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Untying Knots in the Body to Untie Knots in the Mind and Heart
Mindfulness of the Body Regulates Emotions and Changes Minds
by Renee Burgard, LCSW,
Mindfulness Based Approaches/Contemplative Approaches Topic Expert Contributor

“Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in a particular way, in the present moment, with non-judging
awareness.” ~Jon Kabat-Zinn

“It feels heavy right here,” Rebecca* said, crying and touching her chest, “like a huge rock is sitting
on me. It’s like that old cartoon, where a boulder would fall off a cliff and pin the roadrunner to the
ground – it feels like I can’t move.” Rebecca had come to see me last year, a 32 year-old successful
marketing professional, whose older sister had recently been diagnosed with a psychotic condition.
She seemed lost in grief. Fluctuating bewilderment, sadness, fear, anger, tenderness, and love were
tying knots in every part of her.
I thought that untying some of the knots in her body with the help of mindfulness practices might help
her begin to lift the boulder.
Rebecca’s sister’s unconditional loving support had protected her, she said, from the demanding,
neglectful, and painfully critical treatment she experienced from her parents throughout her life. She
had always relied on her sister to guide and comfort her, and they were lifelong best friends. She said
that it felt now like she was standing on a beach, at the edge of the ocean, just watching as the raft
holding her listless sister drifted out to sea. She had been crying uncontrollably off and on for days.
What made things even harder was that her sister sometimes seemed like her old self, then became
delusional again. Rebecca’s emotions were rising and crashing along with her sister’s states of mind.

MINDFULNESS OF THE BODY: BODY SCANNING AND STRETCHING


The first foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of the body. It is cultivated with awareness of
breathing sensations, “body scanning,” and movement practices like yoga and walking meditation –
anchored in feeling the sensations of breathing. A body scan involves directing one’s attention to
different areas – one at a time – and focusing on the sensations in each place. A scan can begin with
feeling the moisture on one’s skin, and sensations of warmth or coolness, pressure or tingling. Then
we scan the interior of the body, noting muscle tightness or ease near the surface – and deeper, in the
viscera, where emotions express themselves as inner physical sensations.
Building brief body scans into even one sustained stretch can begin to soften tightness from strong
emotions and release the mind from thinking for a while.
Prior to entering therapy, Rebecca had taken an 8-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
(or MBSR) from me. MBSR is based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn1 at the University of Massachusetts,
and is taught in hundreds of hospitals, corporations, and schools in the US and around the world.
Rebecca had done many body scans as part of the course. She knew how to locate and identify the
physical sensations accompanying her emotional states. The following intervention was natural to
offer, and easy to do with her.
UNTYING KNOTS IN THE BODY
As Rebecca continued to cry, we talked about the benefits of recognizing and allowing her grief. But
after 20 minutes of repeated bouts of intense sobbing, she asked me to help her stop. I asked if she
would like me to guide her through some breathing and mindful stretching, and she immediately said
yes. We did a 4- or 5-minute sequence of stretches, while she remained seated on the couch. I guided
her to stretch gently, to her limit, with each pose, holding it for 20+ seconds, and remembering to
breathe. While holding each stretch, she scanned for unnecessary tightness, place by place
throughout her entire body, inviting it to soften (without insisting) wherever she found it.

“Psychotherapeutic approaches that utilize mindfulness offer well-developed non-verbal exercises that
enable the individual to dip
into direct sensation beneath the veil of words that may often conceal the mind’s pain. This sensory
immersion enables the individual to
disengage from those bottom-up enslavements at the root of suffering…. (see Kabat-Zinn 1990).”2 Daniel
Siegel, MD

“Our poses can strongly influence our emotional states. For instance, because of the expansive inhalation
and opening of the chest,
backbending, traditionally a stimulating practice, can elevate a low mood. Exhale-intensive poses such as
forward bends tend to calm an
agitated mind. In any balance practice, both inhale-oriented and exhale- oriented postures are executed in
order to create equilibrium in the
body and breath and to gain emotional harmony.”3

UNTYING KNOTS IN THE MIND AND HEART


This practice creates a state of “non-thinking” in the midst of strong feelings. Non-thinking helps
release habitual, reactive thought patterns as attention is re-directed to the body – what is called the
“neutral ground of attention.” If, in the heat of raw emotion, we give free rein to thinking or emotions,
our familiar and deeply grooved cascades of mental and emotional activity take their usual course,
often intensifying the emotions, or cordoning them off from awareness. Instead, if we direct ourselves
to notice “what am I feeling in my big toe right now?” the cascade slows and even stops for a while.
Awareness remains intact, and new, more balanced, and less distorted thoughts have a chance to
arise.

When she sat up again after her last slow, deep forward bend, Rebecca’s face had softened, her
breathing was quiet, and she said “it’s gone, the heaviness is gone” with relief and a sense of calm.
She said she felt sad, but less afraid and overwhelmed. She began to speak with compassion for her
sister, and for herself, remaining calmer for the duration of the session.

Before ending, we rehearsed the practice again: she brought the feelings back into her awareness on
purpose, then, increasingly independently, guided herself through stopping, breathing consciously,
body scanning, and stretching/releasing tension.

Rehearsal increased the chances that she would remember to use breathing and stretching in the
days ahead. Later, she reported with some relief that she had remembered and been able to stop and
practice, and that it had helped sometimes. Directing attention away from thinking and into the body,
gave her a sense of independence in calming herself, and also helped her to use her considerable
intelligence to understand her sister’s situation; to face the frightening challenge of becoming
independent of her sister for the first time in her life.

Practices like these are not intended to offer an easy fix for difficult emotions or life experiences.
Mindfulness, at its core, involves observing “things as they are” and not fighting them. A formula we
use is “Pain X Resistance = Suffering” (PXR=S). Paradoxically, allowing ourselves to “be with” our
pain, sadness, fear, or anger, frees us to go beyond them for a while. And, when practiced enough, “…
an intentionally and repeatedly created state can become and effortless trait of our being.”4

IS PRIOR TRAINING REQUIRED FOR THIS INTERVENTION TO BE EFFECTIVE?

A client must be open to the practice, more rehearsal may be required, and individual differences in
the capacity to locate and feel body sensations are limiting factors. In my experience, however, the
breathing, stretching and scanning practice
can lead to a similar shift in clients who are receptive, regardless of having prior training in
mindfulness.

*Names and identifying information have been changed for privacy


References:
1. Center for Mindfulness, UMass Medical Center, http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/home/index.aspx;
Jon Kabat-Zinn http://www.mindfulnesscds.com/author.html
2. Reflections on the Mindful Brain, excerpted from The Mindful Brain, Dan Siegel MD, 2007; http://drdansiegel.com, and
Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
(Dell, 1990)
3. Yoga Journal, “How Yoga Affects Emotions,” Nancy Gerstein, http://www.omplace.com/articles/Yoga_Emotion.html
4. The Mindful Therapist, Daniel Siegel MD, 2010 http://drdansiegel.com/
©Copyright 2010 by Renee Burgard, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org. This
article was solely written and edited by the author named above. The views and opinions expressed are not necessarily
shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about this article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment
to this blog entry. Click here tocontact Renee and/or see her GoodTherapy.org Profile [2]

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