We’ve all heard the term “mind-body connection.” But what does this mean at an experiential level? If you are fortunate enough to have experienced this “felt-sense connection,” are you able to draw upon it in your daily life? Most of us are too busy to stay “connected.” One downside of today’s fast-paced culture is the disconnect it fosters between mind (thoughts) and body (sensations). In our desire to get ahead and think ahead, we lose touch with what’s happening in the present. Connecting to sensation in our bodies is a way to be more fully in the present. And it can help balance the stresses in our day-to-day lives.

So what actually is sensation? And how do we connect to it?

Sensation can be described as the perception of physical internal bodily change—for example, the awareness of tension, temperature, tingling, and vibrations. Our bodies have receptors for all of this incoming information. Special senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) connect us to internal and external stimuli, sending information to the brain. The brain then sorts, processes, and stores this information and sends out a response. It is all linked up by an intricate network of neural circuits.

Physiologically, the mind and body are bound together structurally and functionally; whatever affects one affects the other. All of us are born with the capacity to take in, process and express sensations. In fact, babies and young children are masters at focusing on present sensations. But somewhere along the way, we lose this ability to connect to our present. Instead, we find ways to ignore or avoid these sensations. In some cases, unresolved experiences and trauma may leave imprints on our sense memory, resulting in “stuck” areas in our body. This can make it difficult to connect fully to bodily sensation. Becoming aware of and releasing stuck areas in our bodies is different from reliving the associated trauma. This awareness can make us more engaged, authentic and effective in our lives.

With practice, we can expand our perceptual field to include more of our internal landscape. However, it takes conscious attention to regain what was once second nature. How do we do this in our daily lives?

Meditation, yoga, martial arts, movement and bodywork, and communing with nature are just a few examples of ways to calm our mind with our body, or our body with our mind. These different approaches cultivate awareness, both internally and externally. The key is transitioning this conscious awareness of felt-sense from the massage table, the yoga studio, or the walk in the woods into our daily lives. This takes devotion and practice.

One effective exercise is simply to bring your attention to the present sensations in your body. For example, right now, as you sit reading this article, take a moment to close your eyes and see what you are aware of on a “body level.” Sense the weight of your body—how is it resting against the chair? How is the floor supporting your feet? Notice your breathing—how does your breath move your body? What else do you notice? Are there areas of discomfort? Are some parts of you harder to sense? Do some areas feel pleasurable and peaceful? Try to notice what is there without judgment or needing to change anything. Just be open and curious.

Simply witnessing and acknowledging what arises is a mind-body connection. Practicing this activity can help you become aware of—and maybe even let go of—reactive thoughts or sensations. It’s easier to let go of unhelpful feelings and reactions if we can first recognize them.

Try this exercise in different situations—for example, when you are stuck in a traffic jam. Instead of succumbing to growing anger and frustration, see if you can get into the felt-sense of that situation. Is your grip on the steering wheel tighter? What about the feeling in your gut? Perhaps your brow is furrowed and your jaw or teeth clenched. Once you experience these bodily sensations and realize they cannot improve the situation, you are in a position to release them.

Or perhaps you find yourself lying awake at night with racing thoughts. The more you try to shut down your brain, the more anxious you become, and the cycle intensifies. To calm your mind, try sensing what is happening below your head. You may notice physical sensations like your heart pounding in your chest or tightness in your solar plexus. See if you can notice how your body is making contact with the mattress and pillow, and try to feel your breath. Or see if you can recall the sense of total relaxation you have experienced at the end of a yoga class, during a massage, or while watching ocean waves lap at the shoreline. Bringing background information/sensations to the foreground results in a different perspective. This new viewpoint can slow down your reactions and create more space, allowing for options beyond your usual conditioned responses. In this case, it may be the key to falling back to sleep.

This awareness can be beneficial in many life situations. By simply witnessing events, experiencing our environment, and observing our physical and emotional sensations in response to whatever arises, we can become more open and curious, and awaken to life and to our selves.

– by Donna Waks