How to Change Your Body Through Compassionate Curiosity
‘Listen to your body.’ We’ve heard this countless times. And we get it, don’t we?
I’d argue that yes, we do, but not in the most in-depth way we could. In fact, I’d argue that, much like we have habits in all areas of our lives, our noticing of ourselves and our bodies becomes habitual too. These habits of noticing get in the way of truly attuning our inner ear to our body.
So, let’s rewind for a moment here and talk about habits. As a mindful movement teacher (in the fields of Yoga, Pilates and Somatic Exercise) over many years, my main focus has been on helping people identify and navigate beyond their habitual ways of moving.
For each and every one of us walking the planet, we have ways of moving that we’ve learned over time. For some of us that might be with a slight ‘hitch’ in one hip, or a twist through the spine, or a shoulder that thinks it’s its job to do everything, even when it’s not needed.
Inherent in this idea are two things: Firstly, we do these things automatically, so spotting our habits becomes an exercise of acute awareness. Secondly, we need to recognise that when we’re noticing our body, even with acute awareness, we’re doing that through a lens of ‘what I already know’, which, in and of itself is a habit as well.
Essentially, we’re viewing our habits through our habits. Beyond being just plain confusing, this presents an interesting challenge: how do we break them?
Identifying and moving beyond habits
If you’ve ever engaged in mindful movement of any sort, whether a Yoga or Pilates class or even a mindful walk or run, you’ll know that there is plenty to be aware of in your own body. Perhaps you or your instructor calls your attention toward ‘noticing how the movement feels’ and to ‘remember to listen to your body and what feels good.’
The thing is, habits generally feel ok, if only because they’re familiar; so identifying them can be tricky.
This is where Somatic Exercise really comes into its own.
What is Somatic Exercise?
Somatic Exercise is a modality that stems from the work of Thomas Hanna, who wrote a book entitled Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health.
Hanna’s theory is based upon what he termed ‘Sensory Motor Amnesia’ – a “habituated state of forgetfulness … (that) is a memory loss of how certain muscle groups feel and how to control them.” (Hanna, 1988).
Basically, this ‘memory loss’ is a result of habituated muscular contractions (for example, holding your shoulders up around your ears for a prolonged period of time as a response to stress) and it impacts us at the level of the nervous system. As a result, we quite literally ‘forget’ how to control these muscles outside of the habitual way we’ve learned.
Pause and try it for yourself
Now would be a great time to try this out for yourself.
Sitting or standing where you are, shrug one of your shoulders up towards your ear. Pause and notice what the contraction or effort of holding it there feels like (the effort doesn’t need to be much—just enough to feel it).
Now, try ‘melting’ the effort out of those muscles, really slowly. See if you can make the movement smooth and fluid.
Can you? Or do you notice that there are moments where the movement jumps or feels staccato?
Those moments of jumpiness or skipping are Sensory Motor Amnesia in action. If we liken it to a WiFi connection, the moments when the movement feels smooth are ‘strong’ WiFi connection moments, while when the movement skips, it’s like the WiFi has dropped out. That’s nervous system control at work.
Another analogy that might help is the idea of a walking track through the wilderness.
Let’s just say that you were born with an incredible network of walking paths through the wilderness. Each was clear, well signed and easy to follow. Over time though, you found that one of these tracks became your ‘go to’ way of getting around. As a result, that track got ever more worn in and obvious, while the rest started to disappear under the wild growth of the forest. Now, all these years later, the only track that your nervous system can see is the one you’ve been walking all that time. The other tracks? They’re still there, they just need uncovering and re-discovering.
So, how do we do that? How do we uncover those old tracks and work with our habits to find alternative options? Through noticing, of course. But it’s not a superficial level of seeing—it’s noticing with a deeper sense of awareness that cuts through and around our habits.
Developing a deep sense of curiosity
Noticing on this deeper level requires us to get curious about ourselves. I use that word deliberately because I want you to understand that curiosity is an invitation to step away from self-judgment and toward self-compassion. If we want to move with kindness, we must come at it from this angle, because self-judgement doesn’t leave space for compassion or effective change.
Armed with this deep sense of compassion-fuelled curiosity, we can begin to notice the subtleties of our movements.
What do you notice about the clarity with which you move? When are you tempted to rush a movement that would have a different quality, were you to slow it down? When do you speed through something simply because it’s easier than taking the time to notice what it really feels like?
To get around our habitual ways of noticing ourselves, we have to ask these slightly different questions; we have to look for different things—on purpose. And we really must do it with kindness.
When we find these places where perhaps our mind-body connection is hazy, we can, with love and patience, really notice what we feel as we move and see if we can rediscover the path that has been there all along.
While Somatic Exercise Coaches are springing up in ever greater numbers, it’s not always easy to find a teacher nearby. The good news is, you can totally bring this way of viewing yourself into any mindful movement modality.
Compassionate curiosity will lead you down the path of ever-clearer understanding of all the movement possibilities that exist for you. As a bonus, or perhaps its what lay at the heart of it all along, you might also find that this compassionate curiosity leads you to a deeper appreciation of yourself as a whole; learning to listen with a more attuned ear to all it is that your body needs.
About Erica Webb
Erica Webb is a Yoga, Mat Pilates and Somatic Exercise coach based in Melbourne, Australia, whose primary focus is on helping women move and explore beyond their habituated patterns, embracing self-compassion and curiosity.
WANT TO CONNECT WITH ERICA? FIND HER AT THE LINKS BELOW.