The new year has come, and for many people it has come with wonderful new goals. Whether your sights are set on dropping 5 pounds or running 5 marathons, there is one super-effective tool that you can use to help make sure you reach your goal; Body Awareness. This article will define body awareness (as a concept and as a skill or tool), discuss common obstacles to integrating body awareness in different aspects of life, and highlight methods for improving integration and refining the skill. It may sound like a small thing in the big mess of important things (like nutrition, muscle confusion, stretching, warm-up/cool-down, etc.) but, in my experience, clients that have a regular Body Awareness practice prevent more injuries, suffer less pain and stiffness, and ultimately recover faster and perform better.
The term body awareness means slightly different things to different people, but the definition typically has many common factors. In a recent study, a focus group composed of a spectrum of different types of mind-body therapists described this vital tool:
“…body awareness is an inseparable aspect of embodied self awareness realized in action and interaction with the environment and world.”
This study sought to foster greater clinical understanding of the concept of body awareness by asking experts in to articulate the place and function of body awareness in relation to reaching desired health outcomes within a variety of mind-body approaches. I’d like to highlight what I think are some real gems among the findings. First, a great description of the skill of body awareness:
“A central skill… is the ability to notice sensations, thoughts and feelings as they occur in their actual immediacy.”
The second key finding is one that I have experienced in my own practice, and is the reason I am passionate about fostering body awareness with all of our clients:
“All of the healing approaches have in common that they are practices, and, for the practice to be effective therapeutically, it has to be learned by the patient. This learning requires training and repetition.”
The truth is that most people have some level of body awareness already, whether they recognize it or not. Some of the most common physical sensations we all experience are hunger, thirst, fatigue, and pain. It is these same common sensations that also form a “base-level” body awareness for even the most disembodied people. While there are a number of obstacles involved in being more aware of hunger and thirst, for now let’s focus on fatigue and pain.
Recognizing and acting on our body's signals
The primary obstacle anyone must overcome to benefit from awareness of pain or fatigue sensations is the natural tendency to view them only as a nuisance, or something to always be avoided. While it is a good idea to avoid pain when you aren’t already experiencing it, it’s not such a great idea to avoid or ignore it when you are. In fact, any action/inaction in an attempt to ignore or avoid pain you are experiencing is a wasted golden opportunity to sharpen your body awareness and improve your health. Let’s look at two examples to illustrate this point:
1. You are sitting at your computer for hours, and you begin to feel your eyes straining along with some increasingly uncomfortable stiffness in your neck and shoulders.
At this point if you are obstructed from full awareness of these signals by ignoring them, or perhaps by taking an pain-reliever to avoid them, you may be able to complete your work at the computer, but your body will continue to suffer the effects of the problems that have caused you the pain and fatigue, which may (and often will) lead to increased pain, fatigue, and dysfunction in the future. However, if you instead chose to direct you attention away from your work for just a moment, and tune your mind into the important signals your body is sending, it is highly likely that you would recognize an opportunity to take action to correct the cause of the pain. In this case, a great way to action would be to stand up, walk around for a bit and focus you gaze on things in the distance, and return to work after you’ve given the affected areas time to rest and reset.
2. You’ve set out on your regular weekend run. Somewhere along the way you notice your pace is off or your gait feels funny. After running just a little longer you begin to feel pain in your dominant leg.
You could decide to completely ignore these signals and finish your run without changing a thing, or you might even avoid the pain in your leg by half-limping the rest of the way to completion. Integration of body awareness in this scenario would almost certainly lead you to slow down, stop sooner than planned or stop immediately, which in most cases means that you’ll be sparing your body the continued damage that would have happened otherwise. Less damage leads to faster recovery time and ultimately more successful runs in the future.
Refining body awareness
At this point, I’d like to highlight something that should be obvious to anyone who’s ever found themselves in both of these situations, and that is; For most people, the sensations in example 1. are far easier to ignore or avoid than those in example 2. This important observation, in addition to helping explain why most people are more inclined to browse the web than they are to get out and run, also holds an important lesson.
Sometimes body awareness is just easier and come more naturally, and sometimes it does not. Most people spend the bulk of the day being sedentary; in the car, at the desk, on the couch, and in bed. These times have a typical constant for your body and that is, “Static Positioning”. Not moving much means that to maintain good body awareness, you’re going to need to really dedicate a higher level of mental energy and attention. The simple solution to this problem is planning to integrate more movement into your day. It doesn’t need to be a 10 mile run at lunch. One of my favorite tips take the moment when you feel the need to adjust in your seat to get comfortable as a signal to just get out of your seat and get your legs moving and your core engaged.
The times when body awareness is easier and more natural are when we the signals our bodies send us are stronger and our mind is less distracted. Very few people can debate that the body is going to send you some very strong signals during and especially after an intense work-out. Likewise, anyone’s who has a massage can probably recount some very strong signals from their body during that hour, even if it’s been months or years since the felt them. In exercise and massage it’s the combination of strong signals from our bodies’ sensors, steady focus on the task at hand, and clear intent for specific results that make these two excellent tools for creating better body awareness.
If you think you might like to give this whole body awareness skill development thing a try, I strongly suggest you make it as easy as possible for yourself by diversifying your training. By that I mean don’t just try one tip or trick, try lots of them. The small things (like getting out of you seat to “reset” during the day), plus the big things (like committing to regular exercise, setting aside time for self-care, and receiving regular bodywork every 4-6 weeks) will add up to a much greater sense/ability of body awareness.
The body is amazing for its ability to keep us going when something goes wrong, but there is always a price to be paid for taking this route. Just like impulse purchases on credit cards inevitably lead to debt and regret, the reward you get for ignoring important signals from your body in the present is rarely worth the price in the long run.
“Better to pay up front by sacrificing a moment, a day or a few weeks and then reap the rewards for years to come, than to reap the rewards up front for a moment, a day or a few weeks and then pay the awful price for years to come.”
That last little adage is one of my own, and I use it all the time because love the way it illustrates the choice we all have to select long-term wellness in everyday life. It’s not always the easiest or most comfortable way, but listening to your body is the only way to even have the chance to make that important choice. I believe that developing a regular body awareness practice always leads to more and more opportunities to make the choice to select long-term wellness, and therefore it should be an integral part of anyone’s plan for achieving every health goal (including that New Year’s resolution).
This article and/or video are for educational purposes only; do not attempt without your physician's clearance. If you are in pain or injured, see your physician.