Of all the topics that I've written about in these newsletter articles, this subject matter is the most important theme that underlies Chi Walking. It is such a vast subject, in fact, that there could be an entire book written just on Body Sensing alone. That being said, here's the first installment.
I'm assuming that if you're reading this, that you are presently occupying a body. Almost everyone I know has one. In fact, it's one of the prerequisites to existing on this planet or this plane of existence. It's a requirement for participating in life. And, since it's our main vehicle for experiencing life, one would think that we would place a pretty high priority on taking good care of it. But sometimes it seems as if we take better care of our car than our body. I don't think that it's because we like our car so much. I think that we are either unaware or out of touch with how huge of a responsibility it is to possess this thing we call a body.
We read every day about people doing incredible things in their bodies, from climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen, to walking one of those wonderful 3-day charity walks, to having a baby. We also know about the day-to-day abuse that people carry out on themselves, working 60-hour weeks, eating junk food, skipping exercise. Maybe you have spent so much time the last few years (or decades) providing for your family, putting dinner on the table, and making sure your kids get good grades and healthy enrichment, that you barely even know how tired you are some of the time! What I'm getting at here is that we all need to learn the importance of taking good care of ourselves. And where you start is by learning how to sense the effects that daily life has on your body and whether or not what you're doing is healthy or unhealthy, in both the long term and the short term.
For example, a stomach ache could be telling you any one of the following things:
What you ate wasn't good for you,
or that you didn't chew your food well enough,
or that you're worrying too much,
or that you're hungry,
or that your belt is too tight,
or that you're exercising too soon after eating.
The Form Focuses in Chi Walking provide a great way to consciously practice the art of listening to our bodies, called Body Sensing. Your body has a lot to say and the more you listen to it now, the less it will scream later through injury, illness or dysfunction. If something is going on with your body, you owe it to yourself to figure out what you are doing wrong and make the necessary adjustments.
Before we begin, we need to open some lines of communication between your mind and your body. Think of these two as if they were a partnership. Our bodies talk to us all the time. My foot itches, my shoulders feel tense, I'm hungry, this pillow is comfortable. These are just a few examples of the literally thousands of messages our bodies send us all day long, and to some degree, we respond to each: we scratch our foot, stretch out our neck, grab a snack, or snuggle in. We respond to our body's needs, sometimes in a rote or detached way because we are so busy thinking about something else, but we're not really listening (this might sound like conversations you and your spouse have had!). We want to learn to be mindful of what our body is telling us and then make changes that truly respond to the body's call. Granted, there is not much we can do to get rid of hunger once and for all, but the shoulder-tension message might be quieted more lastingly by adjusting our desk chair to a better height for reading from the monitor.
There's got to be a law somewhere that says: "Before you can know what to do, you must first know what's going on." You've got to be able to sense what's going on in your body before you can make any corrections or adjustments. It all starts with simple observation, you watching yourself. In the Chi Walking classes you're shown how to sense things like what great posture feels like, what a lean feels like, or what a brisk tempo feels like. All of those little focuses are to help you to become aware of what your body is doing, right or wrong. They're also there to help you to learn to direct your body to move in a way that is smoother and more effective.
The first step in Body Sensing is to learn to simply listen to your body, whether you are out walking, driving your car, or sitting still and reading this article. Don't make any judgments on what you observe, or think about changing anything yet, just gather information and make mental notes; we'll talk about that in the Body Sensing II article. You're just learning to listen and observe yourself.
Here's an exercise you can do while you're walking to help you practice Body Sensing. I call it the "Body Sweep." Remember, this is only the first step and just an exercise in learning how to observe your body. It's not necessary to make adjustments yet, just watch.
The next time you go out for a walk, do this. Once you're warmed up and well into your walk, begin with your focus at the top of your head and slowly scan yourself from head to toe, observing - only observing - any sensations that you meet along the way. Move from area to area, making mental notes of what you find along the way. Move from your head to your neck, then shoulders, arms, chest, abdomen, lower back, pelvis, hips, upper legs, knees, lower legs, ankles, and finally feet and toes. It helps to do this "Body Sweep" at least once per walk and even better if you can do it more often than that.
Here are some questions you might ask yourself:
Do I feel tension here? relaxed here? heavy, light, soft, open - get the idea? Just watch and observe and see which descriptions come to mind. Here's a tip: the more you watch, the more you'll see. All of this observation will eventually give you a great database from which to respond with the correct action.
After you have completed your scan, next take a look at the place in your walking that gives you the most problems. Is there a part of your body where you consistently feel some discomfort? Let's say there is. The first thing to do is to identify exactly what body part and, if possible, to characterize the discomfort. Is it your foot, your knee, your hip? Does it ache, or is it sharp, when does it start and how long after your walk does it feel better? Can you manipulate the area to recreate the sensation? If you can, then try to move that particular area in away that doesn't cause more discomfort. Is there an adjustment in your walking form that will help the sensation to disappear? Experiment with it. If you try, you might discover how to become your own best doctor.
You can never know your body too well. It is a great and wonderfully mysterious thing and by making the effort to sense what it's telling you, you can use it as your guide to learning how to move through your life in a healthy and vibrant way.