Embodiment

Neuroplasticity, boundaries, and the body

In a multiple-slide post on my Instagram feed, I talked about neuroplasticity, the science of change (and, um, how things can stay the same) in a 10-frame post. But that doesn’t lend itself well to this format, so here’s the text for you. Neuroplasticity refers to the role of the brain and nervous system (which includes the autonomic + enteric nervous systems) in helping create change. In this post, I’d like to apply that very cool science to the art + practice of setting good interpersonal + intrapersonal boundaries. Emerging research suggests that we can target a behavior we’d like to strengthen (or extinguish) by focusing not just on the practice itself, but on the prelude and postlude that precede and follow it. This helps recruit our attentional centers to pay attention. It supercharges our motivational system. And it deepens the relationship we have with the behavior we want to …

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Empathic Differentiation Practice

This practice, the Empathic Differentiation Exercise, is the icing on the cake of boundary practices. It’s particularly useful for empaths and highly-sensitive people. It is most effective when you’ve just had an experience of emotional contagion—when you’ve been “infected” by someone else’s emotions and can’t figure out how you feel or what your needs are (a common happening for empaths, as I can attest). This practice depends on doing regular Embodied Check-Ins (directly below) so you know the topography of your own emotions: where they show up in your body, the range of “forms” they can take, and how intense or invasive they feel. Then, when you’ve had a potentially contagious encounter with someone, do the Embodied Check-In.   You already know what it feels like when your own emotions are present in your body, and where they are present. (This isn’t to say that what’s really yours always presents …

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On Russia’s Genocide of the Ukrainian People

When my mother was just 7 years old, Hitler began World War II by invading Poland, aided by the Russians. Soviet forces came in the middle of the night, took her family from their home, and placed them on cattle cars in a long train to Siberia. They took hundreds of thousands of people; many died of cold and illness on the way, and still more in Siberia. My mother and her family spent two years as prisoners of war in a Soviet internment camp. The Russian soldiers were brutal. I am the eldest of three. My entire life, I’ve had a visceral, irrational, mystifying, embarrassing fear of running out of food despite always having enough to eat. During Covid, we skyped with my aunt, who is 90. She too was the eldest of three, with my Mom and a younger sister. She told us the fear of going hungry made …

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The Art of Inquiry: How to Create and Undo + Create Ourselves:

    You know those rare moments when an idea, person, or experience moves you from a static place to a place of disorganization and discomfort, but ultimately, transformation? One of those occurred for me in March of 2017. I was in the middle of a strength training session in the gym, casually listening to an On Being podcast episode which featured the poet, theologian, and social healer Padraig O’Tuama. His words hit me mid-pullup, echoing in the special way that signals things will never be the same. The passage: “There’s a Buddhist concept,” says O’Tuama, “where if you’re asking a poor question—if a question is being asked, “Are you this or that?” Robert Pirsig says that you can answer, according to his telling of the Zen tradition, you can answer with the word mu, m-u, which means, “Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.” The …

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How sexual harassment impacts our sense of personal space

Proprioception is our sixth sense. It encompasses our awareness of movement, the position of our body and its parts in space, how we occupy space, balance, the senses of effort and force and heaviness, and our posture or shape. Proprioception also includes the space around our bodies—and sometimes others’ bodies too. It involves a symphony of actions, reactions, predictions, and functions in which multiple instruments playing both in harmony and in a state of intelligent entropy.   Proprioception is not just part of our sensorium. It’s a scaffold for our sense of self. And an integral part of proprioception—and thus, our sense of self—is how we negotiate peripersonal space, the area that surrounds our bodies.  Peripersonal space is brought to us in part by the frontal and parietal regions in the brain. These regions team up with peripersonal neurons throughout our bodies in a mutual and multi-sensory network of visual, auditory, …

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Neuroplasticity is a Social Construct

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s capacity to change with experience—plastic meaning mutable. If we play the piano once, we briefly stimulate the piano-playing centers of the brain, and not much changes. Play every day for a year, however, and the brain transforms in several ways. It can grow new cells. It can enhance cell size or cell activity. It can prune away pathways that are no longer used, a process known as neural sculpting. And it can forge new relations between entire networks of cells; this is called connectivity. These cellular changes occur in service to getting better at what we practice—in this case, playing the piano. We practice other things, too, some of them not so harmless. Neuroplasticity is also a social construct. It evokes the way communities shape themselves through practice. We change or stay the same because of and in relation to one another. Think of the …

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Why yoga + the body are social and political

  In response to a recent email, I received several notes saying, “I didn’t sign up for your newsletter to hear about your political views.” I get that. Yet to separate integrative, mind-body approaches from politics sets up a false division between them. I’d like to explain why that is—and how it has a negative impact on well-being. Let’s start with the body.   Why Integrative Therapies are Inherently Social (and Political) From personal feelings like anger or sadness to social emotions like shame or trust, emotions have their origin as sensations in the body. As this origin story begins, receptors in your skin and internal organs collect information. These receptors specialize in distinct sensations: the speed of your heart, the pace and depth of your breath, hunger or fullness, warmth or coolness, activity or soreness in your muscles, emptiness or fullness in your abdomen (and bladder and rectum), and …

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Will the Real Mind-Body Connection Please Stand Up? (Your key to well-being.)

We often speak of a mind-body connection, as though under the right conditions, the mind can talk to the body, and the body can talk back. (This calls to mind the old-fashioned screech of a dial-up modem connection as we try to go online.) But the breaking story in well-being concerns the relationship between the mind and body (and in addition, the brain). One of the most significant relationships we’ll ever have, it determines our physical, emotional, and social well-being. For over a decade, I’ve taught what I call the Mind, Brain, and Body Network. If you’ve studied with me in person or online, you’ll notice that the elements have changed over time as emerging research highlights new areas of study. Here’s an up-to-the-moment picture of how I conceptualize this extraordinary communications network and why it holds the key to well-being. The Mind, Brain, and Body Network. The Autonomic Nervous …

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A Public Figure’s Guide to Messing up and Learning in Public

This week, several people asked me to listen to the intro of a yoga podcast in which the host, J. Brown, defends a blog he wrote refuting the firsthand account of Christie Roe about how yoga teacher Mark Whitwell sexually assaulted her.* [See below for a link and content warning.] The people who asked me to review this intro were understandably confused. They had many questions. What made them so viscerally uncomfortable? Was the host entitled to tell “his side of the story,” as he put it? If he apologizes for his actions and seems contrite, even tearful, should he be given a third, fourth, fifth chance at making things right? What comprises a full apology (as opposed to an emotional one)? Why are so many people defending his intentions? And what exactly is learning in public? There’s so much to unpack here, and others have already addressed several of …

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I Feel Your Pain: An Empath’s Guide to Staying Balanced

Do you often wonder which emotions are yours, and which belong to someone else? When people you care about are hurting, do you feel their pain so deeply that it’s hard to separate—even after they’re out of crisis mode? In relationships, do you donate so much of your own natural resources that you suffer from a chronic energy shortage? And with those you’re close to, is it hard to figure out what your own needs are—or even what you want for dinner? If the answer is yes, it’s highly likely that you’re an empath. What does it mean to be an empath, and why is it fraught with these basic life challenges? Derived from the Greek “em” (in) and “pathos” (feeling), the term empathic means you’re able to “feel into” others’ feelings. But for empaths, this sensitivity is magnified to the nth degree. An empath is more tuned in, more …

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