Understanding the intricate connection between our mind, body and emotions has for some time been an area of investigation in health, medicine, psychology and neuroscience. Through numerous research papers and influential works there is now a body of scientific evidence that experienes, thoughts and emotions are, indeed, embodied experiences. These studies have paved the way for a heightened awareness and respect of the important information encoded in our bodily sensations. The more we investigate this fascinating web, it becomes increasingly evident that tuning into our bodily experiences is a skill that we can learn and harness as a powerful tool for enhancing our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. The impact of joining these dots can be huge – learning to become Bodyful is an important widening of the mindfulness lens.
Below are some of the key concepts and works that emphasize the significance of cultivating awareness of our bodily sensations, the importance it serves as a cornerstone for nurturing our whole health, and how the practice of Chi Kung can be a transformative ally in this journey.
The Embodied Nature of Emotions:
Numerous studies, including seminal works such as "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van der Kolk, underscore the profound impact of emotions on our bodily experiences. Van der Kolk's research delves into the neurobiological changes that occur in the brain due to trauma, emphasizing the importance of recognizing and addressing these embodied responses. We are so often not even aware that our feelings carry with them physical sensations. In paying attention to them in a way that feels safe we can transform patterns in which we can feel overwhelmingly stuck.
Linking Bodily Sensations to Emotional States:
Research, such as the study on "Bodily maps of emotions" by Nummenmaa et al., has identified consistent patterns of bodily sensations corresponding to different emotions. This reinforces the idea that our bodies provide valuable cues about our emotional states. The most powerful healing comes from mapping and paying attention to our own bodily states and reactions – each of us is completely unique – not only in our sensations but in how we interpret and experience the – and often that is all that we need to do.
Mindfulness and Bodily Awareness:
Many people practise mindfulness to notice their thoughts – but we can also practise paying attention to our body, with remarkable results. Studies such as "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density" by Hölzel et al., highlight the positive impact of paying attention to bodily sensations. Mindfulness practices encourage a heightened awareness of the present moment, and with a bodily focus can foster a deeper connection with our bodily experiences.
Chi Kung and Bodily Awareness:
Chi Kung is an practice that combines movement, breath, and awareness. Chi Kung emphasizes the cultivation and balance of vital life energy, known as "Qi" or "Chi." Regular practice not only enhances physical health but also deepens awareness and regulation of bodily sensations.
Chi Kung, with it’s slow pace and repetition is ideally suited the curious observation of how we feel when we practise, inherently incorporating mindfulness principles, aligning with the findings in Hölzel's study mentioned above.
In "The Body Keeps the Score" Van der Kolk emphasizes the role of body-centered approaches in trauma healing, for example in the book states: “For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.”
Chi Kung, with its focus on mindful movement and breath, offers much to this approach, offering a practical and effective way to address the impact of emotional experiences on the body. Practicing Chi Kung aids enhanced bodily awareness, as it involves paying close attention to bodily sensations, breath, and energy flow. By practising noticing our interoceptive feedback, individuals engaged in Chi Kung may deepen their awareness of the physiological, emotional and energetic condition of the body, fostering a more profound connection. This is citied as being important in work by A.D. Craig ("How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body" 2002) that highlighted the intricate relationship between interoception and emotional experiences, shedding light on how our internal bodily sensations play a crucial role in shaping our emotional lives.
In the journey towards emotional mental and physical well-being, the wisdom gained from research on embodied emotions aligns seamlessly with practices like Chi Kung. Cultivating awareness of bodily sensations, as supported by both scientific inquiry and ancient wisdom, emerges as a powerful avenue for personal growth. More even than that – Chi Kung offers us an avenue to positively influence those sensations, by practising moving in a different way, with different outcomes. By integrating Chi Kung into our daily routines, we not only honour the profound connection between emotions and the body but also embark on a transformative path toward holistic well-being.
"The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex" (Damasio, A. R., 1996)
"Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density" (Hölzel, B. K., et al., 2011)
"Bodily maps of emotions" (Nummenmaa, L., et al., 2014)
"How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body" (Craig, A. D., 2002)
"The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma" (van der Kolk, B., 2014)
Autumn; the season of shorter days, nights drawing in, cooler weather and the landscape transforms. The ending of the summer and the abundance of harvest time make way for the outbreath of the year.
The Metal Element teaches us to let go of what no longer serves us, just as the trees and plants gracefully release their leaves. The Lungs and the Large Intestine are in the spotlight this season, and so it’s a good time to boost the health of these organs.
The Metal element also helps us to feel our edges, our skin, and our emotional boundaries – perhaps in preparation for the winter - we have a time of taking inventory, of feeling contained, re-organising internally, of releasing what we don’t want to carry into the winter with us.
Metal is the time of closing, the emotion of grief, and can offer the possibility of peace. We can think of the Autumn years of our lives, or the ending of a phase of life or a project.
Just as we might spring clean in the Spring, we can have a clear out and a tidy up in the Autumn before the Winter – in our homes, our working lives, our relationships and within ourselves.
So, let us breathe deeply, embracing the autumn air as it fills our lungs, and allow the Metal Element to guide us towards a time of profound connection with our innermost selves.
In this season of transformation, we may find the strength to release what weighs us down and find a quiet comfort in that, we may experience the immense power of surrender.
I will be running a workshop on the Metal Element, sharing some insights, tips and tools such as Chi Kung to help us find more health and harmony this Autumn. Find out more here
To book a space on this workshop or get in touch, email me here.
I have been a qualified Shiatsu practitioner for 30 years, and I find myself with a re-formed clarity and understanding of exactly what it is that I do. This has come about through my journey with horses, and my fascination at the places where the practices of Shiatsu, Equine Facilitated Therapy (EFT) and teaching Chi kung overlap, inform and flow into each other. This place is of course, the Tao, also known as the Field, the Quantum Field, or any other description of the interrelatedness of Chi (for the rest of this article I will refer to it as the Tao – but you can insert your favourite term!)
The incredible interconnectivity, pliability and reactivity that we find in the Tao
Many years ago, when I used to teach Shiatsu to new students, I would explain that the concept of Chi is hard to describe – we translate it as ‘energy’, but our cultural understanding of energy doesn’t equate to the incredible interconnectivity, pliability and reactivity that we find in the Tao. The Tao, as we Shiatsu folk know, is both vast and robust, reliably encompassing all of time and space, and also delicate and sensitive to changes in attention, intention and experience. As a new Shiatsu student, I started in a place where the concept of noticing anything non-physical was just other people pretending, and my Chi kung practice was basically an arm waving and breathing practice. Over the years of practising Shiatsu there has been a steady, almost imperceptible, shifting from my reliance on my felt, physical sense to my openness and trust in the Tao.
The form or shape of my Shiatsu practice has remained pretty much the same through this period. It changes only with specific reason, and I have few regular routes for different presentations. My path (geographically) around the physical body provides a reliable structure, leaving me free to individually vary or colour what I do, and directed by what I feel in terms of speed, pace and rhythm, pressure depth and quality, Meridian(s) worked, points and stretches used, and the quality of my interaction and intention.
This all contains the session, leaving space to consider the felt sense, the non-verbal and non-specific.
My Chi kung teaching developed over a similar time frame, and my understanding and use of the Tao crept up on me until I realise that I now have a tangible understanding of how my energetic state shifts and flows. I teach by tuning into the field so that I understand where and how my students might be better affirmed, encouraged or offered feedback for exploration.
The sensation that ripples through the Tao,… can subtly shift any experience, symptom, or level of ease
Chi kung, as you will likely know, is a practice or set of practices of breathing, postures, moving and intention, where we notice, exercise, balance and develop our Chi. We experience this as sensation, impression, vibration, or quality of feeling, thinking, and being. Teaching Chi kung (for me) involves using language that encourages students to feel the non-verbal (funny, I know; language to encourage non-verbal understanding). This might include noticing any sense of stillness or movement, or imagining what texture or colour we can feel in the Dan Tien. I encourage students not just to map their body, but to be intrepid and travel through it. When we pay attention to, and harmonise, our Chi, the sensation that ripples through the Tao, through our own body, heart and mind, can subtly shift any experience, symptom, or level of ease.
How does this overlap with EFT? Having rekindled my childhood love of horses as a 40-something year old through a riding school, I felt a little like I was circling around something important, but slightly missing the point. I bought a horse who connected with my heart, who was both terrified and terrifying, and my journey with her took me through various forms of horsemanship, Equine Shiatsu, and eventually to EFT. In EFT, I was able to understand my relationship with horses in relation to myself and in the relationship with the Tao that I had gained through Shiatsu and Chi kung.
Studying Equine Shiatsu was an interesting moment on this journey. My experiences of offering Shiatsu to horses were not what I’d fantasised they might be. I would arrive at a yard to ‘treat’ a horse and would often find a horse who was less keen to have a Shiatsu than to get out of its stable for a while, or have some agency. The owner, on the other hand, might be keener to improve their dressage or jumping scores. On researching my dissertation, I wondered if there would be a consistent Five Element imbalance in horses with comparable behavioural problems. What I found, when I worked on five different horses, all with similar issues, was that they all had different element imbalances underlying their behaviours, but they all had the same Five Element imbalance that their owners had. This piqued my interest and curiosity and the relationship between humans and horses became my fascination, of course through the lens of Taoism, courtesy of years of Shiatsu and Chi kung.
This led me to study horse and human relationships, eventually training in EFT. It felt like the missing link between Chi kung, Shiatsu and horses. EFT relies on the non-verbal understanding, broadcasting and communication of horses, what I understand as their interaction through the Tao. Horses are social herd mammals, and prey animals. A herd is in constant communication which is (obviously) largely non-verbal. Communication is important for horses, socially, and also for survival. They need to know how others in their herd feel, and draw comfort from knowing and being known by their companions. When we are in proximity to a herd, however small, the horse or horses will be feeling into us via The Tao, exploring the quality and feel of our Chi, which of course encompasses our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies. Horses know who and how we are, with no reference to whatever social structure we exist in or the story we tell ourselves.
When working with clients in EFT, there is an emphasis on feeling the bodily and energetic sensations, on the felt sense of a situation or experience. We might guide a client through making a connection with themselves and a horse, and using the feedback from the horse to know when something true or useful is uncovered (horses enjoy congruence, when someone is knowing and understanding and feeling the same thing, or vibrating at a unified frequency with them). Through their presence, acceptance and general Taoist mastery, via the process of Limbic Resonance, they make it easier for people to feel connected with their true selves, their essence.
Often when facilitating with the horses, I have had to learn patience and trust – nothing happens on my schedule - however if my client and I are able to be present with ourselves, something will always happen. The horses don’t feel any pressure to create or manifest a learning from each session, and I’ve had to practise acceptance. The lack of forcing or manipulation is the only way towards a true vibrational alignment, an acceptance of what is, personally, relationally, environmentally, and universally.
To help clients explore and understand connection, we ask questions about the location of a feeling (where is the sadness in your body?) and questions to encourage curiosity (what colour, texture, shape, consistency, or pitch does the sensation have? Might it be moving or still? Might it have a message or a word associated with it?) This verbalising practice somehow by-passes our thinking- and understanding-brain, leaving the shouldand ought to's behind as a starting point, and then lets understanding and integration follow on later, helping us to connect our thinking- and feeling-brains in a curious, yet non-judgemental way.
In EFT we use a body scan exercise to further support clients in being able to access the wisdom of their body with, of course, the assistance of the horses, who are experts in, and recognise, this wisdom. It is the Tao, or the Field, where the horses largely live (ha ha – horses live in fields), where clients are able to join them as their unique selves, experiencing a freedom and connection that has the potential to ripple throughout their lives in a gentle and powerful cascade.
So, this understanding of the Tao from Horses, Chi kung and Shiatsu, combines to become more than the sum of its parts. The reaction of the horse, when a truth (something that isn’t subjectively right, but is a true vibration) is stumbled upon, is often to become very still and somehow expand energetically. It becomes planted, grounded and spacious, and the truth is able to resound throughout the client and the Field (the actual field as well as the vibrational one). I have learnt this sensation from the horses, initially by noticing them change their state in the presence of clients, and then to recognise the sensation within myself. I have practised feeling this greater truth with them. My equine friends, having such expertise, show me when I start to favour control and thought over openness and listening; they become bored and ignore me, and only pay attention when I shift back into connection with the Tao.
The verbal, but non-cognitive, language that we use in EFT has been transformative for me in both Shiatsu and Chi kung. In addition to Shiatsu language (such as depleted Spleen, or sinking Lung Chi) I am able to grasp and explore more variety and subtlety of information from the Tao, in the way that the horses have shown me with their reactions when a client or I manage to name, or embody a sensation.
My aim is that a student or client becomes as harmonious an expression of themselves and their connection with the Tao as possible, that the truth vibrates harmoniously
I’m sure that the evolution of my practice hasn’t stopped, but putting a flag in the sand where I am now, I would say that I have clarity in my aim. I am not attached to a ‘small’ outcome (perhaps of making a client feel better from their grief / hip pain / fatigue) - that feels like micro-managing and possibly imagining that I have some kind of omnipotence. No, my aim is that a student or client becomes as harmonious an expression of themselves and their connection with the Tao as possible, that the truth vibrates harmoniously. Sometimes this, in itself, will result in resolving symptoms, but it might also mean letting go of resistance to a truth, or dropping defences, allowing a person to fully experience their uniqueness.
As I work in Shiatsu, I respond to what I feel in the client's body. For example, maybe I connect with a depth, quality and pace that seems to feel more consistent, more harmonious, but I make no interpretation, I just move on once I feel like the horses (if they were present) would have stilled. If I can’t find such a sensation then I change something I’m doing – move to a different Meridian, change my pace or focus. Perhaps at the end of the session, just like after practising a Chi kung form, I wait in stillness, sit with my client, hand on Hara, and wonder what the quality of their and my Chi is. I get a picture, a colour, or a sense of a density, perhaps a movement or texture. I keep it non-verbal, but as clear as possible, to both anchor it and to then be able to communicate with the client afterwards.
We practise tuning into the Energetic Field, without having to name it
In my Chi kung practise, I have learnt from the horses how to be patient, not to actively search for a moment, a resolution or an aha moment. I know that if I continue to be present, using attention and intention as I move and breathe through a form, at some point something will shift and change, even if transiently. In my classes I play with words, analogies and feedback until a student hits a vibration in themselves and the room vibrates with a greater harmony. We pause after practising each form to notice the quality of our being – of our Chi. At that time, we practise tuning into the Energetic Field without having to name it (as the Tao Te Ching tells us – the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao), but by feeling it. In doing this we get to compare how we feel after practising different forms, both in ourselves and the wider group, and each person develops a kind of feeling-language that is only referenced to their own experience.
The Tao is the vehicle by which Chi travels and is the wider whole of all that is. It is, essentially, non-verbal vibration. The more ways in which I can access, understand and describe this wordless information, the more competent and fluent I feel in using it for information, treatment, and understanding, and the more I can attempt to apply language in translation. Through knowing Shiatsu, Chi kung and horses through EFT, I am learning more and more of the infinite language of Chi.
Recently I have let go of my Monday evening Chi Kung class. Although it has been deeply satisfying to spend some time with some long-term students doing some more individual work, I reached a point where I felt the class wasn’t going to take off, and wasn’t viable either financially or energetically.
I’ve also spent some time over the last week or so going through my website with the aim of simplifying the content. I’ve discovered that in order to simplify I need to be really clear about what my message or purpose is, and in order to do that I’ve had to spend some time actively reflecting on what I do and what my motivation is.
This is an ongoing process and just as my book “The Living Art of Chi Kung” was a flag in the sand and not the end of my learning about Chi Kung, so is the current version of my website, and the current structure of my working week. The impermanence and the changeable nature of my work patterns, understanding and feeling state remind me that we never arrive…
“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” (Lao Tzu)
Do I consider the fact that my Monday evening class failed to ‘get bigger’ a failure? In truth, there was a moment where my ego was hurt that more people weren't drawn to my class. However, I experienced such a sense of relief when I chose to let go and accepted that it wasn’t working for me, that I knew I was back in flow with the Tao again, a little more harmony resumed.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” (Lao Tzu)
We (humans) struggle with uncertainty, with not knowing and with the fact that everything changes, and yet this is one of the few certainties of life (the universe and everything..).
Many years ago, I did a vipassana retreat (10 days of silent meditation from 4am-9pm every day). The first 5 days were spend noticing the breath and the second 5 days were spent observing the evidence that everything changes (sitting still can bring on incredible pain in the body – spontaneously disappearing and then reappearing somewhere else, evidence of said change!)
And yet the compulsion to hold things still, to have them in a knowable shape, to have arrived rather than still be travelling is always there. We need to constantly remind ourselves that flow is healthy and that stagnation is not.
Having let go of my Monday evening class, I’ve had several new enquiries about my Friday class – something unblocked and the flow has resumed.