• It can be easy for us to stay in our heads, but by doing so we're missing out on the vital information our body can give us

  • Chi Kung Master Lizzie Slowe explores the richness of body awareness

  • We have body psychotherapists on welldoing if you are interested in this work – find them here 

We navigate through life's ups and downs both emotionally and physically. There can be no doubt that life is a felt experience. In recent years the value of mindfulness for its ability to heal and bring a sense of wellbeing has become well-known – what is less recognised is the importance of being 'bodyful' too.

The wisdom of the body is the truest and most authentic that we have access to. We feel and store our life experiences in our bodies. Direct sensations in the body are an unfiltered version of our experience. Every day our senses take in huge amounts of information every second. Our conscious brain can only process a small fraction of everything we sense.

Our senses arise first in our body before the information is carried to our brains. Our brain fills in what it needs in order to create a cohesive picture or narrative. How do we know what is real and what our brain is filling in? By checking in with our bodies. Without doing so, we can cut corners and miss out on vital information. We might then find ourselves seemingly reliving the same situation again and again, or jumping to conclusions based on our past experiences. 

We need to remember: we’re feeling machines that think, not thinking machines that feel. 

How can we be more body aware?

To be able to pay good attention to what we feel it helps to create our own language and familiarity with our bodily sensations. In Shiatsu and Chi Kung terminology we might describe qualities of our Chi or energy. Stagnant Chi or Sinking Chi are descriptions of sensations that give rise to and also describe emotions. 

Stagnant Chi might feel like frustrations or Sinking Chi might feel like sadness. Describing emotions in this way can help us feel the sensations more viscerally. My joy may not feel the same as your joy. ‘Red’ only makes sense if we all agree what red means (for example that’s how we describe the colour of a post box). But emotions and sensations are felt and not seen, and so our language is much more subjective.

To practise and become more fluent we can use the practise of a bodyscan. We pay attention to each part of our body in turn – it doesn’t have to be long and laboured. We take an excursion of awareness round the body mapping the landscape. Initially lingering enough to just notice any sensations, returning to explore any that feel louder or more noteworthy.

Judging our body as good or bad is something most of us do without even noticing. Perhaps we’ve been told that deep breathing is worthy, shallow breathing – could do better. This doesn’t foster curiosity about the quality of our breath, but instead, can promote either pride or shame. To encourage non-judgement we use prompts to help us explore, such as describing sensations in terms of textures, shapes, colours, movements, images and temperatures. These help us to bypass our thinking brain that wants to make easy sense of what we feel. It allows us to linger and explore the experience with imagination and description, engaging only the more creative parts of our brain. We foster curiosity of a felt sense of ourselves.

You can even ask a sensation what it wants you to do, what would feel better, what’s its message? As an example, I used to get tummy ache sometimes when practising Chi Kung. Initially I felt like this meant I wasn’t practising correctly or there was something wrong with me, until I got the message.

One day, I stayed with the sensation. Instead of labelling it as tummy ache, I felt into it using the kind of questioning above. It felt sort of dark red and black and like a sort of shifting mist or gas, swirling within a general shape. I felt curious and continued to feel it when I realised that it wanted me to stop practising and sit down. After a period of resisting (I didn’t want to be the person who sat down in the middle of a class) I relented and sat down. When the sensation disappeared after some time I began practising again. For a while this happened pretty much every time I practised until I began to learn to practise with more relaxation and less intensity. Over a period of a few months it went altogether. The sensation in my body taught me a new way of ‘doing’ that was much softer than my previous habit.

One of the benefits of being 'bodyful' and resisting the urge to jump to our brain for conclusions or solutions is that wisdom – as opposed to a conclusion – can arise in the body. So many times, clients have described feelings in generic terms of anxiousness or depression. By investigating those feelings as bodily sensations they become more specific and personal. Therapeutically they can not only help us to understand more about what we’re feeling and why but offer us a way forwards. By lingering for a curious moment in the difficult sensation or painful feeling we can often discover the route to healing. It can take courage initially but there’s a relief in finally feeling what your body has been trying to tell you.

Many of us need no encouragement to live in our heads. Screens of all sorts are overwhelming and easy. Slumping on the sofa and binging a box set we can go hours at a time without feeling our body. However without having to reach for anything other than our awareness we have the potential to navigate and experience life more fully. Our body can be an unexplored but vast and rich territory. As an analogy, human beings seem drawn to trying to explore further and further into space and yet we have only explored about 5% of the oceans on earth. In a similar vein I invite you not ignore your whole selves in favour of constantly looking outwards.

Being ‘bodyful’ might sound a little gimmicky but it’s the real deal, gold standard practise when it comes to self-care. There is nothing you can do that is more intimate and more compassionate than paying close, felt attention to yourself. I’ve learnt that paying attention to sensations pays off. Our body has no other way to communicate with us, our thinking brain uses the language of words and thoughts. Our body has the vast language of felt sensations. By working in this way description and imagination become the language of the experience of our body, and we open to life more fully.

Lizzie Slowe is a Chi Kung Master and author of The Living Art of Chi Kung

Further reading

7 tips to help your body recover from pandemic-related chronic stress

Helping traumatised clients trust their bodies again

How hands-on bodywork helped me navigate change

Exploring the healing power of your own voice

Chronic lower back pain: is it time to think differently about pain?

What is the vagus nerve?