How to practice embodied meditation

embodied meditation

In embodied meditation, our intention is to be aware of our body sensations, moment by moment. What is it that we sense? Generally, we notice what calls for our attention. That is, areas where we experience some sort of discomfort or tension. When we only pay attention to the squeeky wheel of experience, we miss out on a big part of our inner experience, the parts of our body that respond to stress by shutting down or collapsing.

A lot opens up when we start bringing our awareness to these parts. I invited Merete Holm Brantbjerg to talk about why it is important to pay attention to the parts of us that are silent and invisible, and how to do it.

You will get the most out of this 20-minute video if you actively participate, following Merete’s instructions, the way you would if you were listening to the presentation live.

Merete Holm Brantbjerg developed Relational Trauma Therapy, a psychomotor and systems-oriented approach specialized in including the invisible parts of us. She is an international trainer, group leader, and therapist based in Denmark. See her website and our other conversations .

Belo, you will find a brief recap of the video’s ideas, followed by an edited transcript of the video.

Brief recap

As you sit in your chair, you are sensing the contact of your feet on the ground and your sitting bones in your chair. Notice how your breating responds to your feeling more grounded.

Experiment with ways to bring energy to your collapsed parts:

  • Sense both of your feet and then make a tiny little push with them, a tiny little push into the ground.
  • Try the same thing with just the outside of your feet..
  • And try it with just the inside of your feet.
  • Put your palms together. Then, push your hands gently into each other.
  • Instead ot the palms meeting, let the fingertips of each hand press gently against each oher.
  • Let your elbows find the back of the chair and make q tiny little push.
  • Shape your hands into hooks and pull with your fingers in each direction.

In everything that you do, experiment with dosage. Try gently, and even more gently.

Edited transcript of Merete’s talk

I have worked with trauma therapy for many years. That’s not our context today. When you work with trauma, you notice that some things are gone. They’re gone from memory. They’re gone from sensory awareness. You just don’t feel them. And that’s a very different challenge compared to the noisy parts of us. And with “noisy,” I mean precisely what Serge said in the introduction: something is screaming for attention.

These “noisy” parts are hyperactivated. They are tense, contracted, and holding something for us. Given how noticeable the sensation is, it’s relatively easy to track. 

This has been given a lot of attention. Many traditions are paying attention to these hyperactivated parts, including meditation. How do we think about the body when we sit in meditation? Usually, we believe we need to relax. And there’s this automatic thinking that, to start meditating, we need to calm down and relax.

I started that way, too. What I came to understand is that it only regulates about 50% of ourselves. Trying to relax invites regulation of the parts of us that are hyper, i.e., tense, overactivated, the parts that are doing too much. If we talk kindly to them and say: “OK, now, calm down, put your feet on the ground, relax,” that works for the hyper parts of ourselves. However, in doing so, we are not paying any attention to the other side, the “hypo” parts, the underactivated parts. 

So what about these “hypo” parts? We need to understand what happens to our body when something is challenging. One of two things happens: We tense up, or we give up. The latter, giving up, manifests in many ways. It can be flaccidity. It can be feeling vague or numb. It can be losing energy instead of gaining energy. So, you see, what is in the way of our being more present is not only what there’s too much of, it’s also what there’s too little of.

This understanding gives you a different entry point. 

When you meditate, you want to be more present. What will support this? Relaxation is one part of it. The other is to find ways to bring awareness to what has lost its presence and to do so very kindly and in small steps.  

Relaxation will not help you be more present if you have already gone flaccid. It does the opposite: it reinforces the flaccidity of the parts of your body that responded to stress by getting flaccid.  

So we need to do something different. We need a different mindset if we want to include the flaccid parts in our being more present. What is that?

The key is that when something has lost energy, you want to be able to bring in energy. You don’t want to relax. You want to bring in energy. 

In theory, this could mean: Get up, get active, and do something big. However, if you do that, you just polarize the system. The parts of your body that had collapsed in response to stress will collapse even more, increasing the contrast with the “hyper” parts.

So what will work? You need dosing, one of my key concepts. Yes, you need to become active, but you need to do it with dosing. With dosage, you can bring in energy that these body parts can keep so that something starts changing.

I will give some small examples of how that could look in practice.

As you sit for meditation and pay attention to your body, look for a relatively symmetrical position. Both feet are in contact with the floor, and both sit bones can talk to the chair. It’s generally useful to start with this. Invite the body to land onto these four body parts–your feet and sit bones. You sense the body coming down. You are sitting here. The ground is there. Your feet, your sitting bones, and your butt are in contact with the ground. See how this invitation feels for you. This is a very simple way of inviting some relaxation of the superficial tension that most of us carry in most contexts.

For me: My breathing responds as soon as I give myself this invitation. I breathe just a little bit deeper. You can check for yourselves how this kind of invitation works for you (or not),

Then, we go to the other part of the body, the underactivated parts, which will be more unfamiliar to most of you. It is based on the idea that you can bring energy into parts of your body in a relatively small dose, sometimes a tiny dose. And we start by doing it with the vertical line. So, instead of coming down to the ground, I’m now asking you to sense both of your feet and then make a tiny little push with them, a tiny little push into the ground. 

Sense how that starts a movement that goes all the way up through your body. If you allow it, it will elongate your spine and make your neck long.

It will start a very gentle building up of energy all the way from your feet and all the way up along your spine.

You can do this in different ways. You can start and then hold the activation while breathing in and out. Or you can find a rhythm of activating and then letting go. You activate, and then you let go again. So there’s a rhythmic possibility. You allow this building up, and when you let go, you let go slowly.

See if you can just be curious about dosing. Maybe it works better for you if you do it very small. You can go down to barely doing it, maybe only thinking about it. Or you can do it with more physical energy. Then, it becomes more apparent that some of your muscles are working.

Basically, it’s the same skill in your body and has to do with getting aligned in your body.

I will give you two more options to play with. They are basically similar but work in slightly different ways. 

You can shift the weight on your feet so that you push with the outside of your feet instead of the whole foot. Just try it. Notice how energy will go up on the outside of your legs when you push with the outside of your feet. The outside of your legs cooperates with your backside.

Again, remember that you can dose this movement. Dosage is important. How you adapt it to your needs, how you dose it, determines whether this movement will work for you or not.

And when you have tried the outside, you can try the same thing with the inside of your feet. Shift your weight just a little bit so you push the inside of your feet into the ground. That will shift the activity in your body, activating the inside of your legs. It goes up to your pelvic floor and the front side of your spine. The inside and the front cooperate.

These movements involve getting aligned, which is important in meditation. A key aspect of meditation is how we can stay aligned and rest in that.

Allow yourself to select what works for you. Is there any of these three options, the whole foot, just the outside, or just the inside, that seems to work better for you? And is there any dosage that seems to work better for you? 

When I say “it works better,” I mean that it provides you with some kind of resource for feeling yourself, feeling present, feeling aligned, or giving you some support. Allow yourself to let go of whatever doesn’t work.

Please pause to see which of the three options works for you and at what dosage. 

It’s really like having an instrument in your body. You can play with it. You can push with any little part of your foot, and it will make a difference in how energy rises. There are such a variety of ways to discover and awaken the sense of it.

The most important aspect is that you can do this very small. You don’t have to do it in big movements. With the correct dosage, you are more likely to invite in the hypo parts, the collapsed parts, because that’s what they benefit from.

As soon as you do something bigger, they quit. They are so used to quitting. They are so good at it. And so, we don’t discover them. They go invisible. 

You must realize that doing something small is just as interesting as doing something big. You start changing the inner landscape of which body parts you invite in or listen to.

I will give you two more small things to play with. We started with the feet. Now, we are going to the hands and the torso. 

The palms. Put your palms together. Notice that your shoulders don’t have to work hard. You don’t have to go up there. Let your shoulders rest. Then, push your hands gently into each other. When you do that, you activate the whole muscle and connective tissue system in your front side. Again, you can do it rhythmically, which will make it easier to feel for some of you. You activate, and you let go. Or you activate, and you breathe in and out of that for a little while. 

Now, let’s talk about dosing. If you want to dose it really down, you can make your fingertips meet instead of palms. Just let your fingertips be the meeting point. You can still have your hands down in your lap.

If you want an even lower dosing, you can imagine the fingertips pushing into each other. Otherwise, you can do it physically.

You engage your front side when you start to do this with your hands or fingers. Notice what that feels like for you, and see if you can find a dosage that works for your body.

You can breathe. It’s not a question of stopping your breathing. It’s just a way of bringing energy into the front of your body.

You can also do the opposite. Push back a tiny little bit with your elbows. Let your elbows find the back of the chair and make that tiny little push. You can also get the same result by shaping your hands into hooks and pulling with your fingers in each direction. Notice what happens in your shoulder blades. Notice the dosing that works for you.

What activates there is the whole surface of your back, all the support muscles, all the connective tissue on your back, from your sacrum and up.

In closing, I invite you to take a moment to sense what this feels like. Which option or options work best for you?

See also:
Embodied meditation: Focus on body sensations
Redefining meditation.