive into all of it so much more in this and the next solo episode. And if you want to read that blog post I mentioned as I think a pretty good organization of all of these ideas, I will link to that in the show notes or you can go to the blog on thesoulsworkpodcast.com and find it there. Again, it’s called “The Missing Piece: Healing Trauma through Somatic and Mind-Body Therapies.”
Life updates + housekeeping
Okay, before I dive into today's conversation, I want to check in really briefly with a little life update and some housekeeping. So, first off, I just got back from Costa Rica a few nights ago, which was so amazing, such a great reset. Got so much beach time in, it was hot, it was sunny. I also found that it was really nice to not have access to wifi or data when I was out on the beach. I’d still get back to my Airbnb in time to check if I had any rush jobs come in and get that done for the day. But I realized how much I didn’t need to have access to my phone all the time. And how that just left so much more time and headspace to do other things, including getting some R&R time.
And I was already feeling that as soon as I got back into the city, there’s been this impulse to be more connected and glued to my phone and checking notifications and all that stuff. So, I’m just noticing that, and in line with today’s episode, I’m noticing how that feels in my body. You know, it’s really interesting to just notice how I feel internally in those different kinds of environments and lifestyles, even though I was still working while I was there. Nothing about that had changed.
So, anyways, that was one of my post-trip reflections. Also, I mentioned in my last episode that I got accepted into my therapist training program of choice. I'll be starting in September. It's a five year part-time program, which is great. I'm all for taking my time with this, really letting all the learnings sink in, and still gotta work and pay the bills.
But I'm so incredibly excited. A bit nervous as well, of course with anything new, and this would essentially be my third career that I'll be starting when I'm like 45 at the earliest, once I'm registered as a therapist. But also, I have so many years left in my life – knock on wood – and I think a lot about how am I contributing to this world before I go? How am I leaving this world a better place, however incrementally better, for the younger generations that are coming up? I don't need to have my own kids – and that’s not gonna be happening – in order for me to care about our young people, about those who aren't even here yet but for whom we are co-creating the conditions in which they're gonna have to survive or thrive in. And I really believe that that is one of our responsibilities, to think much more than just outside of our one self and our one lifespan. Because we absolutely have an effect on so much more than just that.
So, I look forward to sharing about my journey becoming a therapist. Let's try to make this podcast last for at least the next 5 years, okay? On that note, if you are enjoying the show and want to support the pod, and let me know you want to keep this going, the best way you can do that is by leaving a rating and review for The Soul's Work Podcast. You can do that on Apple Podcasts, Podchasers, or Spotify. All the links are on my website at www.thesoulsworkpodcast.com – I’ll also drop those links in the show notes. And please don’t forget to subscribe to The Soul’s Work Podcast on your favorite podcast directory, so you can be the first to get notified when a new episode drops.
You can also follow me on Instagram @janicehoimages. And you can email me at email@example.com if you have any questions, feedback, or just want to share a bit about your own personal story.
Why is the body important in this trauma-healing work?
All right, let's do this.
So, why are we talking so much about the body? Why are we so all about listening to the body, reconnecting with our body, tuning into our body? We talked about this in the first two episodes of this season, where I chatted with my guests about the soul and then also about exploring pleasure and embodiment, and we're talking about it now. So, what is the big deal? And what does it all have to do with healing trauma?
First off, our body is always, always communicating to us – that communication is simply part of our human physiology. And it might communicate to us through these physical sensations that we feel – like, maybe we feel a buzz in our chest, or a tingly sensation, or our heart might race, we might feel a numbness, we might feel a sense of expansiveness in our body, or a tightness or constriction in our chest, a foggy sensation in our head, and so on. Our body might also communicate with us through the emotions we experience – like when we feel anger, joy, grief, etc. And I will do a separate episode on emotions, because there’s so much there to talk about.
And so, when our body is communicating with us in these various ways, it's often reacting to the things it's taking in from its environment, right? Whether it's something that it's witnessing through sight. Or it might be the words and tone of someone's voice, or a really loud noise, maybe a soft noise, that it hears. So through the five senses, right? The other ones being smell, touch, and taste. And then also, we take in things energetically as well. For example, our body can sense when someone we are interacting with is grounded and at ease in their energy, or when their energy feels erratic or aggressive. Like, our bodies can and do sense these things.
And all of that is really our innate gift and ability. Our bodies have the natural ability to know when shit is off. When there is some kind of threat that we’re facing. When a boundary has just been crossed. It knows when someone we’re interacting with is being authentic or not. Our body can sense, again, through the person’s energy as well as the cues in their face and eyes and the tone of their voice and body language what the story is. And our bodies can also sense when there is safety present and can be at ease and open up to connection with others, and therefore get to experience things like joy and love and all that good stuff.
But there are all these things that can happen to us as we grow up that really dull this innate ability we have to be so in tune with our body. For example, when we experience trauma, that experience or experiences can lead to us feeling unsafe in our own bodies – because oftentimes those traumatic experiences come with these overwhelming, uncomfortable, perhaps painful feelings and emotions, right?
Earlier in this trauma healing series, I talked about what happens at the level of the nervous system and body when trauma develops. The whole fight-flight-freeze experience, right? And so, if we haven’t learned how to be with those feelings and sensations, to work through them, and to come back to a state of ease and sense of safety – which, unfortunately, many of us didn’t get that opportunity to learn those things when we were young – what often happens, then, is that our body learns to shut down those really big feelings and sensations. Which is a wise response from our body, because it’s trying to protect us from feeling too much, too fast, too soon – which is one definition of trauma. I couldn’t find the source of that quote – if you know it, please give me a shout.
And whether you’ve been through a lot of adverse experiences in your life or not, I do think that in today’s world, most people experience this disconnection with their bodies to some degree. Because our society and culture – speaking from the perspective of being raised in a Western culture; I’m in Canada – often does tell us, directly or indirectly, to disregard our body’s intuition, and instead dictates to us how we should move, how we should sit, when we're allowed to take a break from class, from work, etc.
It tells women in particular to make ourselves small, and that can actually show up in the way a person stands and physically takes up space in the room. It of course dictates to women how we should look and dress, no matter how uncomfortable it might be for our bodies. It boxes many people into a very structured – or rigid, depending on how you look at it – work schedule and environment that may be totally misaligned with how our bodies actually need to function and rest and, yes, be productive but when we’re actually able to be productive. It’s a huge reason why I left the Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, working in an office gig. No shade to anyone working in an office, but I found that my actual physical health suffered because of that.
So, those are just some examples of how we can become disconnected from our bodies and the wisdom of our bodies. And over the long run, what can happen as a result of this ongoing disconnection is:
That, for example, if we’re continuously putting up our walls and pushing away those uncomfortable feelings as soon as they come up, because we haven’t learned to deal with them in any other way, then yes, we might protect ourselves from some painful feelings in the short-term, but we can also inadvertently shut ourselves off to feeling things like joy, and the kind of vulnerability and openness that makes deeper connections possible, etc. over the long-term. So, we shut down one part of our experience (the one that tends to be labeled as negative or bad), and so doing we shut down another part of our experience (the one that tends to be labeled as good or positive). Because you can’t pick and choose.
Also, if our default reaction to big emotions, painful feelings, etc., is to push them away, not be with them, then it’s obviously going to be hard to cultivate our ability to navigate uncomfortable situations in a more grounded, empowered way. Or, if you’ve had my earlier experience, you might actually feel everything to the nth degree, but that can also keep us from hearing our body's authentic messages, because it’s more like everything feels like it's in chaos internally, and the intense emotions and feelings that come up are too overwhelming to, again, be with in a really grounded way. And this has so many implications for how we navigate stressful situations, how we show up in relationships, how we deal with conflict, etc.
Also, if we have ended up in a state of hypervigilance, because of ongoing trauma and chronic stress – I’ve talked about this in, I believe, Part 3 of this series – then it can be really easy to mistakenly interpret certain things as threatening when they’re actually not, or when perhaps they don’t really warrant the level of intense feelings and reactions that we might experience as a result of being triggered. So, that innate ability we have to be really intuitive and know when something’s off, that can become skewed, and our “compass” so to speak can lose its accuracy.
And, then, also, if we have gotten really used to ignoring or overriding what’s happening in our body, then we can end up missing a lot of that information, those cues, that our body tries to alert us to, to be, like, hey, what’s happening here with this relationship dynamic is not okay, we need to put up a boundary with this person; or hey, we’re starting to get burnt out here, we need a rest. Right? So, our ability to quickly connect with that part of us, and hear it loud and clear, can become a bit dull and out of practice. And then, again, being able to address those situations in a really grounded way also becomes difficult.
So those are just a few examples of what we can end up experiencing over the long-term, kind of the bigger-picture outcomes of becoming disconnected with our body’s internal experience. But the good news is that, what I’ve learned is if we do recognize that we’re a bit (or a lot) out of sync with our body in these ways, while it absolutely does take work, it is more than possible to strengthen that relationship with our body, with the intuition and wisdom of our body, so that we can take action much earlier on when we begin to notice that we’re taking on too much and on the path to burning out or building resentment, or when we’re engaging with a person who maybe has some toxic energy that if we allow to continue infecting our life with because we ignored the signs our body kept telling us early on, is gonna be a much bigger problem down the road.
We’re able to make decisions much sooner to assert healthy boundaries, to rest, to get up and move our bodies if that’s what’s needed, or to perhaps cut down on some of the unhealthy habits we’re engaging in because we’re noticing that our body is asking for something different. We can come to stressful situations in a much more grounded, empowered way. We can revitalize that sense of aliveness and being present in the moment that is really something that is experienced through being in our bodies, not being so much in our heads. And also, once we cultivate more capacity to be with all of the feelings, no matter how uncomfortable, we start looking at it less in these binary terms – of these are bad feelings, these are good feelings, negative, positive. And it really becomes about all of it being part of the human experience that makes life this complex, wondrous journey that we’re on.
There are so many amazing things that can come out of having this stronger connection with our internal experience and this awareness of the messages that our bodies are, again, continuously sending us. And there is so much value in really sharpening that connection so that we don’t wait until we’re really ill, or deep into a toxic relationship, or just feeling super miserable with the way our life is going.
And of course, I want to always, always name that sometimes we may not have the privilege, the advantage, the resources, the capacity to actually act on meeting all of those needs in the most ideal way that we want to. So I think we always have to keep that in mind, at least I really try to, because part of creating these opportunities for people to experience all of the great things – the joy, the rest, the boundary-setting, etc. – lies also with our broader system and structures as well. It's not just an individual responsibility, period.
And also, that being said, we do have a degree of agency. We also have a lot of potential and a wealth of capacity that's right there already within us, within our actual bodies – I'm talking, like, physiologically. You can get spiritual with this if you'd like, but, to me, we don’t even need to go there, necessarily. There’s so much research out there on this stuff, if you want to look at this from a “scientific” perspective. But, really, for me, while the education has been helpful, it’s directed me to think beyond just the mind, it’s directed me to explore these kinds of somatic healing approaches, it is really, ultimately, the lived experience, the ongoing practice in my day to day life, that has resulted in the most significant “evidence” of how this attention to the body can really transform someone in their healing and growth journey.
Examples of somatic practices
Okay, so now that we’ve got all of that context down about why the body is so important, the question then, of course, is how exactly do we build this connection with our body and our internal experience? What are these somatic or body-based practices that I have been talking about?
So, again, this is my one unique personal experience, so please remember that I’m not sharing what I’m about to share to say that this is what you should do too. Some of the things I’ve tried might not be what’s actually supportive for you, for whatever reason, and that’s totally cool. There are things, like yoga, for example, that obviously lots of people do and find helpful, but that really does not resonate with me and feels triggering sometimes. So, again, I just want to share my experience in case it sparks some curiosity or just even opens up this more general idea of healing through the body, connecting with our body, that maybe you didn’t even know existed. And then you can go down your own rabbit hole as you decide.
Okay, so some of these practices that I’ve done might involve movement, dance, or singing, but oftentimes it does look a bit more meditative or being really still and just kind of tuning into what’s happening in my body. But collectively, they’ve tended to focus on a couple things: 1) again, bringing my awareness to what my body is sensing internally – so, sharpening that ability to pick up on the variety of different physical sensations and feelings and emotions that might come up within my internal landscape; and/or 2) these approaches might help me to practice leading and taking action from what my body is communicating it needs and wants versus leading from what my mind might be telling me to do.
So in that first category – not that these are exclusive categories, because certainly there is overlap, but I like to organize my thoughts – there are a bunch of different somatic practices I’ve done that have helped me to become so much more in tune with what my body is sensing and feeling internally. And in jargony, trauma-education speak, we could say that these practices have helped to improve my interoceptive and/or exteroceptive awareness. Let me explain the jargon before I lose y’all.
Interoception basically helps us understand and actually feel what’s happening inside our body. It’s the internal experience we have of our inner physical sensations – for example, being able to sense our heartbeat, to know and feel that we are in a state of hunger, sensing how rested or tired we feel. And interoception is also the internal experience we have of our emotions – for example, feeling safe, sensing that we’re feeling sad, etc.
And if you think about your own experience with these kinds of things, you know that it’s very visceral. We might have thoughts associated with that visceral experience, especially when the interpretation and meaning-making comes in. But the sensing of those things, the actual feeling, the actual experiencing of those things is happening at the level of our body. And how we are feeling in terms of those inner physical sensations and emotions is really important for how we come to even see ourselves and our place in the world, and in relationships, and so on.
So, certain somatic practices help us to turn our attention to what are those physical sensations and emotions that we are experiencing interoceptivally?
One example is doing guided meditation practices that guide me to tune into my body’s internal experience. For example, yoga nidra is a type of meditation I sometimes do right before bed to get out of my mind and thoughts and more in my body. So "Yoga nidra (according to Wikipedia) is a state in which the body is completely relaxed, and the [person doing the yoga nidra] becomes systematically and increasingly aware of the inner world by following a set of verbal instructions."
And those verbal instructions might sound like, “Bring your awareness to your breath” (and they might guide you on taking a full breath, holding it perhaps for a couple seconds). And they might say, “Feel the jaw relax and the shoulder relax, the arms getting heavy” (which usually shows you how tense you are, even while lying in bed). And then they’ll go through a series of instructions where you are asked to bring your awareness to each body part, in turn, from your right hand thumb to eventually your right knee, to eventually each toe. And you might sense that there’s a tingly feeling in your big toe on your right foot. Or a buzzing sensation in your right kneecap.
Like, it might sound kind of bizarre, but it's been a practice that has helped me to turn inward to sensing what’s happening within my body, without bringing the mind into it, without the need for interpretation. And also, it’s really great for helping you fall asleep, because your body is so relaxed by the end of it. At least for me.
There are also a few books I’ve read that include somatic exercises, like Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy (Susan McConnell). So, one exercise in this book is called “Opening to Somatic Awareness”, and the purpose is to “gauge the level of capacity to tune in to the body and notice sensations and to practice and develop that capacity.” And also, “To develop the ability to describe sensations in language.”
So, the exercise, and I won’t go through all the steps in detail, but it’s really about lying down comfortably, noticing where your awareness goes to. Does it go to areas of pain, or pleasant feelings? Which areas are easier to connect with? Or more difficult to feel? So, making a map of your body that indicates these areas and in this process labeling the sensations. And I’ve done similar practices like this where the facilitator will invite us if we are sensing pain or discomfort in one area of our body, to then find another part of our body that maybe feels more at ease and pain-free as a way to kind of be a resource to the part of us that is feeling discomfort.
There’s also a book called Coming to Our Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This book has a bunch of short chapters on experiencing certain things like taking a walk or breathing or hearing with this somatic awareness in mind. So, an example of what that could look like is in his “Walking Meditations” chapter, he talks about how “we can bring our attention to our feet and feel the contact of the foot with the floor or ground with every step, as if we were kissing the earth and the earth were kissing right back.”
And this kind of walking meditative practice is not about trying to get to an end destination or a goal of some sort. You can just do this in your backyard, where you walk back and forth, or go to the park and take a slow stroll. And part of this practice is to not give into our impulse to move quickly, but to slow down enough that we’re really tuned into our body’s experience of connecting with its environment and the ground, the experience of the legs moving forward, and the breath that’s involved in this experience.
So, that’s one example. And then, the exercises in the book My Grandmother's Hands (Resmaa Menakem) are also great. That book is more focused on doing anti-racism work, but Resmaa takes a somatic approach to that and cultivating the capacity to be in our bodies, including being with the uncomfortable sensations that can come up.
I also just finished a course recently with the Rooted Village Hub called "Awaken to the World Alive!" – it was a mindfulness foundations course. And "mindfulness", which is often a big aspect of this somatic work, is quite a misnomer actually because the thing it describes is so much about being in our bodies, and not full of our minds at all!
But anyways, in this course, there were a lot of kind of meditative practices that we’d do together in group. Some of it was familiar things like doing the body scan, like in the yoga nidra meditation, or being with challenging emotions that might come up, as I’ve done with the Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy. And over a few weeks, we’d practice this in group with an amazing facilitator, Karine Bell, and on our own as well, how to be more in our bodies, how to be more with experience itself without bringing so much of the meaning making and interpretation and judgment and all of that into it.
So, these practices can really help us to cultivate the ability to stay with those internal sensations in our body just a bit longer than maybe what we’re used to. And for many of us, because of trauma, our capacity for being with those sensations and feelings might be really, really low. But we can keep stretching and expanding this capacity to really be present in our bodies and tuned in as we continue our practice on an ongoing basis.
And this becomes really important when we are working with sensations and emotions that are so much harder to be with, that feel much more uncomfortable – whether it’s in therapy and we’re working through some unresolved trauma, or if we’re in the middle of dealing with a conflict with our partner. And developing this practice and capacity when the stakes aren’t as high, sometimes even within a group or class setting with a facilitator, can help us to develop a stronger foundation for being in our bodies, so that when it’s much harder to do so, we have some kind of base that we're stepping up from, versus trying to jump up from ground zero.
So, I also mentioned exteroception, which is our sensitivity to and perception of our outside environment. So as y’all know, we use our five senses to take in information about the world around us, and then we use this thing called exteroception to gauge our level of safety. And then, our perceptions and interpretations guide our behaviour. So again, thoughts and meaning-making can certainly come into play, but it really starts with the sensory information we take in around us, which we’re doing all the time.
So, certain somatic practices will invite us to orient to the environment around us, through our senses, so that we can work on coming out of this default state of hypervigilance – if that’s the case for us, which it has been for me – and begin to open ourselves up to being more curious about our environment, to develop more of capacity to stay open and connected with what’s around us, instead of putting up this guard.
So, one example of a practice I did to work on this exteroception piece was an online class on “Orienting as a resource” by Irene Lyon, who is a nervous system specialist and somatic neuroplasticity expert. And what the session looked like – it was a group Zoom session – was that Irene, as the facilitator, would invite us to sense what was happening internally – so, again, back to the interoception stuff – as well as sense our bodies within our surrounding space and feel the ground underneath us. And there was also the invitation to move, shift, or to get up if that was our impulse. But a lot of the session was about exteroception and practicing this awareness of our environment through our sight, hearing, etc.
So, Irene might say things like: “Orient to the sound that you notice. Notice if you orient more with one ear than the other.” And we’d stay on taking in sound for a bit. And then later, we’d go into smell, whether it was something we were actually smelling in the moment, or she also invited us to maybe be with the memory of a smell – for example, a bonfire, or a perfume scent that we remembered. And to go to whichever place our attention wanted to go, and to notice what happened in our bodies when we sensed that smell. And she’d guide us back to just sensing these things versus being in all our thoughts about those things, and also guide us back to noticing our breath and the ground underneath us while we were taking in all of that sensory information.
And the practice of taking in the world around you while still feeling your sense of self, and feeling that you are physically grounded where you are, is something that translates really well into situations where maybe what’s going on around us is stressful, or it might just be that someone is talking to us about a challenging situation for them. And if in that moment, we go back to this practice of sensing our breath, of feeling the chair underneath our butt, it can kind of have an anchoring effect and help us to not lose our sense of self in those moments.
So, I know that this orienting practice I just mentioned – you know, taking in what you hear and see – might sound really simple and easy, but holy shit it was not – it wasn’t for me anyways, when I was really new to this. And I know for others it can definitely feel hard to focus, it’s really easy to fall asleep. So easy to have a barrage of thoughts enter your mind. And also, it can bring up uncomfortable sensations, because there might be certain emotions that come up that may or may not be related to the things that we’re seeing or hearing or otherwise sensing, but it can be that the experience of finally being still and quiet and being in our body, if that’s something we’re not used to, can open up the space and opportunity for certain feelings that have been pushed down to finally come up.
For me, personally, I learned that I have had this unconscious block toward certain types of movement as well as meditation for the longest time – that I’m now obviously aware of – that I suspect have to do with past traumas in general, developing both the hypervigilance and dissociation from my body, but also a past surgery that I had, which was both a physical trauma and there was also some emotional traumas around that.
So, things can come up for us, and that’s okay. I think with any new healing or therapeutic approach, it’s important to go at your own pace, which often means slowly, as I’ve said before. And this is really important to note here, as kind of a disclaimer or just a gentle word of caution, that while these somatic practices can be so transformative and healing in the long-run, they can also sometimes bring up stuff for us, even implicit memories, and so being gentle with ourselves can be really important, it can be really good to do this with a facilitator or perhaps a therapist who is trauma-informed, at least at first.
And it might be that, if you’re doing these kinds of things on your own with a book or a guided recording, that you start with five minutes at first, or two minutes, and then little by little expand your window of capacity. But always know that, in whatever situation you’re in with these practices, that you have the agency to pause or stop altogether, and then come back to it when you’re ready. And practicing that agency over your own body – learning when to stop or pause, and not continue to follow what the facilitator is instructing you to do – is in and of itself part of the healing process and reclamation of our bodies.
So, I hope these examples paint more of a picture of what somatic practices can look like and sound like, whether we’re working on building our capacity for that interoceptive awareness or exteroceptive awareness. And by the way, proprioception is our third sensory system, which is the sense through which we perceive the position and movement of our body, including our sense of equilibrium and balance. Just so you have another jargony term to add to your dictionary.
And, for me, having practiced, continuously and over time, to check in with what my body is sensing internally, how it’s feeling, the various sensations that come up, I have become so much faster at knowing when something is off. I have gotten so much better at pausing and reflecting on, oh, I’m feeling that familiar heavy weight in my chest. What just happened? What is happening? What needs my attention? Or, okay, I’m feeling that slight buzz in my chest, just like this low-level anxiety buzzing underneath the surface. That tells me that there’s something about this situation here that I need to check in with myself about. Like, maybe this new guy I’m talking to is bringing up some stuff for me that doesn’t really feel that great.
And I’ve also been able to notice a lot more when something feels great and I sense that expansion and ease in my body. And to stay with that. Because honestly, allowing myself to feel that ease and perhaps the joy and contentment that comes along with that has been a work in progress. If you’ve been in a state of hypervigilance for so long, and your default has been to believe that shit is gonna eventually hit the fan, and this good thing that is happening isn’t gonna last, then it can be hard to stay with those expansive and joyful feelings and trust that it’s okay to let go and be in this experience.
And also, when I’ve practiced, again, continuously and over time, to orient to my environment and take in my surroundings through my senses versus, again, being so in my mind, or being really dissociated from my body, I have noticed my hypervigilance lessening. I notice now that I’ve moved back to the city – which used to be so overwhelming for me, to walk through the streets, to hear so much noise, to be around a lot of people – that I can stay a lot more grounded and open to what’s physically around me without completely shutting down. I used to not even be able to look at people, I’d look down at the ground a lot when I walked, or I’d have what I call my “fuck off” face or expression as I walked through the city. I’d often have my headphones on listening to music as a way to self-soothe.
But even just yesterday, I took a long walk home after going out for lunch down a busy street in Toronto and I was so much more at ease in my body, I could look around at people’s face and remain grounded and curious. And I didn’t have to listen to anything, and I didn’t have that feeling of, oh, God, I just want to get home into my cocoon, so that I could feel a sense of safety.
So that just showed me that there’s been a lot of change. And all of this is of course so much a work in progress, there are absolutely times where I still find myself shutting down and feeling like it’s too much and I don’t want to be open to whatever experience is happening. But through this work, I’ve really learned the importance of looking at the longer-term trend, and not so much getting down if I “go back” to those familiar protective mechanisms, that can sometimes make us feel like we’re taking a step back. I know that if I look at the bigger picture, there’s been a lot of growth and transformation.
And you know, I want to say, that our mind is great for many things, and we want to befriend that too, it’s just that oftentimes when we are primarily leading with our mind and perceiving and taking in our environment and situations with a really heavy emphasis on what we think about it, that often means we're applying filters and labels and making meaning out of everything. Again, sometimes that’s helpful. But also, it can sometimes lead to us missing what can be really important and different information that our body is trying to tell us. And also, that mind-first approach is probably not gonna be the thing that helps us the most in staying present and open to the places and people and things around us, and to experience itself.
I also mentioned that some of these practices really cultivate our ability to lead and take action from what our body is communicating that it needs and wants versus leading from what our mind might be telling us to do.
So, one example of such a practice was a grounded dancing session with Joy-Marie Thompson through the Tending the Roots Festival – which, by the way, is happening April 6–9 this year. It’s probably the best trauma conference I’ve attended. You can register for free at https://www.rootedandembodied.com/.
And the previous Tending the Roots Festival I attended had Joy-Marie Thompson facilitating this grounded dancing, which wasn't about getting certain moves "right" or looking aesthetically pleasing. The point of it was to practice tuning into how our body was wanting to move and leading from that place, versus leading from our mind and our preconceived notions of what dancing should look like, or trying to copy perfectly what the facilitator or anybody else was doing.
And it was such a freeing experience to follow that impulse of my body. Joy-Marie was there to guide us and encourage us in expressing whatever movement our bodies wanted to make. And I ended up moving in a way where I was expanding and making myself physically bigger, taking up space in the room. And in this way, these kinds of practices, even if in the moment I’m not there intentionally to work through trauma, it can still very much relate to those parts of me that might need healing and validation, right? And this might be a way for me to express the bigness and more fiery side of myself that was historically shut down, without having to talk through it or use my mind to try and change my perception of myself.
There’s also a couple of singing workshops I did. One was the "Liberate Your Soul’s Voice Through Song" workshop (Thorald and Isaac Koren, hosted by The Shift Network) and also "Singing is For Everyone: Technologies of Liberation" (Eli Conley, Rooted Global Village, who does the Tending the Roots Festival). And both of these workshops were kind of about using our voice to heal past wounds, so a little bit more explicit in that focus and connection with perhaps past traumas. And similar to the grounded dancing class, this wasn't about singing "beautifully" or getting the notes exactly right. It was about singing whatever emotion wanted to be expressed and noticing how that felt in our bodies. And it was also about allowing our voices and selves to, again, take up space.
And since then, I’ve had some moments with just my guitar where I will express and let out and feel grief or love or sadness or anger or whatever it is that is coming up for me in my body, through just singing some sounds over some guitar chords. And again, it’s about leading from those impulses on that body or somatic level versus leading from a place of crafting the perfect song to express the grief I feel and making sure my technique is on point. Which, as someone who has trained in singing, and has some perfectionist tendencies around that, it’s really also freeing in that sense.
And so, a lot of these various somatic practices that I’ve talked about often have started with me being in a class or guided by a meditation or a book, like so many of these examples I mentioned. And that’s been really important as someone who had so little understanding of how to be with my body’s internal experiences in a way that felt safe. It was important to have reminders that I could stop if it was feeling like too much, as well as reminders to gently come back to my body when my mind and thoughts started to become the focus. It was important to have some guidance in just knowing what the heck to do, or to be able to ask questions when things felt confusing.
But over time, I’ve been able to do it by myself a lot of the times – which is of course what happens with ongoing practice and kind of the point of all of this – which is for it to become an embodied way of being, which is so different than thinking intellectually that I need to do these steps in order to be more in my body, right?
So, through lots of practice, I’ve been able to more so embody this orientation to turn my awareness inward and tune into my body, and to integrate these practices into real life situations. To practice it spontaneously when I’m, say, sitting on the beach in Costa Rica. Or when I am walking down the street and noticing my hypervigilance come up, where there is no real danger around me, and in that moment I might go to that practice of orienting to my surroundings in order to stay open and more at ease. Or when I’m holding space for someone and I’m noticing that I’m starting to get out of my body in that conversation, maybe I’m starting to feel like I’m taking on how they’re feeling a bit too much, so then I anchor myself, find my grounding, by bringing my attention to my butt against the chair, bringing my attention to my breath. And that way, I’m still listening to them, but I’m also not losing my sense of self and showing up as a grounded presence for them.
So in wrapping up here, I just want to emphasize something that Irene Lyon talks about a lot, and I’ve already alluded to this, which is that by themselves, these somatic practices, or really just the act of tuning into our body and noticing and honoring what comes up – even if it’s just about going to the bathroom when we feel we need to go; that’s an example I’ve heard her give a lot – these might seem really small, maybe even insignificant in the context of healing trauma. But collectively, and continually doing them over time – because it really is a muscle you have to work; it is an ongoing practice – that is where the biggest transformation is.
I look at it as a foundation that gets created, along with, as I said, all the other aspects of my holistic healing journey, which then translates into those really important, tangible outcomes I mentioned, like identifying my needs and boundaries more easily, walking away from harmful situations earlier, being way more present to what's around me, to whichever person I'm interacting with, so that I experience that deeper connection I want. As I mentioned, it's been a huge part of reducing my sense of hypervigilance, and just overall taking better care of my mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing because I notice a lot more easily and faster when something needs tending to.
It’s, like, once you become more in touch with the inner world and language of your body, it gets so much harder to ignore the wisdom it's trying to share with you. And it also does get way easier to be with the “uncomfortable” feelings and sensations – like, you absolutely do expand your capacity for that. And that, as I said earlier, is where I believe the really deep resiliency comes in – when we can be with the full range of all of our emotions and feelings and know that we’re going to be okay.
So, I’ve said a lot, but this episode still really just scratches the surface. I will return to this topic as I continue learning so much more about somatic approaches to healing. I still feel relatively new to all of it, in the grand scheme of things. And there are of course other ways we can heal on the level of our body through things like better nutrition, for example. And, of course, if we’re experiencing a physical illness of some sort, that might also affect the way we connect with our body’s internal experience, right, and how safe we feel in our bodies.
Last, final thing – and it’s in the blog post I mentioned, but I’ll also expand on it more in my next solo episode – is that what I’ve learned – which was kinda the missing piece for me in my healing journey – is that in those messages that our body is continuously communicating to us, there is so much insight and wisdom and answers that are oftentimes more honest than the answers and stories that our mind is telling us. Another way to look at this, is that the story our mind is telling us is often different from what our body would say if it had a chance to share its reflection on the same situation.
And in my next solo episode, which will be on the mind-body connection, I will talk more about why there can be that discrepancy between what our body and mind communicates to us, and how, for me, but also I know for many other folks who have experienced trauma, part of healing is about aligning our body and mind so that they're in right relationship with each other and working together in this communication process to tell the same story, to tell, as much as possible, a more accurate story so that we can navigate our present-day life and relationships not through the lens of our old wounds and stories but in a more present-focused and grounded way.
All right, y’all. Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode. I hope it was interesting and insightful. Let me know your thoughts. Let me know if you’ve dipped your toe into this realm of body-based or somatic practices and what’s been helpful for you, or not? You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you. And again, you can follow me @janicehoimages on Instagram. And subscribe to The Soul’s Work Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your other favorite podcast player. And until next time, take good care of yourselves and each other. Lots of love, and self-love. Peace.