Embodied awareness as a path to healing

Cultivating deeper attention and mind-body connectivity can be the key to unlocking held trauma and patterns of holding. We explore how to embody awareness through mindful attention and the breath.

By Charlotte Watts and Leonie Taylor, co-authors of Yoga & Somatics for Immune & Respiratory Health.

What sets the physical aspects of yoga aside from mere exercise is the quality of attention that we bring to focus. A mindful attitude brings us towards embodiment – inviting our mind to where our body resides in the present moment – and allows us to fully tune in and gauge appropriate response. This ‘listening and responding’ is the basis of a meditative practice, and the route to registering safety through our whole system as the nervous system can settle. As in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1:2;

“…stilling the fluctuations of the mind”.

The importance of the pause

Within practice, we can slow down to truly feel the experience – yoga as ‘moving meditation’ – and also punctuate movement with places of pause, where we allow processing through tissues and integration of experience. Within the heightened input of information from the ‘doing’ of movement, points of stillness offer a chance to drop beneath the mind imposing its will or story upon our practice.

“The ultimate purpose of inquiry is that it allows us to pause. In the space of a pause, truth can shine through.”

Tara Brach

Whether this is in response to what has been (eg judgment, comparison or analysis) or what is to come eg (ambition, anticipation or expectation); a pause is a place for presence. Brought into the body and physical experience, this might show as noticing we’ve ‘checked out’, are changing planes (such as moving from low to high) or observational enquiry between sides one and two of an asymmetrical position.

When a physical yoga practice simply keeps moving, we lose the opportunity to catch up with breath, to let the ripples of the motions settle and to integrate their effect. Slowing down to ‘simply be’, we can explore the mindful quality of the experience rather than simply where to move a foot or limb.

Creating familiarity with quiet and stillness

When we are more accustomed to the inner quiet of stillness from meditation practices, we can meet such pauses with more familiarity and peace. We can develop the resources to be less likely to grasp at more activity and drop beneath frustrations towards more subtle practices.

Asana (postural yoga) practice is a route towards meditation and the ultimate connection of samadhi (bliss, or supreme consciousness). When yoga is decontextualised as simply a physical exercise, the deeply attuned embodied awareness of still, meditative states can be ignored. It is easy to run roughshod over more nuanced, subtle and refined states when we are rushing ahead. For many in the modern world, continuing to do more and faster is much easier than the challenge of slowing down to see the landscape. This perpetual doing mode that so many of us find ourselves in also denies us the opportunity to notice where we are building up tension, inflammation and storing problems in body and mind from both the little and big ‘T’ traumas of life. Simply moving on without moving through, acknowledging or experiencing challenges can store issues deep in within our system which can cause glitches.

Avoiding the physical

The not-in-the-body state of dissociation (often linked to early-life trauma) can often be mis-interpreted as spiritual connection or a blissful high. We need to be mindful of when this can be a romanticised or fantastical way of viewing dissociation, actually the opposite of embodied awareness. Yoga and other meditative practices can open consciousness, but can also dislocate us from our earthly connection if we are ungrounded, unrooted in the first chakra and our sense of self.

Mindfulness of breathing within our physical practice

Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing), is a perfect place to evolve embodied awareness, meditatively cultivating the quality of our attention to body, breath and the sensations that arise.

Awareness and compassion

Mindfulness draws together two key aspects: awareness and compassion. Awareness is the quality of attention we bring, breath by breath, moment to moment. Compassion is the act of bringing kindness to that awareness; without it we can simply be vigilant and come from a fear-based rather than expansive viewpoint. Compassion without awareness can mean that we don’t necessarily meet the more difficult aspects of the practice; experiencing the present often means encountering challenging thoughts or feelings. Bringing these two together helps allow vulnerability, a brave step that takes steadiness and kindness for us to hold.

Four-stage breathing

Try practising each stage for 5-10 minutes as a way of bringing awareness into the physical body:

  1. Sit comfortably, spine upright and find your breath: calm, smooth and easeful.
  2. Bring attention to the physical sensations of your breath, internally counting just after the end of each exhale. Count ten out-breaths, another ten and so on. If distracted, begging again from one, without judgement or frustration.
  3. Change the count to the beginning of your inhale.
  4. Drop the counting and simply pay attention to your breath, noticing the continuous nature of the breath, moving through your body, each sensation as it arises.
  5. Narrow your sphere of attention to subtle sensations, such as the refined feeling of your breath softening in your belly or the passage of air past the rim of your nostrils.

Self-enquiry questions

Take time to explore these questions in your practice, journaling your responses over time, noticing any shifts.

  1. How does anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) draw you into the present moment experience of your breath and different aspects of your bodily feelings and mind states?
  2. How do you feel that awareness of the pauses between the breath helps you notice the physical experience and embodied awareness?

For a deeper dive into embodied awareness within the context of whole health, see Yoga & Somatics for Immune & Respiratory Health and Yoga Therapy for Digestive Health.

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