Three people wearing bathing suits and felt hats sit on a wooden bench in a sauna. The sauna is filled with steam, making the ambience hazy. The woman on the left is holding a bundle of twigs, likely for traditional sauna rituals. The mood appears relaxed and warm within the wooden interior.

Photo by Nanna Heitmann/Magnum


You are your body: here’s how to feel more at home in it

Photo by Nanna Heitmann/Magnum

by Elna Schütz + BIO





Just because you live in a body, doesn’t mean you feel at one with it. Embodiment psychology can help you reconnect

Imagine looking in the mirror of a clothing store changing room, wearing something that doesn’t quite fit. As you tug at the jeans, your thoughts pull at ideas about what your body should be. Or picture yourself hunched at your office desk for hours on end. Your body is crying out to stretch and move, but you suppress the discomfort and press on. In both scenarios – and many others – you’re talking to yourself about your body as if it’s something separate from ‘you’. So many of us today carry on in this way – ignoring the deep connection between mind and body.

I used to think I had a good relationship with my body and a somewhat healthy body image. If you had asked me then if I felt connected to my body, I would probably have looked at you a little puzzled, thought of my regular yoga classes and general sense of wellbeing, and nodded.

This all changed when I started suffering from chronic pain which meant I couldn’t move as easily and freely as before. Suddenly, my mind was flooded with thoughts about how my body should do and be better. While my body’s experience was constantly at the top of my mind, the last thing I wanted to do was be at home in it. I realised that being truly in touch with my body was far more complex than being mildly nice to myself about putting on some weight.

I was angry at what my body was ‘doing to me’, and at first I kept trying to push it to do my will, which usually meant doing more than was reasonable. If you have ever tried to push through burnout or even a strong flu, you’ll know that our bodies do not take kindly to being treated as single-use items.

Eventually, I made a pact with myself. Sitting in a quiet hospital bed after seeing what seemed like countless doctors, I put my hands on my painful limbs and whispered: ‘Fine, you win. I’m ready to listen to what you need, not just what I want.’

In psychology, this kind of step towards connecting your psyche with your body is called embodiment. It’s about recognising that your emotional and mental experience deeply affects your body and vice versa. Whether your experience of bodily disconnect was as dramatic as mine, or more subtle, there are benefits to learning how to recognise it and reconnect.

How the disconnect happens

The idea of becoming disconnected from your body might seem odd at first. One might assume we are automatically and constantly connected. While this is true in a practical sense of the brain residing in the body, many scenarios or patterns can disrupt the psychological and emotional connection. The pain I experienced is one notable cause, but there are many others, some more social or subtle.

Think of the ways children use and explore their bodies. When curiosity or a desire to move overcomes a toddler, you can be sure they will follow it by crawling, grasping, stretching, or all three! If they experience internal discomfort of any kind, they are likely to let you know very loudly. Their connection to their bodies is undeniable.

Now contrast this with the way so many adults live, sitting still for long periods at a standard-issue desk and chair, and eating at set times. If we speak of our internal needs and experiences, it’s usually fleeting and only in socially acceptable ways.

Aspects of life in modern Western society push us towards a gradual bodily disconnect

The therapist Hillary McBride writes in her book The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection Through Embodied Living (2021) that:

embodiment is the way you are in the world, but that embodiment is influenced by who you have been allowed to be – through what has been discouraged and encouraged – and your sense of safety and agency in it all.

For many of us, there has been more discouragement than the opposite. Somewhere along the way, we were told to sit down and behave, which meant not truly listening to ourselves.

Another source of disembodiment might be the narratives you’ve been told about your body by your environment or community. A religious group that promotes abstinence as purity might instil a sense of disconnect from sexual desires. A teen whose weight is constantly criticised may start operating as if their whole body and its hunger are negative and unworthy. Someone from a marginalised race or group may have experienced so many microaggressions that they subconsciously start moving through the world as if their personhood is not valid and welcome.

These forms of disembodiment are particularly present in current Western culture, which focuses on pushing the body to extremes or using it rather than working together with it. The clinical psychologist Scott Lyons explains to me that the perceived divide between mind and body is only a few centuries old and mostly a Western perspective; many other global traditions focus far more on the mind-body connection. Consider how the Eastern practices of yoga and tai chi involve an inherent awareness and appreciation of the body. These traditions in essence already represent what modern psychology is naming embodiment.

While aspects of life in modern Western society push us towards a gradual bodily disconnect, a sudden break can also occur following a traumatic experience. The mind might try to protect itself from harm by trying to separate or dissociate from the body because in some way the trauma happened to or around the body. This dissociation can then become a subconscious habit or reaction pattern.

The somatic psychotherapist Manuela Mischke-Reeds gives me the example of a patient who tends to sit hunched or curled up, always with arms or legs crossed in front of them. They might not be aware of it, but because of having experienced physical violence, their body is constantly trying to protect them. And yet, if she asks the patient to identify what their body is sensing or experiencing, it might be frightening for them to contemplate and could increase their sense of vulnerability further.

Why being a walking ghost is important to address

Even though the problem of bodily disconnect is systemic and common, all too frequently it goes unidentified, or it’s not taken seriously. One reason is that it tends to bubble up as an unhappy cry for help rather than a clear set of ‘symptoms’.

In my case, I was so focused on my physical pain and its possible causes, I didn’t take seriously how much my attitude towards my body was affecting my overall experience of this difficult time. I frequently felt angry and emotionally overwhelmed, which made it harder to recognise rationally and practically what I needed to heal.

We are so out of touch, that we do not know what is missing

Because I was not in touch with my body, I made her the enemy in my mind. The obvious problem with this, and a lot of forms of disembodiment, is that we end up missing the answer, which quite literally lies within ourselves.

Lyons describes it as being a walking ghost: ‘You might be driving somewhere and kind of space out and you miss your exit. That’s what walking around in life without embodiment is; constant misses of real intimacy between other people and within yourself, and an inability to be able to really hear and register your own desires, impulses and needs.’ In other words, we are so out of touch that we do not know what is missing.

When people operate from this disembodied state, the cost is often large but seemingly mysterious. It could look like emotional outbursts that seem out of proportion to the current situation, but are actually a representation of a long-hidden belief or feeling. In my case, it meant I would push myself repeatedly beyond my body’s boundaries, such as attending events when I was in great pain because I didn’t want to face the reality and, in truth, the responsibility of being kind to myself.

Some steps towards connection

Considering the wide-ranging causes and effects of bodily disconnection, it will come as no surprise that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to developing a greater sense of embodiment.

The idea that your body is good and, in a sense, your partner or your home, might seem flippantly simple, but understanding this is at the core of embodiment. In her book Somatic Psychotherapy Toolbox (2018), Mischke-Reeds provides worksheets that word this as ‘befriending your body’, for example through touching parts of your body softly to become more aware of them. An exercise on speaking to yourself kindly includes phrases like: ‘I welcome you. I love/embrace you, too. Thank you.’ These positive ideas and practices can be a starting point for fostering a healthier sense of the body because they counteract beliefs and habits that contribute to disconnection.

Another simple but important step is paying more attention to what is happening in your body. Mischke-Reeds recommends enquiry questions that you can ask yourself while you are sitting still or walking, such as: ‘What do I feel? What am I sensing? What’s my experience right now?’ These questions should focus on how your body feels and what it is sensing. If it could tell you a story, what would it be? It can be helpful to start tracking this over time, asking yourself these questions regularly and seeing how changes show up.

Somatic release exercises, such as shaking your body, can help you feel more connected

For example, imagine someone who has experienced violence, especially in childhood, and they have a habit of making their body small and guarded, reflecting and reinforcing that the world is not a safe place. For this person, exploring that posture and starting to expand it carefully might be a part of developing a healthier connection with their body.

Another step you can try on your own is moving your body mindfully. Walking, dance and exercise can all be a part of making us more aware of and connected to our bodies. Somatic release exercises, such as shaking your body, can also help you feel more aware and connected. There are more formal and comprehensive therapies around this, such as Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), but shaking your body for about 10 to 30 seconds in the morning and evening can be a good place to start.

Disembodiment is often caused by unprocessed emotions or experiences, both past and present. If this is true for you, you should consider a practice that helps you to confront this constructively and safely. ‘When you process the things that have been unmetabolised or held in your body, all of a sudden, there’s room to reconnect,’ Lyons says.

For example, you could journal during and after you try out some of the exercises I’ve mentioned. Bringing an awareness of your body into other forms of personal or psychological work you already do could also help – whether that’s talking with your therapist, going to an exercise class or something else.

If you find that the idea of disembodiment brings up deeper trauma for you or is something you want to address more thoroughly, then working with a therapist specialising in this area could open wonderful levels of connection. Lyons’s learning platform, the Embody Lab, is one place to start exploring therapeutic modalities.

Mischke-Reeds practises the Hakomi method. This psychotherapy has been around for more than 40 years and involves mindfulness and hands-on somatic interventions that focus on transforming the beliefs instilled by formative experiences and recreating positive ‘missing experiences’. Somatic experiencing, developed by Peter Levine, is a similar, widely used modality that focuses on processing, accepting and releasing the way trauma is carried in your body.

A native birthright, reconnected

The best way to think of embodiment is as both a process and a practice. When you first become aware of how and why you are internally disconnected, it might seem revelatory and highly impactful. I found that I suddenly became aware of my body’s role in everything. A big part of this is realising what has kept you from being connected.

For me, that moment in the hospital bed, along with many other small instances like it, was a turning point. Another was McBride’s book encouraging me to say out loud that I am this body. I wept realising that it was alright to want to be connected and at home in myself, even when pain and societal pressures had pushed me in the opposite direction.

But, as with many ‘aha’ moments, I’ve found this turns into a longer and more vulnerable investment, and this might be true for you too. Lyons warns that this is at its essence not an intellectual exercise. Just as it’s not possible to ‘conceptually understand joy’, he says that embodiment is ‘something you can only experience’.

Ultimately, embodiment is something you absorb into a healthy, mature relationship with yourself, rather than a psychological chore. Deirdre Fay, a trauma therapist and author of the book Becoming Safely Embodied (2021), says ‘it’s a developmental task of becoming an adult to realise I have to know myself, know what I need and want, so that I can be in relationship with the world.’

As you practise feeling more connected, hopefully there will come a natural ease to it, and a new way of listening to and understanding your experience. I would not call myself fully, or even substantially, embodied, but making this deliberate shift to reconnect more with my body has changed my life. This shows up most strongly in how I handle myself when I am in pain. I am now able to be in the moment, listen to my body, and allow the experience without immediately wanting to change it. As I practise this way of relating to my body, it becomes easier to listen to my whole self in other spheres, such as that darn changing room with its mirrors.

This might sound simple. But accepting and allowing your body’s experience and making a slow shift towards greater connection is beautifully natural and rewarding. ‘I think it’s our native [way],’ says Fay. ‘It’s where our heart and our soul are. It’s a process and probably never done.’





22 May 2024