Becoming 'Body Aware': Bridging the Gap Between Mind and Body

Becoming 'Body Aware': Bridging the Gap Between Mind and Body
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Conan Milner

Full transcript below:

Hello, my name is Conan Milner, and this is Words of Wellness, a show where we explore the many dimensions of health: from mind, to body, to spirit.

This mind-body connection is a subject I have returned to over and over again. It’s a bit of a buzzword these days, and kind of has a mystical new age flavor to it. But it’s much more than fad or fashion.  

For many, the idea of joining mind and body is an alien concept. That’s because, for most of the past few hundred years or so, the mind and the body have been conceived of as separate entities, relegated to their own space and dimension. Philosopher René DesCartes is usually blamed for fostering this dualism, but many sources have helped to drive the wedge between these two fundamental territories even deeper.

This separation is particularly acute in modern medicine. It’s the way the system is designed. Doctors typically specialize in either the mind or the body. Crossover is discouraged and rarely, if ever, acknowledged.

But what if the separation of mind and body we perceive is merely an illusion? Imagine if true healing came from joining these two forces and depending on how the big pieces of ourselves overlap and influence each other.

This was always the understanding in ancient forms of medicine, where mood and emotional trauma were considered just as relevant in terms of diagnosing and treating an illness as physical symptoms, like pain and organ malfunction.

As ancient ideas seep back into our modern understanding, we’re watching the paradigm shift back, where mind and body are merging once again.

To get some understanding and perspective of the mind-body crossover and how it works, I’ll be talking to Chicago-based movement therapist, Erica Hornthal. Her new book “Body Aware” talks about the kind of therapy she practices, and offers concrete examples on how the mind and body are not as separate as we may think, but intimately and unmistakably joined.

You probably are familiar with the phrase “you are what you eat.” The idea is that your diet directly dictates the quality of your health. Likewise, Hornthal encourages people to consider that “you are how you move.”  

Erica, thanks for joining me today. I wonder if you can start off talking to me about what you do: movement therapy or dance therapy. What is it, how did you get into it, and what kind of issues does it treat?

Erica Hornthal: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. And thank you for that lovely introduction. It was getting me excited about the mind-body connection. And I work with it on a regular basis. 

I'm a board-certified dance movement therapist. And more commonly, I think people associate with my other licensure, which is a clinical counselor.

Dance movement therapy feels like the definition is always evolving. It is a psychotherapy. It’s about mental health, wellness, that healing journey that we hear a lot about these days. But for me, it's really about bringing on board where most of our communication is housed. It's about using the body, using nonverbal communication, using our postures or gestures, to not just inventory how we're feeling in the moment, but to also uncover how our movement habits and patterns are often what's driving the mind-sets that are keeping us stuck in these unhealthy habits and patterns. 

Dance movement therapy—while it can be dance, while it can be movement, while it can be more stationary and talk oriented—it's the lens, it's the intention of bringing the body into the therapeutic relationship, bringing it into the healing journey. So that we are not just relying on a small percentage that is voice, language, and tone, but actually, the bigger picture, which is nonverbal communication. 

Conan Milner: Nonverbal communication: talking about these postures and gestures in regard to unhealthy patterns. One of the things you suggest to readers in your book is that we become conscious of how we move. And I want to delve into what this means. I think when most of us consider our movement, we exclusively think “exercise.” This is movement with a definite purpose. Perhaps we want to lose weight or we're just doing it to have fun, but it's movement that we engage in consciously. The kinds of movement you ask people to acknowledge are the movements we do unconsciously or habitually. So, tell me about our movement habits. How are they relevant and how can they keep us stuck? 

Hornthal: In a general kind of introductory basis foundation, if you will, those are the patterns of movement that we engage in on a regular basis. That can be the way we exercise. It can be that 9 a.m. yoga class that we take every day or a couple of times a week. It can be our preferred seat settings in our car. That can be the way we brush our teeth. The way we write. The way we sit at our desk, while we're typing up a note or an email. These are habits and movement patterns that we do on a regular basis.


Speaking to the unconscious movement habits, these are often how we exist. It’s how we hold our emotions, how we mismanage our emotions. It can be something like how we breathe, which we're not usually aware of. It can even be noticing the habit of our heart, how it's speeding up. It's not something that we've listened to, or actually should even be hearing all the time, right? Doctors will say, if you're that aware of your heartbeat, it might be because there's something going on, and you might want to go in and get that checked out.

But just having knowledge and awareness of that natural rhythm in your body, which is usually on autopilot, it's not something that we're super tuned into. And it's these kinds of automatic, unconscious movements that, honestly, even if they're small, can actually have a big impact or can be signs and signals of a bigger picture of something that is misaligned with our wellness. And while we can't necessarily change our heartbeat, what we can do is pay more attention and become more aware of how our movement is manifesting what's happening in our body. Because chances are we're noticing the emotions and the thoughts that are manifesting, which is way down the road. 

The body's already been expressing and feeling what you're going through mentally. The idea is to backtrack and almost be able to pinpoint these small micro-movements that happen, that signal us to say, “Hey, something is going on here. I'm carrying my grief, my loss, my anxiety, my trauma. How am I doing that?” And when I uncover how I'm doing that, I can change the way I move in my body to then release, manage, and work through it, and maybe even let go of some of those places that are keeping me stuck.

 Milner: You make me think that you're somewhat of a body whisperer. You're talking about how the body has these messages, and it's our job, or perhaps yours as a therapist, to want to interpret what those messages are. 

Hornthal: Yeah. I like that idea of body whisperer. And not that necessarily I'm the whisperer, but that we can all be our own body whisperers.

Something I say—whether I'm training, doing workshops or seminars, and certainly in sessions with my own clients—I always say that I don't know what it's like to be in your body, and you don't know what it's like to be in mine. And so, while we as humans often make judgments and assumptions, even if we don't intend to, the idea is to try to not put too much meaning, or to make too many assumptions, or place judgment on how we're moving. It's just to become more aware of it, and to notice it, and to be curious about it.

Some of the movements, actually all of the movements that we've adapted to our first survival—even if they're unhealthy, in a sense, or they're maladaptive—we’re doing it to survive. We're doing it to manage discomfort and disease. So, I appreciate that body whisperer idea, because I think everybody can be their own body whisperer. Because if we don't listen—and this is kind of cliché—but when we don't listen to the body when it's whispering, we have no choice but to listen to it when it's screaming. 

Milner: Yeah, and that's when you have real problems. One of the things I've learned from you, just because you helped me work on a story in the past on trauma, was that trauma is something that can get trapped in the body. This gave me an understanding of why traumatic experiences can sometimes take many years to resolve, or never get resolved, even after extensive psychotherapy.

 The phrase you use in your book that I think really encapsulates this idea is “your issues reside in your tissues.” I wonder if you can explain how your mind, emotions, worries, thoughts, anxieties, how do all of these end up in our body? And what can we do to set them free? 

Hornthal: I did not come up with that phrase. It's kind of in somatic circles, if you will. The idea is that our issues reside in our tissues. And while I didn't talk about this in the book specifically, because it's out of my area of expertise (and there's still a lot of research that's coming out about it) but fascia, which are the connective tissues in our body, this is coming more into the big picture in terms of places that hold our experiences.

There's been extensive research on molecules and receptors in the body, all over the body, that contain emotion. And that it's not just a brain process, which I think in the past has kind of gotten us into trouble with regard to the mind-body disconnect, right? If mind is from the neck up—because that's where all of the emotions are occurring—then of course, we're going to focus there, but there’s more and more research [that suggests otherwise]. 

Again, like you had mentioned, I think indigenous practice has known this for centuries. But more and more modern-day research is showing that, wow, these emotions are embodied. And if we don't address the body that houses them, if we never really work through those issues, and we just talk around them…

Books like “The Body Keeps the Score” have been instrumental in opening that up for people, and letting people know that, hey, trauma is embodied. And there are ways that we need to be looking at, or meeting, our body so that we can gently and compassionately move through these places, find that path to healing, or just meet our body where it is, instead of this shame-blame game that we play often.

 The piece that I was interested in bringing into the picture, which I don't think is talked about very much with regard to trauma in the body, is that when we're triggered by either an experience of past trauma, or we're experiencing overwhelm in our body, oftentimes what happens is, it triggers an old movement pattern, an old movement habit. 

At some point, I imagine most of us have experienced being in a room with someone who’s not acting their age. And we oftentimes equate it to immaturity, right? That person is just a big kid. And while that may be true, sometimes it is a manifestation of a trigger. And when we are overwhelmed, when our nervous system is not regulated, we often revert back to younger patterns. We revert back to younger habits. So, we might have a 40-something that's tantruming like a 2-year-old. We might have an older adult that is acting more like a teenager. 

And there's lots of different reasons why that can happen. But that, to me, was a big picture with regard to those movement habits and patterns that aren't necessarily discussed. And again, it goes back to how our brains and our bodies become hard-wired, and how the trauma actually changes us. And if we want to really rework those wirings, not only is it a mind-set, but we have to rework the body as well. 

Milner: When I hear people talk about rewiring a mind-set, they’re often referring to neural pathways and how new ones have to be carved. And I think that just makes sense to people in terms of how the brain processes things. But you're making me think that this is a transformation that happens throughout the body. 

Hornthal: Yeah. Take it outside of the movement for a moment. I kind of equate it to the way you travel places. We tend to have similar routes that we take when we're going from point A to point B. We usually want the most efficient way. Or we look for the way that has the least amount of traffic. And that tends to be the way that we always go.

For me, this idea of building new neural pathways, or different connectivities, is about challenging ourselves and actually taking different routes, even if it's going to take longer. Because it's not about the efficiency of time, it's about the efficiency of the thought pattern or the movement pattern. And the more we open up these diverse or more robust ways of moving, the better we are, the more capacity we have to manage our emotions.

Imagine your brain is this one path. And when we start to figure out detours, or drive in new ways, we're creating more pathways, and more pathways give us more options. So, if there's a crash, or if there's an obstruction in the one way that I usually get from point A to point B, my system overloads. I think, “I can't get there today. What will I do? If that path is obstructed, let me check the other 25 pathways that are available to me so that I can get to where I need to go.” 

There may still be some overwhelm, but we're able to maneuver and work through that. Hopefully, that gives listeners another way of thinking about it in terms of what a neural pathway looks like. Why would I want more to be more well-resourced? Because you have more options at your disposal simply by changing and adding to the ways in which you're moving throughout your day.


Milner: This concept of expanded options, where we don't have to rely on our habitual path, is sort of freeing in a sense. But I wonder if you can give a concrete example of that. Can you think about perhaps a patient or case study that you have worked with that exemplifies this idea? 

Hornthal: Sure. It's something that happens on a regular basis. They're really powerful, because for that client, it's a shift. And in the scheme of things, it's always happening. There’re always these sparks, these new connections that are happening. And people find new ways of moving that actually ease their way of being. 

I have quite a few clients that identify with checking out or dissociating. Sometimes we have this idea of floating. We kind of watch ourselves, things are happening, but we're not really present. And while there are a lot of ways to do that, in one particular instance, I'd asked the client, “What do you notice, either in that state, or right before that?” The client said, “It feels like my head is a balloon, and it's attached to a string, and the string is connected to my body, but the balloon is up towards the ceiling.” 

There's literally this metaphor of this head-body disconnect, so I give the client the option of literally finding that string—even if it's improvisational. It's just closing my eyes and imagining that I'm grabbing that string, and finding a way to bring it back down to my body, finding a way to reconnect it to my body, or giving ourselves the permission to actually use our hands, use our imaginations, use our creativity, and provide that tangible, physical exercise, if you will, of grabbing the string, pulling it back down on my own time as gently as possible, and finding a way to reconnect my head and my body.

It took some time for the client to explore it. It wasn't an instant light bulb moment, but allowed that creative process to happen, and for the client to find a way to reconnect. When the connection happened, everything shifted. The energy changed. Posture shifted into the vertical. Her eyes opened. We made eye contact. It was just a different way of showing up in the room. 

And that's not to say that it won't happen again. You know that the disconnection may occur, but to give options is to empower the client to recognize what they are experiencing. How does it feel or look, and is there a way to reconnect what feels disconnected? It was very empowering for her. I think she went on to use that on her own when and if she needed it in her daily life. It was a really powerful, and actually brief, experience that we were able to work through in session.

Milner: How did you get into this kind of work?

 Hornthal: I had always been interested in dance and had been a mover when I was a kid. And honestly, I just came to that crossroads of what do I want to do with my life? What job will I pursue? I felt like, either I was going to go the dance route, or that I was going to have to let it go and pursue other passions: like science, biology, or medicine.

 I was fortunate enough to start off freshman year in a program that didn't require an audition right away. You got to kind of orient yourself to the program. Then a few months in, there was a program evaluation. I was taking some general education prerequisites, and one of them happened to be psychology. And I never realized how interested I was in it. I was just feeling very aligned, reading things in a textbook that I always understood but never could put a name to, and understanding that not everybody got that. 

And so, the program director, upon evaluation, asked me what I was thinking about this program. I loved the dancing part. I didn't want to let it go. But I had to be honest with myself and realize that it wasn't in the cards for me to be a professional dancer. I wasn't going to be a dance educator. I wasn't going to be a performer or a choreographer, a studio owner, or anything like that. It just didn't feel aligned with me. 

I said, “You know, I'm surprisingly interested in psychology, and maybe I'll pursue that.” And rather than make the switch and say, “Good idea, glad you found a passion,” she said, “What if you could marry your love for dance and movement with your interest in psychology?” Well, she piqued my interest. She had my full attention. 

I said, “Great. Are you telling me that I have to create my own program, my own concentration?” And she said, “Well, we don't have it here, but you can get your master's in dance movement therapy. It sounds like something that would interest you.”

So, I took those words to heart. I went back to my dorm room, and I remember researching it. I found the American Dance Therapy Association's website. And that solidified it for me. I decided to declare myself a psych major. Took as many dance minor classes as I could, and ultimately applied to graduate school. That started me on the path of becoming a dance movement therapist. 

Milner: We talked before about how you work with trauma. What other issues do people come to you for?

Hornthal: Originally, the bulk of my work was with movement and cognitive disorders. So, I was probably, for the first five years of my career as a dance therapist, only working with people that had diagnoses of dementia, Huntington's, Parkinson's, or Alzheimer's disease.

For me, movement was the catalyst for expression, identity formation, and release. I’d see a lot of tension, anxieties, and uncertainties that came up for individuals with these concerns. But it’s also a way to just improve quality of life and to build connection.

 Working with those clientele actually is what kind of paved the way for my Body Aware book, and this is who I dedicate this book to. Because they really taught me that just because you don't have something to say, or that you can't speak words, doesn't mean there isn't something that needs to come out. It doesn't mean that there isn't anything that needs to be said.

That was one really big portion of my career, working with those individuals. But since then, you know, I've definitely had people that have come because of a traumatic background, especially because there's more research and more mainstream talk about that. Anxiety in general is a big one because it's so embodied. Oftentimes, especially when it's overwhelming, it really feels out of control. It comes with so many psychosomatic symptoms. It comes with so many embodied symptoms. 

I've had clients that have come from a past of disordered eating, or they may have actually had a diagnosis and were being clinically treated for an eating disorder. And there are also just individuals that don't consider themselves a mover, and even live a pretty sedentary lifestyle.

I'm recognizing that that may be contributing to a lot of the mental health concerns that I have. And if there's some way to manage that, again, not through exercise, but just uncover different ways of being and moving in my body that can help alleviate these mental health concerns, then I owe it to myself to do that.

On a side note, because I'm a counselor, I take insurance. So, for people to hear that, and understand that it's not necessarily going to cost them a lot out of pocket, that's kind of icing on the cake. But dance therapy can be done with anyone. My youngest client was three. My oldest client was 107. I don't . . . I tend to stick in a certain age group these days. But you know, there are dance therapists all over the world who are working with all different populations, all different ages and demographics. 

Milner: That's quite a scope. But I want to get back to anxiety. This is an issue that a lot of people suffer from right now, in particular. I wonder if you have any insights about that. Obviously, there are things going on in the world to fret about, but I wonder if, movement-wise, you notice any generalizations and patterns within this large, anxious-ridden population? 

Hornthal: Yeah, I do. Oftentimes, I kind of put it on myself first and notice, where does my anxiety come from?

Growing up, it was genetic. Well, you come from a line of warriors. And it was almost like a badge of honor. It kept me connected to my family, like, “I have my grandmother's eyes, and I have my great grandmother's anxiety.” But honestly, the more I sat with it, I recognized that it wasn't something I wanted to keep. It wasn't something I wanted to identify with if there was a way for me to just notice it and say, “Okay, this is a part of me, but it's not who I am, so I want to figure that out.”  

Two things that come to mind for the state of the world. One, that the anxiety that we're seeing today is about distraction. There's so much distraction. I don't want to throw technology under the bus, but obviously that's a big part of it. We're not aware of what is happening in our bodies and our minds. Because there's a lack of awareness, and we're just perpetuating this autopilot: freezing out the body and just focusing on the technology, the visuals, the cognition. Oftentimes, that anxious energy gets trapped. It stays dormant, and it doesn't really have anywhere to go because we're not giving it an outlet.

The other thing that I think of is just uncertainty and lack of control. I noticed in myself, especially when I was younger, that I would worry, or I would get anxiety, when I felt like things were out of my control. Nothing is 100% in our control. And that's part of the problem, especially in a world where we're living among violence, and a pandemic, and political unrest. So much of that is out of our control.

But what is in our control is how we respond, and what we feel in our bodies. Giving people the opportunity to find stability, to find their own sense of safety and security in their body, is oftentimes I think, the best way, but an overlooked way, of helping to manage a lot of that anxiety. It's not a collective safety, because I don't know what it's like to feel safe in someone else's body, but everybody does have a right to feel a sense of security and safety in their body. And oftentimes it needs community, it needs facilitation. It’s not something people necessarily know how to do on their own. 

Finding someone that you feel safe enough to explore that with, I think, is really empowering as well. 

Milner: I want to end with talking to you about what I started with—the mind-body connection and how we are moving from a paradigm of division to one of joining together again. In a world where we see mind and body as separate entities, how do you think this influences us? And what can we do to bridge the gap? 

Hornthal: I think it definitely perpetuates what we're hearing a lot of in terms of a binary one-or-the-other. It keeps us stuck in that dichotomous black-and-white thinking. 

When we give ourselves the opportunity to understand that it's on a spectrum—that the mind and the body can work together to collaborate, that they're actually always connected, that it's just not always the healthiest connection, or maybe it's just not a connection that you’re aware of—then we can actually help ourselves. We can help our communities. We can actually become more compassionate. We can become more forgiving. We can become more aware in general of things that are going on around us and in ourselves. 

I have a colleague that says you can't really connect something that was never disconnected. So, I think first, really understanding that the mind-body connection is inherent. It's something we're born with. And somewhere along the line, it's something that we get out of touch with, and we kind of talk ourselves out of: “That’s only for practitioners,” or “That's only in yoga and I don't do that.”

When we start to uncover—and this was a big reason for writing the book—how I exist in this life, how I am managing or mismanaging things, relates entirely to also how my body is moving in that moment. It’s hopefully a way to normalize and start to mainstream this discussion.

It's not something you have to buy into. It's actually there. And if you choose to recognize it, and work with it, it can be the one thing that actually helps you feel better, helps you uncover things that have been causing a lot of distress and disease. 

And there are lots of ways to do it. Body Aware is not the end all, be all. We can allow ourselves to go back to those ancient texts. I remember reading that so much of the origins of psychology are mind-body oriented. They're not disconnected. It's not mind over here, a body over there. 

And even if we have medical systems that aren't necessarily favoring the mind-body connection, or are kind of perpetuating that disconnect or compartmentalization, there are things I can do for myself that oftentimes aren't even that expensive. There are things that I can do to empower my own wellness just by simply recognizing how my mind and my body coexist.

Milner: I was spending some time with your book before we talked today. I was practicing the advice you gave about trying to be mindful of how my body reacted in different states of anxiety, or anger, or upsetness, or whatever it was, and it was a bit of a revelation. It’s not as if these were feelings I wasn't ever conscious of before. But I found that zeroing in on these physical feelings—like the tightness in my chest, or the way my shoulders slump, or just different ways I held tension—it gave me a chance to pause, reflect, and let go. 

Hornthal: I’m so glad. A lot of what I wrote were things that I was doing myself, especially through these last two years. I would feel upset or overwhelmed about something, and I would do exactly what you just said: take a pause, and notice what am I doing in my body in this moment. What is happening? What am I feeling? And realizing how tight and constricted and contorted my body was and realizing that's not going to help the sense of overwhelm.

 It's not necessarily a chicken or egg situation. It's just noticing what's coexisting and giving myself the opportunity to either notice it and just own it, or just be in it and say, “This is just where I need to be in this moment.” Or noticing that there's the option, there's the potential for just shifting ever so slightly, so that my chest isn't as constricted, or my shoulders aren't as hunched. 

I think for me, it was also about wanting not just to show up for myself, and maybe more broadly my community, but also showing up for my own kids. If I wanted to raise children that were responsive, responsible for their own feelings and emotions, it comes with showing them how to manage those emotions, and that it's going to start with me. I need to model that for them. Because even if we're not talking about it, they see. Bodies mirror other bodies. And so, if I'm constantly overwhelmed in my body, it's going to seep on to them. It's going to become embodied whether they want it or not, whether it's intentional or not. 

Just modeling that. Showing up and saying, “I'm feeling this. I'm noticing this in my body. I'm gonna go take a walk. Where can you stretch with me? Can we do some jumping jacks? Can we shake it out together? Can we have an impromptu dance party?” It was inviting them into the conversation. 

I hope this is something that is rekindled in a lot of people because I know there are people that are already doing it. There are a lot of people that think it's not for them. And the message behind the book is that it's for everyone.

Conan Milner is a health reporter for the Epoch Times. He graduated from Wayne State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and is a member of the American Herbalist Guild.
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