Perception is Embodied (but what does that mean?)

Of course, we all know that each of us sees things a little differently.

For example, if you’re lactose intolerant (or a vegan), dairy ice cream looks very different to you than it might to someone else. If you were bit by a dog as a child, then you don’t see them as the same friendly lovable animals someone else might. And we all have different reactions when we see political messages.

It’s easy to account for many reasons why we perceive things differently, including our history, preferences or mood. But you may not know– as I didn’t!– that our perception of objects and experiences is also affected by our perceived ability to act on those objects or experiences.

Our perception of objects and experiences is affected by our perceived ability to act on those objects or experiences!

What does this mean? Well, the information we perceive about the size, speed, distance, etc., of an object is not completely objective. That is, there’s not little ruler in our brain saying, “that object is 8″ high!” Instead, our brain considers how we might interact with that object, and how effective we might be in those interactions.

What does embodied perception mean?

Imagine you’re playing baseball, bat in hand, watching as a ball flies toward you. How big that ball looks depends on your perceived ability to hit it. Mickey Mantle once said (after hitting a 500 foot home run!), “I just saw the ball as big as a grapefruit.” In contrast, Joe Medwick (another MLB player, if not as famous) commented that being in a slump was like “swinging at aspirins.”

Rob Gray has studied the effects of embodied perception in sports and found that it’s true– top athletes truly do perceive the ball (or goalposts, net, bullseye, golf hole) to be bigger than those with less skill. In other words, their confidence in their ability causes them to see it as a more achievable target.

So maybe you’re not a pro athlete, or even much of a casual athlete. There are still profound implications for embodied perception theory. For example, a 1999 study by Proffitt and Bhalla demonstrated that people who were wearing a heavy backpack; older or in declining physical health; or of lower physical fitness were more likely to say that a hill looks steeper than those are younger, taller, or not wearing a heavy backpack. Another study determined that those in a sad mood would determine the hill to be steeper than those who did not report a sad mood. And yet another study (these guys like to study hills!) showed that fear can also determine one’s perception of steepness.

There are many fascinating studies that show that we perceive the world around us based on our ability to interact with it. We look at stairs and decide whether or not we can climb them based on our eye height, or limb length.

We see our environment not as it is, but as it is for us.

Dr. James Gibson has studied just how animals perceive the world around them. He speaks about it in terms of “affordances,” as in, “What can this environment afford me?” When we look at a wall, we are determining whether or not we can get through or over the wall, or perhaps whether or not it might keep others out. We determine whether or not we will fit into a chair (a major issue for those with larger bodies). We see our environment not as it is, but as it is for us.

Using embodied perception to our advantage

This concept of embodied perception means that our mental, emotional and psychological experience of a person, situation, or object is affected by our ability to maneuver it.

If we feel able to move well, we are more likely to feel confident about how we’ll handle a situation. If we don’t feel strong or mobile, a situation may feel more challenging, frightening or dangerous. We may find ourselves avoiding this type of situation or encounter completely.

This is one of the many ways that a movement and embodiment practice can have a positive effect on our mental/emotional health. There are lots of great ways to work on this. Play, strength, dexterity, balance and mobility training are all important. In many cases, I find that my clients simply haven’t had the opportunity to practice– or even try!– doing some things.

One of my clients had been feeling nervous about getting on and off her new boat– the ladder felt challenging for her. As she’s grown stronger and more confident in her body, she no longer fears the ladder– it looks quite different to her.

Another client had learned to fear bending his knee too far as it felt unstable. He would consider any new movement by thinking about how his knee would handle the challenge. The other day, I watched him move effortlessly from standing to hands-and-knees– something that was completely undoable six months ago. His perception of the environment has shifted so drastically that he almost can’t remember what it felt like to be afraid of that knee giving out.

Access to the right tools to assist us is also a big part of embodied perception. For example mobility aids, vision assistance, hearing aids or prosthetics can help us to perceive our environment differently. Before I put my contact lenses on in the morning, I am seriously visually impaired, and it impacts my behavior. I can’t drive a car, watch TV, make proper eye contact, etc. I need to behave in a risk-averse way until I’m able to see properly.

Some things will always be beyond our control or abilities. Many folks lack access or privilege to be able to manipulate the world around them. And few of us will ever see the baseball “as big as a grapefruit.” I’m more interested in folks seeing the possibilities here for greater confidence– not just physically, but emotionally and mentally as well– that comes with a movement practice. Embodied perception as a concept means that we have an opportunity to address anxiety and stress with movement– and it can be a lot of fun, too.

what is bilateral stimulation?

In 1987, Dr. Francine Shapiro went for a walk.

Dr. Francine Shapiro discovered the power of bilateral processing while on a walk!

As she walked, she noticed that her eyes were moving from side to side, and that some disturbing thoughts she’d been having were easing.

She said: “The thoughts weren’t as bothersome. I wanted to see if it would work if it was deliberate, so I brought up something that bothered me, moved my eyes in the same way and saw the same thing happening.”

What she had discovered was something that many of us “know” instinctively– going for a walk can help us to process difficult material, so that its power over our psyche is less painful or pervasive.

Dr. Shapiro went on to create EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing).

EMDR is a treatment that works by alternating left-right brain stimulation to help process and integrate difficult memories. It is often used to successfully treat traumatic stress. In EMDR therapy, the client recalls emotionally disturbing memories while the therapist directs them through an external bilaterally stimulating (left-right) process. The therapist may use finger movements, hand tapping, or sounds.

The EMDR Institute says as a result of this technique, “affective distress is relieved, negative beliefs are reformulated, and physiological arousal is reduced.” Anecdotally, many of my clients report that after working through the process of EMDR, their traumatic memories no longer hold the same emotional charge; they’re able to integrate these into their lives and move forward in ways that weren’t previously possible.

Why and how does EMDR work?

Dr. Shapiro’s theory was that EMDR mimics the eye movements we make during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep; this is the time when our brain processes memories. Another theory suggests that when we’re remembering something painful while also focusing on bilateral eye movements, the “working memory” part of our brain has to process so much information that the disturbing memory starts to get blurry and feel more distant.

You can harness the power of bilateral stimulation for yourself.

If you are experiencing active trauma symptoms, please seek out qualified, licensed mental health support. Call 988 if you are experiencing a mental health crisis. You can find a list of EMDR providers here.

If you’re dealing with pervasive anxious thoughts, or you keep replaying an uncomfortable memory or stressful fear, bilateral stimulation is a natural activity that can help to discharge some of the emotion. Any activity that alternately stimulates the two sides of the body can be helpful in processing & integrating challenging thoughts.

A few ways to explore bilateral stimulation might include:

  • taking a walk or a run
  • drumming
  • swinging Indian clubs
  • butterfly hug/tapping
  • rhythmic dancing
  • tapping feet or hands to music
  • rhythmic flow movement, such as alternating lateral lunges
  • rocking back and forth

What others can you think of?

While we may not understand exactly how or why bilateral stimulation works, you’ve probably already had the experience of its benefits. I incorporate it frequently into my client work.

Bilateral stimulation can:

  • help us to feel more relaxed in our bodies
  • let us think about other things (instead of being stuck or preoccupied)
  • “distance” us from the problem (so we don’t feel like we’re directly IN it).
  • allows us to feel less direct worry or anxiety about the issue

What’s your experience with bilateral stimulation– have you found it to be something you do naturally? How has it helped you?

open to new patterns:

three important lessons from The New York Times’ “Spelling Bee” game

I love words and word games. I love etymology, the nuanced imagery that a perfect word evokes, the cultural implications of a word choice. I even love thinking about spelling words. So it’s not terribly surprising that one of my favorite daily activities is the New York Times’ “Spelling Bee” puzzle.

It’s a simple enough game: you’re given seven letters and asked to make as many words as you can from the combination. You must use the letter in the middle, but you can use any of the letters as many times as you like. There is at least one “pangram” in each day’s puzzle– a word that uses all of the letters at least once. Sometimes it’s fun and easy; other times it’s incredibly frustrating. No matter what, you only have 24 hours to work on it, and then there’s a new puzzle– and you can see which words you missed the previous day.

The game has its flaws– its dictionary is heavily biased toward western culture– but otherwise it feels like a really wholesome way to engage my brain. Once you’ve paid for the subscription ($5/month or $40/year at the time I’m writing), there are no intrusive ads. It’s not the kind of game you get lost in for hours and hours (at least, not for me). And I’ve found that it’s helped me to remember some important lessons about how we use our mind.

1. Daydreaming is essential for problem-solving.

I often open Spelling Bee at the beginning of my morning walk with the dogs. While they sniff and do their dog business, I find my first few words, and then close the app while I walk. It’s during this time– looking at clouds, thinking of nothing in particular– that a word combination drops into my awareness (in fact, this happened in the puzzle below with the word “elect”). It’s not by staring at the letters or thinking hard that this happens– although those are important parts of the process, too. It’s the empty space I gave my mind to simply rest that allowed the problem to be solved. Studies have demonstrated that our most creative ideas can come during periods of “mind-wandering” or daydreaming. In another study, researchers found that “compared with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problem.” For me, this moment of discovery feels surprisingly delightful. Out of (seemingly) nowhere, an answer emerges!

Cultivating periods of deliberate quiet, rest, or “non-productive” time can feel, well… counter-productive. Our culture rewards the appearance of busy-ness. In what Tara McMullin calls “The Squeeze,” we tend to fill every moment with activity. Simply gazing out the window, or taking a nap, or an aimless walk, feels difficult, if not wrong. Yet it’s in these moments that our brain creates connections, makes creative leaps, solves problems that have been eating away at us.

Can you find the pangram? This was a tough one for me– I’ll put the answer at the bottom of the post!

2. Constraints can boost creativity.

The theory of creative constraints suggests that when options are deliberately limited, unexpected results can occur. In this case, rather than having 25 letters, we have 7. We know that there are limited options– in fact, that’s what makes the game fun.

This is the antithesis of our innate negativity bias– the evolutionary/ biological feature of our brain that keeps us scanning for danger, problems, the bad things. If we followed the logic of our negativity bias in working this puzzle, we’d do pretty poorly (“WHY AREN’T THERE ANY “‘S-ES?!”). Instead, this type of puzzle encourages us to look for the possibilities that do exist. We are forced to become innovative.

I’m often faced with constraints in my career. Some of them are clients’ physical challenges– they can’t put pressure on a knee, for example, or they aren’t able to reach overhead. Or I may have a time constraint– how much can I meaningfully share with someone in an hour? The constraint becomes an opportunity to find a creative way to work with the client. These creative solutions are often more meaningful and useful than the original solution would have been, and they open my mind to greater possibilities for future scenarios.

3. Getting stuck in a pattern can make it difficult to see other patterns.

Occasionally, there’s a puzzle that seems like it should be something. There’s almost a word. And once I get stuck in seeing that pattern, it is really, really hard to see other patterns.

For example, in the puzzle above, my brain insisted on trying to spell “catalyze.” If only that “I” were a “Y,” I thought, again and again. It took me several hours to let my brain find another combination.

Getting stuck on what we think we should be seeing can keep us from seeing what’s really there. Ooh man, is that a metaphor for just about everything in life, or what?

Sometimes, in order to work with this, I try to open Spelling Bee and simply let my mind take in the letters. I don’t start finding smaller words– I let my mind take in the letters and see if the pangram emerges naturally. After a few minutes of resting with the puzzle in this way, if I can’t easily find it, I’ll start working the “harder way.”

This has been such an enormous reminder for me in how I work with clients. There have been so many times where I was sure that I was seeing a pattern– which prevented me from seeing a fuller picture. Or I got caught up in smaller pieces, creating shorter words, so to speak– rather than pausing to let the bigger picture emerge.

So, not all technology is inherently evil.

I can be pretty cynical about the role of technology and how it funnels our thinking into narrow pathways, discourages critical thinking, and creates more division than connection with fellow humans. But there are some really good things, too– and this game has been an excellent reminder of the ways in which we can use technology to support overall wellbeing.

Did you find the pangram? It was “italicize!”

working hard is not the same as suffering

I’m going to say something a little revolutionary here: it’s possible to work hard without feeling absolutely terrible.

I think our culture gets this confused a lot. We think that if we are working hard, it should feel and look like we are working hard. Furrowed brow, sweat, exertion, maybe some angry noises. Does that sound right to you?

In fact, we’re often rewarded for the appearance of hard work: “Wow, you’ve really been working hard;” “I can see how much effort you’re putting in!” At one point in my banking career, I recall being promoted to management and being told that I was expected to be at the office more than 40 hours a week– even if I wasn’t actually working while I was there. The appearance of working hard was just as important as (maybe even more important than?) the actual results.

I believe that being seen working hard is a virtue that encourages us to exert ourselves unnecessarily. This dynamic is really common at the gym, working with a trainer, and even in the yoga studio.

The thing is, if folks think they should be working hard, or if their trainer, coach or community encourages it– they will screw up their face, open their mouth to breathe, use their whole body and psyche to really push.

It’s true that if we really need to exert a max effort or are trying to break a personal record, we will benefit from using whole-body tension (irradiation). We might have to change our breathing or make an involuntary grunt. The rest of the time, though– it’s possible to work hard without a lot of extra “I’m-working-hard-drama.”

There’s no inherent benefit in starting with tension, grunting, and labored breathing. Even when we’re working our hardest, it’s possible to be relatively calm; to breathe through our nose; and to be using the most efficient muscular actions, rather than gripping everything we’ve got as a knee-jerk reflex. Sure, we might sweat, get our heart rate up, have a hard time holding a conversation, but we don’t have to be really feeling miserable in our bodies.

This “less-effortful effort” can be something that takes time to learn, especially if we’re in the habit of feeling like hard work should feel really hard. For some people, this might mean learning to stop when they’re in pain. I’m not talking about the discomfort of muscle burn, but a range of motion that is painful in your joints or an injury that you’re accustomed to working through. Working through this kind of pain is actually detrimental in most cases. Instead, try working up to the range of motion that feels pain-free. You can still get lots of good work done there.

Learning to nose-breathe during your training is another way to encourage less suffering and calmer affect– and to be more efficient, aerobically. The next time you find yourself “needing” to open your mouth, try slowing down and maintaining nose-breathing instead. Over time, your ability to nose-breathe throughout your practice will increase.

The benefits of working hard without suffering include greater sustainability, greater pleasure, and greater joy in movement. When we have to over-exert, when we have to mouth-breathe, when we feel a sense of urgency in our bodies, we’re outside of our window of capacity. Learning to work within our window of capacity– what our systems are able to tolerate without feeling unsafe or unstable– helps us to expand that window.

For folks with a history of anxiety or trauma, this is a game-changer. It teaches us how to be activated without being out of control; better able to handle difficult situations without needing to freak out. We can work hard mentally and emotionally, firm in our convictions, strong in our boundaries, ready to do what needs to be done– and still feel settled and steady.

awakening intuition through embodied practice

Our intuition is our gut instinct, our deeper knowing, Jung’s “perception via the unconscious,” which guides us when logical information isn’t enough. In my last blog, we discussed the ways in which our unconscious mind and body collect information that our conscious brain may not track. While some of this may feel relatively simple (such as recognizing that body language or “Freudian slips” convey important information that we call “intuition”), I don’t want to set aside the more mystical dimensions of the word.

Our intuition is like an inner guide strewing breadcrumbs through a mysterious forest. We don’t always see these clues, and when we do, we can doubt, or be confused! Our conscious mind can shy away from the darkness between the trees. I know in my own experience, there are times when my intuition has led me places that I couldn’t possibly have predicted. I felt called to take a particular class, which led me to a new career. Or I was compelled to ask a client a question that seemed strange or out of context, but which led to a deep insight (“it’s funny you should ask!” they say…).

I have learned that my intuition can feel like a “no” in my body, even when my mind thinks it should say “yes.” Sometimes it can feel irrational, impulsive, a little wild. Most importantly, I’ve learned that to ignore my intuition will inevitably lead to pain or a problem to be solved. The client I wasn’t sure I should take on, the teacher I wasn’t sure I should hire, the purchase I wasn’t sure I should make– my intuition was infallibly right.

For some of us, it can be hard to connect to our intuitive nature.

our movement practice is the perfect place to connect to our intuitive nature.

If we think of our intuition as a deeper, more primal way of knowing, then it’s easy to see how our culture has attempted to domesticate or tame this knowledge. From early childhood, we are not taught to listen to our inner wisdom, but to follow external authority about things like when to move, what to value, how to behave. Perhaps you can remember times when you were instructed to be affectionate toward someone that made you uncomfortable; to go along with the group when it didn’t feel right to you; to “hold it” when you had to use the bathroom. We learn to suppress our desires and ignore our embodied wisdom. We lose our connection to the inner voice that would guide us.

“We feed the deep intuitive self by listening to it and acting upon its advice…. it is like the muscles in the body. If a muscle is not used, eventually it withers. Intuition is exactly like that: without food, without employment, it atrophies.”

-Clara Pinkola Estés , Women Who Run With the Wolves

Awakening the intuitive muscle

Remember, your intuition is unique to you, because it comes from the singular constellation of your psyche. The client who wasn’t right for me IS the right client for someone else. This isn’t about “right” or “wrong” so much as it is about guiding you forward. I say this to remind you that we can’t apply everyday logic to this often mysterious process. We train this muscle not by applying someone else’s rules– there’s no set number of “reps” here. Instead, engage it gently, curiously, and with a little wonder.

One way that I work with this is within the structure of a mindful movement practice. We can explore questions like:

  • What am I noticing in my body right now?
  • For some folks, it may be less of a body sense. Instead we can ask or notice, are there memories, images, or sounds that come to mind? Am I reminded of a song, or an experience?
  • How does this make me feel? Is there an impulse or idea that comes up?
  • If (this thing that I am noticing) had a voice, what would it want to do? How could I support it?
  • If given a choice between different types of movement, what “feels right” to me? As I explore that movement, what is the effect? How did that movement feel?

When we engage with ourselves in this way, our curiosity becomes a catalyst to awaken our intuitive “muscle.” We notice the internal validation we receive when we act on that intuition. For example, if I decide that today I would rather go for a long, slow walk rather than do a vigorous yoga practice, I might find that the slower pace allowed me to process my thoughts in a way that my yoga practice would not have done.

Gradually, the muscle builds. We begin to recognize the unique ways in which our intuition “speaks” to us. Notice when you feel things like, “that’s just what I needed,” or when you receive an inner feeling of relief, joy, and gratitude. Let yourself soak in that feeling. Each time we find another breadcrumb, we take a step further onto that mystical trail that only we are allowed to traverse– as unique as our own psyche, and rewarding in a way that is designed just for us. This is the treasure of the intuitive path.

intuition: perception beyond the conscious

Have you ever met a new person and felt an immediate sense of unease or distrust– something about them just doesn’t feel “right”? They are saying the right things, perhaps your friends or co-workers even like this person, but there’s something inside of you that’s telling you they’re not okay.

Or maybe you’ve had the experience of listening to a friend as they tell you about their new relationship. Something about what they’re saying feels a bit “off”. They’re telling you things are fine, they’re happy, but you can’t help but feel that perhaps there’s something underneath the surface that doesn’t match what their words are saying.

Where do we feel that sense of intuition in our bodies? It might feel more like a there confusion– your “logical” brain is telling you that things are one way, but you’re not quite convinced. Or you could experience this as a “gut instinct”– sometimes, literally, a sensation in your chest or belly seems to be reacting to a situation. You may feel an inexplicable impulse to move toward or away from the person or situation. For some people, it feels like the brain is saying one thing, but the body another. For others, there’s just a feeling of not being 100% sure.

Intuition is perception via the unconscious.

CG Jung

My understanding of intuition comes from Carl Jung, who spoke of intuition as “perception via the unconscious.” He defines the unconscious aseverything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind; and everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want, and do; all the future things that are taking shape in me and will sometime come to consciousness.”

What we call intuition is often just a deeper state of perception.

“Everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind.” These perceptions, or intuition, often speak to us somatically- that is, through the body. For example, as human animals, our bodies are always communicating information to each other. Some of these can be discerned, if we slow down and become more perceptive. For example, we may notice facial expressions that don’t quite match words, or an almost-imperceptible widening of the eyes or nod of the head that says “yes,” when the words say “no.” We can learn to recognize closed-off body language (crossed arms or legs, for example) or to watch where eye movements go.

In other cases, we may not be able to understand how or why we are having an intuitive thought or feeling. Perhaps something about the situation reminds us of another situation that we can’t consciously recall, but that left an impression on us. Or it may be that we’re receiving information in our bodies that our logical brain can’t process, but that creates a resonant effect. Intuition is highly individual. It can be a sensation, an image, or words. We all experience it differently.

But is it “real”?

Many of us may feel naturally skeptical about this sort of “knowing.” Our culture values facts, logic and science– all of which are important. At the very least, however, we can be open to the possibility that there are subtleties and nuance in embodied communication that our conscious mind misses, but which our unconscious mind is receiving and interpreting.

We should also consider the fact that each of us has a different history and experience– as in Jung’s “everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten.” For example, if I’ve been in a dangerous situation before, I may be more attuned to warning signs than from someone who has not. I may not even be consciously aware of that memory, but it’s still alive in my unconscious. In this case, we can’t express how or why we’re picking up on those signals. Instead, we call them intuition.

Intuition in client work

In my experience with clients, I assume that anything the client communicates to me is important information. From the moment our session starts, clients are feeding me information about how they’re feeling, what they need from our time together, their mood, their relationship with me and with the world. I treat all this information as though it’s something they want me to know, even if they weren’t sure they consciously wanted to tell me, or if they seem confused about it.

For example, they may casually mention something they’re dealing with in their personal life. On the surface, it might not seem relevant to their practice with me, but I understand it as something that’s affecting them in some way. I’m always especially interested when someone says, “I’m not sure why I’m telling you this,” because it signals a subconscious need to share something with me that their conscious mind doesn’t quite understand.

I’m also informed by things like their posture or gait; how they take off their shoes, or sigh as they come in the door. Are they looking at their phone, or fussing with their clothes? All of these can be unconscious ways of communicating. Of course, I can choose how to respond (or whether to respond at all), but I don’t disregard this information– it’s an important part of working together.

Yesterday, a client said, “You always seem to know just what I need!” I responded, “You knew what you needed when you came in the door. I just listened to what your body and spirit were saying.”

resentment doesn’t mean you’re a bad coach, personal trainer or yoga teacher.

One thing that we don’t speak about in the movement/wellness/healing arts world is resentment.

It feels a little weird to even type that out, honestly. Like a dirty secret. But it’s something that I’ve experienced quite a bit personally, as have the other professionals I’ve worked with.

Our role with others often requires us to spend time with others prioritizing their needs over our own.

This is completely appropriate– it’s our clients’ time to take care of themselves, and it’s our role to support them in that process. This means that we’re holding space for their bodies and minds in addition to whatever energetic processes may be coming up for them during that time. In many ways, we’re using our own bodies and psyches as an additional container for anything they’re trying to hold or deal with that may be beyond their capacity.

But what happens when we, as the professionals, aren’t feeling rested, recovered and resourced? In these cases, we don’t have the capacity to handle that other person’s experience in addition to our own. This means we’ll have to suppress our needs or even dissociate from our experience in order to take care of them.

There are definitely times where, despite our best intentions, this is going to happen. Finances or schedules often demand that we work even when we’re not at our best. On a short-term basis, or once in a while, this can be managed. Over a longer period, however, it becomes problematic. If our own needs are not being met, and  we are having to take care of someone else’s, then it won’t be long before that shows up as resentment.

Our energetic boundaries are more porous when we are feeling depleted– which means we may end up carrying other people’s “stuff” even after their session ends.

All of this has a profound and cyclical effect. Our energetic boundaries are more porous when we are feeling depleted– which means we may end up carrying other people’s “stuff” even after their session ends. We’re tired, less effective, and more prone to feeling depleted.

Resentment can also be a sign of a crossed boundary–maybe not even one that we’re consciously aware of. We may not feel like we’re being paid enough (a financial boundary), or that someone is taking more of our time than we are comfortable giving, or that are able to give (an energetic boundary).

We may think it’s not “showing,” but our clients will feel the effects of our resentment, physically and energetically. It’s not healthy for them, either.

Resentment doesn’t mean you’re a bad provider, coach or teacher, but it is a sign that it’s time to make a change.

Being consistently tired and under-resourced for our students or clients can lead to resentment and burnout for yoga teachers, personal trainers and health-care providers.

Resentment doesn’t mean you hate your clients, or that you’re a bad person. Sometimes it’s as simple as hoping a client is late so you get a little extra time, or thinking, “I wish someone would give ME a massage like this one.” Maybe you’re feeling less empathetic toward them that you’d like to. Or you might find yourself yawning, or taking frequent glances at the clock. For some folks, resentment may not show up during sessions, but as an emotional or somatic response before or after.

If you’re experiencing resentment, there’s no need to feel shame. It’s just a warning sign that tells us we need to slow down or consider some changes if we want to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue.

A few questions to consider if you’re beginning to experience resentment in your client or teaching work:

  • Would I feel differently about this if I were compensated differently?
  • How do I feel about the time and schedule boundaries I’m holding with my clients or employer?
  • Am I feeling financially challenged and taking on more work than I can reasonably handle? If so, is there any place I can cut back to feel less financial constriction?
  • What am I longing for? More time, more rest, more feelings of being resourced and supported myself?

things not to apologize for:

to your movement/wellness professional (yoga teacher, personal trainer, coach, etc.)

I wrote this post the other day after a few sessions with clients who have a deep-seated apology habit– even when there’s nothing to apologize for. I always express that there’s no need to apologize, and that my job is to help this process feel as supportive and useful as it can– but I also understand that many of us have been made to feel that it’s not okay to ask for “special” treatment, or that there’s something wrong with us if we need to have something adjusted. So many people I know have suffered through a class or session rather than feel as though they’re a burden, or not wanting to be the person who says, “that incense is making me sick, can you put it out?”

Each of us has a body, mind and system that is completely unique, and which responds best when it feels comfortable, safe and supported. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of things that often come up for folks I work with of things not to apologize for:

1. YOUR BODY:

  • Your size, your shape, your mobility, your strength, your hearing, your vision, your abilities, your injuries, the noises your body makes, and anything else you can possibly think of that has to do with you, as you are.
  • This also includes anything you use to help you to use your body: wheelchair, hearing aids, prosthetics, etc.
  • Any involuntary sounds or movements of your body.
  • Needing to use the restroom; needing to pause (see #3);
  • And any props or assistance you require in your practice.

2. BEING SENSITIVE: Many of my clients are folks who live with ongoing pain or conditions that make them highly sensitive. Their systems respond more loudly to things that may not register with other folks. Here are some ways this might show up in their bodies:

  • being sensitive to hard surfaces under your joints– often folks may need to add some padding or a cushion to support themselves.
  • being sensitive to textures, or allergic to certain substances: the type of mat we use, the softness of a blanket– these can make a big difference and even trigger dangerous reactions.
  • being sensitive to scents like incense, essential oils or anything else in the air.
  • being sensitive to light, sound, temperature.
  • being emotionally sensitive: working with the body means that emotions are going to arise. It’s okay to feel and react to those moments.

3. NEEDING TO TAKE A BREAK/RESTING:

  • Sometimes your body might need an extra minute to rest before it can work again.
  • Sometimes your mind might need a minute to adjust mentally before you can move on to the next thing.
  • Sometimes you may not have enough energy or ability to do what you’re being asked you to do.
  • Our culture praises hard work and demonizes rest– but we are at our most effective and productive when we allow ourselves adequate time to rest before we work.

4. YOUR PARTICULAR LEARNING STYLE: We all have different brains and learning styles. This might look like:

  • Not understanding instructions; needing clarification.
  • Being slow at learning.
  • Not “getting it right.”
  • Needing to learn in a way other than the way it was taught (visually, kinesthetically, from diff. angles, etc).
  • Needing to practice alone or at home.
  • Needing to practice it without being watched.
  • Needing the coach to do it with them.

5. YOUR EMOTIONAL/MENTAL NEEDS:

  • Having “a bad day,” feeling low on energy, being depressed, feeling anxious, needing some support or validation.
  • Having challenging life circumstances.
  • Feeling affected by current events.
  • Your movement professional isn’t your mental health provider, but it should always be okay to show up as your whole self.

I hope this list is a starting place to start to normalize the diversity of the human experience, and to recognize the ways in which a fitness/wellness environment can feel more welcoming and accessible for all. We can only grow, learn and thrive in an environment that allows us to be unapologetically ourselves. If your yoga teacher, personal trainer,  movement coach, etc. makes you feel like you NEED to apologize for any of these things; or f they have not created an atmosphere in which you are able, comfortably, to show up as your whole self; if you do not feel seen, heard, validated, or appreciated as you are, they are not a good fit for you.

what is hypervigilance?

and how can we work with it in the body?

Have you ever found yourself feeling really jumpy, or on edge– for days, or weeks at a time? For some folks, this can become so common they don’t even notice it anymore.

Hypervigilance feels like you are always “on.”

Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity and reactivity. Our nervous systems are always scanning for things that might be dangerous. If everything’s going pretty well in our lives, this is a pretty low-key function.

If we’re living with the effects of traumatic stress, anxiety, or feeling overwhelmed, we may find ourselves in a state of hypervigilance, in which our normal “scan for danger” system is on high alert.

Hypervigilance might feel like:

  • Jumpy, easily startled, surprised or frightened, irritable, tense, quick to anger or defensiveness
  • Over-reactive: “normal” sounds such as a horn beeping in traffic can cause a heightened stress response, pulse quickening, jaw clenching, feeling of heat in the body
  • Quick to feel frustration, reactivity or anger; an over-sized reaction to events
  • Difficulty relaxing or sitting still
  • Sensitive to noises, movement, or anything different in one’s environment
  • Feeling “fast” or urgent, heart pounding, heart rate elevated; rapid, shallow chest breathing; tight neck/shoulders
  • Feeling like you need to watch the door or have a plan for escape
  • Catastrophizing, planning for the worst

Others find that limiting their screen time (especially social media, news, etc) helps them to feel less overwhelmed or inundated, which can increase the feeling of danger and the need for vigilance.

Always being “on” and ready for danger means that our system is producing more stress hormones to keep us focused and ready to go. While adrenaline and cortisol are great for short-term situations, they can leave us feeling drained and exhausted. Sleep can be more difficult, and our body isn’t able to function as well as it can.

If you find yourself stuck in this state, it’s important to be sure you are well-resourced with mental health care. At the same time, from a somatic (body) point of view, it may be helpful to notice what seems to increase the feeling for you, and to limit your exposure. For example, cutting back on stimulants such as caffeine is useful for some folks.

Another way that we might work with hypervigilance in our body is to notice when it is present. Rather than trying to get rid of it, we can name it and think about adding supportive practices:

  • Time without screens, especially in nature
  • Movement practices that work for YOU:
    • Shaking, walking, dancing
    • Practices that are slower, mindful and grounding such as yoga or tai chi
    • Playing Frisbee or throwing a ball with a friend
    • Non-screen games (board games, or card games) that give your body and mind something to do. Bonus if it’s with a buddy for social engagement!

We also want to keep in mind that hypervigilance is part of a natural function of our nervous system. There’s nothing we’ve done “wrong” to create this effect; it’s often based on factors which are beyond our control.

While it’s still important to seek out resources and mental health care if you’re going through a state of ongoing hypervigilance, please remember that this is not a “you” problem.

Hypervigilance is an adaptive response to allostatic overload– a state in which your system is trying to recalibrate to handle stress, much of which may be beyond your control. That doesn’t mean that you can’t (or won’t) feel better, but you don’t need to feel like there’s something “wrong” with you.

do isometric contractions freak you out? here’s what to do.

Isometric contractions are a popular (and powerful) choice for mobility & strength work. They’re incredibly useful as a tool to both expand and strengthen ranges of motion. They teach the brain to recognize and respond to areas of our body where we may have limited awareness. They’re a brilliant strategy for stabilizing joints. And they can also have a short-term analgesic (pain-relieving) effect. 

What is an isometric contraction?

An isometric contraction is one in which the muscle engages, but doesn’t change its length. If you were to bring your two palms together in front of your chest and push them into each other, that would be an isometric contraction. You can feel your muscles working, but they’re not shortening (as the bicep does when you bring a dumbbell toward your shoulder in a bicep curl— that’s a concentric contraction), nor are they lengthening (as the bicep does when you begin to lower that dumbbell— that’s an eccentric contraction). 

So what’s the big deal?

Essentially, in an isometric contraction, we’re deliberately bringing the body into an activated state and holding it there. For some of us, this goes beyond muscular tension or discomfort; it feels overwhelming or even intolerable. It mimics the feeling of being caught in a dangerous situation and not being allowed to escape.

Different systems will respond differently. Some folks may feel like they need to “get out of there immediately,” and will come out of the position or engagement. Others might express frustration or anger. Others might feel things that seem confusing– nausea, dizziness. And some people just dissociate– they “leave the building” of their body, because it no longer feels like a safe place to be.

All of these are totally normal responses. An isometric contraction asks us to do something that goes against our most basic nature– to make ourselves uncomfortable and then not to move. Our systems are designed to avoid anything that feels uncomfortable or dangerous; our instinct is to move! Being activated and not moving is hard, even in a well-resourced nervous system.

So how do we work with isometric contractions in a way that doesn’t flood the system?

As coaches, the first thing we can do is to create an atmosphere where the client has complete agency— that they understand they can say, “no,” stop at any time, and there are no negative consequences. This keeps the client from pushing through, which will only reinforce the reaction and exacerbate the issue. 

As clients, we can remember that we are in charge of our own bodies, and that any resistance our nervous system is offering is there for a good reason. Stopping if something feels wrong is really important.

Second, we can work at a lower intensity— cueing 5, 10, or 15% may be enough for a first session. This gives our system a chance to breathe with and adjust to the activation. Pushing through nervous system resistance is not the way to make gains. We actually make real change when we work up to our capacity without pushing past it. The next time we attempt the contraction, our nervous system is more likely to recognize it as an okay place to be, and it will allow us to go a little further.

Slowing down the pace of this work is crucial as well. If I am teaching isometric contractions in a new body part, I can expect it to take most of the session. We may need to pause and move around, or find ways to center and ground. We’re moving at the speed of trust (as adrienne mares brown says)— only going as fast as the nervous system will allow us, so that our system recognizes it as safe.

Slowing down and backing off can feel frustrating or counter-intuitive for many coaches (and clients), but there’s a huge payoff. Think of the nervous system as a scared and defensive child— it’s been hurt before, and it’s doing its best to be sure that doesn’t happen again. As we teach it that we’re going to listen to its needs (slowing down, not pushing past what it can handle), it will slowly loosen its grasp. The body will be able to handle more intensity for greater lengths of time without triggering that freak-out reaction. 

I believe that isometric training is worth this extra time and effort because it teaches something that we all need. This training is a practice in being present with activation, challenge and tension in a non-reactive way. The same patterns we initially experience in an isometric muscular contraction— frustration, irritation, inability to stay with— are present when we experience the psychic tension of dealing with complexity, difficulty, or discomfort in our lives. Learning to recognize our own embodied patterns of reactivity gives us great information to work with when we come up against those moments outside our training space.