Embodiment for Emotional Health: Is Mindful Movement a Primal Key?


“Women carry trauma in their hips.”

(The stray remark got my attention, too.) I was walking along the beach when I heard it. Two women, deep in conversation, had passed me. Between the waves and my dog’s bark, it was the only snippet I caught. One had matter-of-factly professed it, and the other offered a knowing sigh in agreement. As a trainer, the thought jumped out at me—not so much the gendered suggestion (I have no claim on expertise there) but the idea that emotion gets stored in our bodies and not just in our memories. All of us are at various points in life subject to pain, loss and suffering. Whether we contend with something as severe as trauma or something difficult but normal like grief, anxiety or resentment, how do unresolved emotions linger within our physiology or even particular locations or functions within it? How might these feelings that we retain act as a wild card in our overall health? Finally, in keeping with this possibility, does “moving through” emotional suffering oblige us to move bodily toward healing?

All of this, you could say, flies in the face of the modern, cerebral perspective. Ever since the the 17th Century, the Western sense of “true” identity has been philosophically disembodied (e.g. “I think, therefore I am.). The mind, with its thoughts and sentiment, was separated, elevated above the baser body of instinct and machination. Increasingly, however, that disembodied assumption doesn’t jibe with contemporary neuroscience. And let’s face it. It never quite squared with a primal sensibility.

Research into embodied cognition reveals how our bodies not only respond to our inner thoughts and outer environments but actually have the power to steer our emotional and intellectual reactions (and allow physical sensation to mirror abstract concepts—e.g. a subject judging a person as “warmer” while he/she holds a hot drink).

In essence, how we move and stimulate our bodies subtly but potently influences our emotional state.

Cultures that never philosophically divorced the mind from the body seem to have the edge here. They’re incidentally the wellspring of many movement-based contemplative practices, including yoga, active meditation and many martial arts. Long before even these traditions, however, indigenous groups participated in active, shamanistic ceremonies for healing.

Grok didn’t lie on the psychotherapist’s leather couch after all. Healing for the individual and the collective was simultaneously enacted and elicited through archetypal dance and physical ritual that symbolically embodied sensations of safety, belonging, and integration. (PDF) As observation of these ceremonies reveal, coordinating sounds and rhythms within traditional drumming and chanting respectively harmonize heart rates and produce innately calming Alpha waves. In a deeply visceral way, healing was synchronistically performed as well as received.

Today progressive psychotherapists have begun incorporating movement-based modalities like yoga poses within their practice. As clients talk through their wounds, they enact poses to support that opening and vulnerability. The effect of emotional release, however, didn’t begin in the psychotherapists’ room. Yoga instructors will tell you that “heart-opening” postures, for instance, inspire many a breakdown or breakthrough in their classes.

Fast forward to today, and even Western society has given rise to somatic therapies like Feldenkrais and the Alexander Technique, which (in a simplistic nutshell) reason that errant physical alignment or movement patterns can skew our sensory perception and hamper well-being.

But what about regular exercise? Can other, more basic physical activities offer a psychic release? Research is still clarifying this answer, but theoretically and anecdotally, it appears to be yes. We’ve long understood that exercise neurochemically acts on and within the brain. While studies have focused on benefits to cognition and mood, the crux here may be what happens in the moment rather than what comes afterward or builds over time. The interesting question may be, how does physical activity neurochemically allow us to engage certain brain centers or functions differently?

Can exercise, of a general or targeted sort, create a uniquely potent window for dealing with problematic memories and “lower” limbic responses?

Trauma experts like Peter A Levine note that the intensive fear of certain experiences “freezes” us like a wild animal caught by a predator. Vestiges of that momentary response, when severe and/or frequent enough, may never quite resolve. The physical cycle of fear, Levine posits, requires processing and closure for fully normal functioning to be restored. Similarly, the study of somatoemotional release within the craniosacral therapy field suggests that emotions can become locked within us and offers body positions for their effective release. These theories and fields aren’t without controversy, but they illustrate perhaps how movement may, indeed, move us emotionally as well as physically.

As a trainer, I’ve known many people who spontaneously took up exercise of one kind or another following points of major tragedy or transition in their lives. There was something about the shift in their needs and, in their words, something to the freedom they received on a long run or a challenging climb that became their best therapy. At times, something in their exertion opened the emotional floodgates. These moments, some have shared, were turning points in their grief or struggle.

Maybe for them there was something in that flow state, something to the re-grounding in sensation when they spent much of the day otherwise numb. Movement became the antidote to overwhelm and even offered access through emotional obstruction.

It’s an intriguing thought. I might not be ready to call it an official Primal principle, but movement for emotional health and psychological processing might just be one of the most essentially Primal concepts we can enact in our lives.

Thanks for reading, everybody. Does this concept resonate with your experience? Share your thoughts, and have a great end to the week.

TAGS:  mental health

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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19 thoughts on “Embodiment for Emotional Health: Is Mindful Movement a Primal Key?”

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  1. Interesting. I do think negative emotions can get trapped within our physical bodies, eventually causing pain and various other health issues. The problem is finding an effective way to permanently release these trapped emotions.

    I recently read “The Emotion Code” by Dr.Bradley Nelson, which details ways to release trapped emotions. On the one hand, his theories sound halfway reasonable; on the other hand, his method seems a bit hokey–“out there”, to say the least. He claims to be a holistic physician, whatever that might entail. A lot of people refer to themselves as doctors or physicians these days (for the purpose of selling a service or product), but many aren’t doctors in any traditional sense of the word. In any case, due to considerable skepticism on my part, I haven’t tried his method yet. I’d be interested to know if anyone here has tried it and found it to be successful.

  2. As a massage therapist, therapeutic coach, and intuitive, I’ve known for many years about ‘issues in the tissues.’ Memories are held not only in the mind but also in the body part impacted by the memory.

    Perfect example: A woman was pregnant with her first child, had pain in her right hip. First thing I asked what happened – she said she had fallen in college. When she got on my table, the full story came out. As I worked on her, she told me of walking across campus with her boyfriend 10 years prior. She slipped on a patch of ice and fell. Her boyfriend both laughed at her and refused to help her up. Her anger and hurt were embodied in the resulting bruise. While the physical bruise healed, the emotional one was stuck until the day she talked it out and I worked it out.

    I’ve had many other examples that have been worked out through massage therapy, various forms of energy work, walking and talking with clients, and using EFT/Emotional Freedom Technique or Meridian Tapping (tapping on acupuncture endpoints to release stuck emotional energy). Combining all of these with movement helps the body move the e-motions (energy in motion) out of the body. I’ve used all of these on myself to recover from physical, sexual, mental and verbal abuse.

    1. This is an interesting concept. I know when I got my first real deep tissue massage from a good therapist, he told me I may feel emotional for a day or two after the fact. He said that with the release of tension in the musculature sometimes comes a release of the emotional pain that helped create it in the first place. I feel this is something I should look into further as I suffer from chronic pain of varying natures.

  3. Yes, the concept resonates with my experience. When I got into exercise/fitness more, my emotional health improved.

    Embodiment helps with self-awareness. When we do not embody, we are not as aware of ourselves as we should be. Sometimes it does take a life changing event to happen for us to look within and embody.

  4. like your yoga teacher told you: you store emotions in your hips …

  5. I agree with this on many levels. Evelyn mentions her emotional health improving as she got more into exercise, and that happens for many people. Beth gives an example of a woman who was feeling physical pain linked to an emotionally painful incident 10 years prior. in “Goddesses Never Age” I remember Christiane Northrup mentions emotional trauma being trapped in our connective tissue. It’s been awhile since I read the book…I’ll have to pick it back up again (Excellent read that really challenges societies ideas about aging.) Either way, I definitely think there is something to this.

  6. It may be a feedback loop. Mind and body relate to each other. Positive or negative feelings. Just look at our immune system….stress can wear us down and mindfulness can bring us up. A great way to know it you are on the right track for your life.

  7. iI have always been cheered by certain sorts of movement (raking leaves, digging with a spade, bicycling, sweeping, dancing…) have always thought that rythmic movement is healing. Both emotionally/spiritually and physically. I had never thought of it at the level you posit here, but I do think it is quite real.

  8. TRE (Tension and Trauma Release Exercises) by David Berceli uses this principle, of relieving physical stress in the body to reduce mental/emotional stress, and symptoms of things like anxiety.

    My local library system carries Berceli’s DVD (which I hear is much more helpful for getting started than the books, which apparently are heavy on theory). I felt a deep physical relaxation after doing the exercises, and I just have average life stress, not actual trauma.

    There are professionals who can probably help people get results faster/better than just DIY, but it’s a pretty accessible route to try.

    1. I just went to a TRE class taught at a nearby yoga studio. It is strangely relaxing and you really feel like you released some old emotions. I think there’s free youtube videos on methods as well.

  9. Absolutely resonates. There’s a wealth of resources out there on the embodiment of mind and wholeness (and plasticity) of body-mind – both at the cutting edge of neuroscience and in ancient texts and practices.

    Some of these look specifically at the connection between mind and movement, including discussion of how, through movement, we shape “body maps” in the brain. Excellent sources include The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge and Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, by Candance Pert.

    Thanks for an excellent article!

    1. It is very interesting how much the mind and body work together as one. When we cannot know or express what we are feeling, when we cannot express it in words, the body can express it for us in the form of chronic pain, illness for which no medical cause can be found, eating disorders, self-mutilation, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other disorders.
      Combining bodywork with verbal therapy can successfully bring a trauma to completion. Bodyworkers play a key role in bridging locked memories with the physical body. The techniques known as myofascial release or myofascial unwinding are hands-on methods for initiating traumatic memory release. Myofascial work locates and physically frees the restrictions in muscle and surrounding fascial tissue that house traumatic memories. As a skilled therapist holds and unwinds these tissue tensions, memories may surface and release, causing the body to spontaneously “replay” body movements associated with the memory of the trauma. This release initiates relaxation, unlocking the frozen components of the nervous system. Such a shift marks the reconnection of the brain with the tissue housing the trauma, allowing transformation and healing to ensue. (www.integrativehealthcare.org/mt/archives/2007/04/understanding_a.html)

  10. This is why it is called psychosomatic illness. Although it has been said that the mind and body were separate, there existed in Western medicine a philosophical dichotomy between mind and body. When trauma occurs, our bodies activate a protective mechanism. A stressor that is too much for a person to handle overloads the nervous system, stopping the trauma from processing. This overload halts the body in its instinctive fight or flight response, causing the traumatic energy to be stored in the surrounding muscles, organs and connective tissue. Whenever we store trauma in our tissue, our brain disconnects from that part of the body to block the experience, preventing the recall of the traumatic memory. Any area of our body that our brain is disconnected from won’t be able stay healthy or heal itself. The predictable effect of stored trauma is degeneration and disease.
    Bodyworkers play a key role in bridging locked memories with the physical body. The techniques known as myofascial release or myofascial unwinding are hands-on methods for initiating traumatic memory release. Myofascial work locates and physically frees the restrictions in muscle and surrounding fascial tissue that house traumatic memories. As a skilled therapist holds and unwinds these tissue tensions, memories may surface and release, causing the body to spontaneously “replay” body movements associated with the memory of the trauma. This release initiates relaxation, unlocking the frozen components of the nervous system. Such a shift marks the reconnection of the brain with the tissue housing the trauma, allowing transformation and healing to ensue (www.integrativehealthcare.org/mt/archives/2007/04/understanding_a.html).

  11. I specifically like the concept of movement moves us emotionally and physically. This is in line with the idea that movement is healing. As a health psychologist I think we do need to integrate movement recommendations in to our recommendations. We also must live it by example in our own lives!

  12. Loved this article, thank you! As a mindful movement teacher and Creative Arts Therapy graduate, this type of healing resonates with me. Our brains need movement in order to develop probably. So much of being human is being mobile. Our physical experience in this world connects to the mental in such a powerful way. I have seen dance free people in a way other types of therapy have not.

  13. Have had a couple of emotional releases during massage therapy sessions. Recently started practicing qigong and love it. Back pain due to scoliosis gone and mentally and emotionally feel great! I’m a big believer in this and do feel it should be included in your primal philosophy. But if not, I’ve included it in mine… Thanks again for all you do Mark.

  14. Great post and great comments. I think mindful movement is absolutely a primal key. I have had experiences as a facilitator practicing massage therapy as well as personally in my yoga classes over the past few decades.

    In pondering the question posed by the title, I am reminded of stories written by people who studied with shamans of South America. They would go on long walks together, with thoughtful purpose (looking for a particular plant or ceremony site). The contemplation offered in these practices left the writers feeling changed. Not so much a changing of cellular memory of trauma as a general rebalancing or reboot which dislodged their old obstacles of fear or isolation.

    At any rate, I’d like to thank you, Mark, for delving into this topic and appreciate your candor when exploring what makes us humans function wholly and well.