‘Do these movements in a way that feels good to you, respect your own boundaries, just listen to your body’ the yoga teacher said.
I was on my mat, trying to do this yoga posture stretch thing, thinking: ‘Yeah, right! As if my body is telling me clearly what it wants and needs, or can and cannot do. Seriously?’
This is what it has been like for most of my life, struggling with feeling my body and its signals.
And because of that, I was missing out on a lot of information.
Not feeling my body meant that I would regularly get mildly injured playing sports and that I would not take rest when I needed it.
It also meant that I would ignore nagging feelings when things didn’t sit right with me, for instance in a conflict with family, friends or co-workers. This made me not address them, which made things worse and more dramatic.
It also made me very insensitive of other people’s feelings at times.
Recognise any of that?
Here’s the thing I’ve learned over the years: your body IS actually telling you all sorts of things, very clearly.
You’re just not listening.
When you are laying in bed in the evening, on your smartphone, scrolling and clicking away, you’re not paying a lot of attention to your body.
It’s not until you put the smartphone down that you can feel how tired you are.
Your body has been telling you it needs sleep. You were just not listening.
When you have a full day with back to back conference/video calls.
Your body is telling you when it’s not effective anymore. You drift off, you stifle a yawn, you start fiddling with your pen.
You get a headache towards the end of it, get easily frustrated in the discussions going on, or maybe snap at your partner later on.
Your body was telling you: ‘this is not working any more’. You were just not listening.
Because you were so focused on the work, the content, your ‘productivity’.
The thing is: You need a break in order to be productive, you need time to zoom out and think about things for a bit.
You need to chit chat about things other than work, you need social contact, you need to move your body.
You know this already. You know that top athletes spend tons of time resting after they train. You know that babies sleep that much, because that’s when they grow and integrate all the new stuff they are learning,
You know you need your sleep and rest to digest and recharge.
You just don’t do it, because you are ignoring your body.
And then beat yourself up about not being as sharp or constructive or effective.
This whole ignoring your body– thing is a widespread and stubborn habit a lot of us have.
It’s cultivated in a lot of our surroundings, and some of us even take pride in doing it. Going over the boundaries of our bodies, not whining about our feelings, but just doing it and going on.
Until we topple over… physically, mentally or both.
Or we start to lose our connections with others, because all we do is work and perform.
There are so many benefits to gain from paying more attention to our bodies. It gives us information on our boundaries, helps us to manage our energy better, and gives us a better and clearer perspective on things.
So, let’s say that you do want to start paying attention to your body. Where to start?
I’ve learned over the years it needs 2 things:
- Slowing down
- Shutting up
Easy as that, and incredibly hard at the same time.
And this is especially important right now, in these lock-down times.
You would think with all the time you’re saving, not commuting, not going out to restaurants and family and friends, that would leave you more time and space to rest.
But because of these unusual and very unclear times we are in, your coping mechanisms are probably kicking in extra hard.
You might be spending too much time on your phone, or eating a lot of junk food, maybe drinking too much, overanalysing your work, etc.
So I’ll say it again: you need to slow down, and you need to shut up.
Here are some practical ways to work on this in practice:
- Start your day with nothing
It can help massively to start the day with something else than your smartphone and the news.
Try and make it a habit to just sit down on your couch, even if it is just for 3 or 5 minutes, 10 also works.
You don’t do anything, you just sit and notice. Notice your body, notice your feelings, even noticing your thoughts. You just allow those thoughts to come and go, there is nothing to change or fix about them, that would just produce more thoughts.
You could call this meditation, but if that doesn’t appeal to you, never mind.
There is no end goal in this sitting and noticing, other than just observing. Paying attention to yourself, going inward instead of outward, seeing what’s there.
If you do this at the start of your day, it generally get’s easier throughout the day to still notice your body.
If this idea appeal to you, and you have kids, this is near impossible. I’m sorry, I feel you.
Doing this at other times of the day, like when they are in bed, is still helpful. Just 5 minutes can be enough, really. Or try one of these other tips:
- Do a body-scan
Any time of the day, just sit in a chair or lay on your couch or bed, and take some time to feel your body. Start at your toes and go up all the way to your head, stopping at every body part in between. How does it feel? Is there tension or not, does it feel warm or cold? Not knowing the answer is also fine, it’s just about being curious.
I do these body scans in training sessions with groups of young professionals and this is something that usually some participants feel a strong resistance to. It is also one of the things that participants say about later: ‘I loved that, I do it more often now, it helps me to relax’.
I don’t use any apps myself, but I’ve heard from participants that the Headspace app is a good tool for this. There is also a lot out there on YouTube as well.
- Actively ask your body for advice
This is a bit of a silly one, but it absolutely works for me:
Ask your body questions, and commit to listening to the answers. In asking, you actually put attention right where you want it.
So you ask: Do you want to go to bed? Should we go for a run? Does this look like a good schedule? Is this working out?
Your body will tell you. Really.
(If it doesn’t, that probably means you need rest. In that case rest first, and ask again later.)
I am using this method to build up my running practice again. As I run through the park, I just ask every couple of minutes, ‘Shall we run some more or walk a bit?’
Sometimes the answer is ‘run!’ but plenty of times the answer is ‘walk’.
I am going slower than my mind wants, with more intervals walking than I would like to admit. But there are no injuries yet, and I can still see myself progressing every run.
I hope you can find the space to experiment with these methods. It will help you feel your boundaries better and probably make you feel more rested.
It will also help you decide on things more easily and communicate more clearly.
This won’t happen all at once, and in some areas it will be easier than others. For me work decisions and scheduling have become much more clear over the years, and lately the exercising stuff also.
But when it comes to food, knowing when I am full, and also in setting boundaries with my child, I still struggle at times. That’s okay, I just keep working on it and try to give myself a break for not always seeing progress.
Let me know if you need help or want to share your experience with this. I would love to hear from you.