Have you ever heard the word ‘embodiment’ and thought to yourself, “What does that even mean?” This post is going to help answer that question! I’m outlining what embodiment is, some practices that help develop it, and how embodiment works with intuitive eating. In this article, you’ll find eight examples of embodiment practices that you can do to strengthen your body-mind connection, lean into self-awareness, and feel more confident in your ability to eat intuitively.
What is embodiment?
Embodiment describes the connection between your mind and your body. It is the act of expanding your self-awareness to include the sensations of the body and then using that awareness to inform your decisions, beliefs, and behaviours.
How does embodiment impact eating?
Embodiment can affect your thoughts and behaviours related to food and eating in two main ways. The first is whether or not you experience physical sensations related to hunger and fullness, and the second is how you perceive these sensations – do they feel pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral to you. For example, if hunger feels neutral or pleasant to you, this can make it difficult to adequately meet your body’s need for nutrition and energy through food.
What are embodiment practices?
Embodiment practices are specific actions or activities that strengthen your mental and emotional awareness of your physical self. They help you experience the world through your body and senses, instead of only in your mind.
What do embodiment practices do?
Embodiment practices, simply put, connect your mind and body. Just like you may do exercises to strengthen muscles, these are exercises that strengthen the mind-body connection. They help you become more attuned to bodily sensations and teach you how to use them as a tool to be present, to learn about yourself, to care for yourself and to feel grounded in the world around you.
Practicing embodiment tells your body it is important and worth listening to. It promotes a positive relationship with your own body by helping you develop self-compassion and self-kindness.
Embodiment practices increase your interoceptive awareness. Interoception involves the sensory experience of the internal body. The image below shows were different feelings and emotions can be experienced in the physical body. Practicing embodiment helps you identify a bodily sensation and begin to draw connections to deeper meanings or causes, like emotions, for that physical sensation.
What is intuitive eating?
Intuitive eating is an evidence-based approach to authentic healthy living. It teaches you to tune into your inner wisdom about what your body needs, and balance those needs with the wealth of health information we have access to. Basically, you ask yourself what you really need and you respect your body enough to realize that it deserves for your needs to be met, whether those are physical, mental, emotional or social needs. For more info, check out my post, “Is Intuitive Eating Right For Me?”
External cues versus internal cues
One of the easiest ways to sum up the difference between a traditional diet-mentality and the intuitive eating mentality is what kind of cues you use to make eating and food decisions.
Dieting uses external cues- rules, numbers, categories, “shoulds” and restricted food groups.
Intuitive eating uses internal cues- your cravings, hunger, desires, situations, needs, and fullness. To be able to use intuitive eating in practice, building your awareness of internal cues is vitally important. Are you beginning to sense how embodiment practices might be very useful?
What is the relationship between embodiment practices and intuitive eating?
Embodiment practices help us get more in-tune with our bodies. This attunement allows you to more easily and naturally make decisions about what, when and how much to eat based on your internal cues instead of diet rules. Beyond just sensing hunger and fullness, embodiment will also help us identify things like fatigue, muscle soreness, tension, restlessness, grief or nerves. Being aware of all of these sensations helps us build our relationship with food around more than just calories. We learn to incorporate food for joy, for connection, for recovery, for nourishment, for self-care, and for comfort.
Additionally, research has shown us that the better someone’s interoceptive sensitivity (the ability to perceive and process bodily signals), the better they are able to eat intuitively, rely on their hunger/fullness cues, and nourish themselves fully with unconditional permission to eat. 1 Embodiment practices will help increase your interoceptive sensitivity.
Barriers to attunement
There are a variety of reasons that you may have difficulty experiencing the sensations of your body. Your body-mind connection might have been interrupted, but I want you to hold onto the hope that it can be rebuilt with time and intentionality. Here are a few of the reasons that you could be struggling with embodiment, either chronically or temporarily.
- Poor self-care: You generally focus more on taking care of others, work or a household than you do on taking care of yourself. Avoiding looking inward at what you need has dulled your ability to connect with those sensations of your body.
- Rigid rules: You have lived by a set of rules for long enough that your body has forgotten how to assess what feels good or what it needs.
- Trauma: You have experienced a trauma and as a part of your survival mechanism or your coping process, you shut down the body-mind connection to help protect yourself or to be able to push on.
- Illness: If your body is acutely (or chronically) fighting an illness, your usual body sensations may be dulled or completely absent.
- Medication: Certain medications (or drugs or alcohol) may change your bodily sensations, prevent you from feeling them, or keep you from accurately interpreting them.
- Mood disorder: A mental health condition like a mood disorder can prevent a normal and healthy connection between body and mind. It may send the mind untrue messages, or it may cause the body to have different sensations (fatigue, heaviness, jitters, etc) that don’t match where your mind is at.
- Eating disorder: An eating disorder prevents you from self-care, it probably includes a set of rules you are living by (external cues), and it has interrupted your body’s innate ability to sense when, how much and what to eat.
- Intense exercise: Sometimes intense exercise (which requires a lot of energy input) doesn’t result in a matching or adequate increase in appetite. For athletes that have high energy needs, being intentional and calculated about how much nourishment they take in may be required (instead of only listening to the body’s cues about how much to eat).
8 embodiment practices to improve your intuitive eating
Now let’s put all this into practice! Here are eight ideas for how to start intentionally practicing embodiment.
- Do a body scan. Practice noticing sensations like temperature, pain, tension, thirst, alertness. Journal about the experience and how you knew what you were feeling.
- Yoga is one of the most popular embodiment practices. Research has shown it helps with treating eating disorders and also decreases food preoccupation. 2 Yoga incorporates breathing, stretching, moving, being still, balancing and most importantly listening to your body about what is a safe movement and what is too intense. I’m a big fan of Yoga with Adriene and Yoga for Everyone.
- Any activity that involves moving your body, like dancing, hiking, running or swimming. Doing one of these while in nature is a bonus. Take notice of all the sensations your body experiences – what you see, feel, hear, smell or taste.
- Grounding exercise. When you are feeling frazzled, distracted, anxious or stressed, try this: Name five things you see, four things you can touch, three things you hear, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste. Read more details about this grounding exercise here.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. Great at any time, but especially if you’re feeling tension. Moving your way from your toes up to your head, clench and then release each muscle a few times in a row. Pay attention to how this feels in different parts of your body, trying to let the muscles relax just a fraction more on each subsequent release.
- Deep breathing. There are a lot of guided deep breathing exercises online, like this one if you’re looking for something quick, or this one for when you have 15-20 minutes. Deep breathing can calm you down, reduce anxiety and refresh your body-mind connection. It can be done at any point in your day, doesn’t require any equipment, and has a proven calming effect.
- Meditation. This works collaboratively with deep breathing techniques, but can also be used by itself. I love Kristen Neff’s guided self compassion meditations.
- Practice honouring your hunger and feeling your fullness. Very simply put, this means eating when hungry and stopping when fully satisfied. (My free guide, Your First Three Steps to Food Freedom, has two different guided activities on this topic.) Pause before, once during, and after your meal to note your levels of hunger and fullness. Remember, if you’ve been ignoring your internal cues for a long time, you may have trouble identifying your hunger and/or fullness. Embodiment practices can help you become aware of those sensations again.
Challenges you may face when trying embodiment practices
While embodiment sounds good in theory, you may already be thinking of reasons that it will be hard for you. This is valid! It’s easy to live in your head and become disconnected from your body in our fast-paced world. Here are a few examples of things that can make embodiment difficult and how to overcome them.
1. You are already busy enough without adding another thing to your daily list.
I hear you! And I invite you to explore if you might be falling into the trap of making perfect the enemy of good enough. Working on embodiment doesn’t need to involve adding a whole new routine to your day. Instead you can work on slowing down a task you are already doing and giving yourself a chance to check in with your body. A deep breathing practice can take 30 seconds. A grounding practice can be done while you’re driving. Dancing around your kitchen also counts. Start small, these new practices don’t need to be overwhelming.
2. You don’t have a good relationship with your body and so you’ve intentionally avoided feeling your body’s sensations.
While you may not want to be avoiding your body, this avoidance can be a coping mechanism, especially for those living in a marginalized body. Experiencing homophobia, transphobia, racism, sizeism, ableism, or ageism can mean that your body does not feel like a safe place to inhabit. This also applies to experiences of trauma. These experiences greatly impact the health of your nervous system and can interfere with your mind-body connection. If you would like to be more connected to your body and feel more genuine care and kindness towards yourself, these practices are a great place to start. Pick just one practice to try and journal about how it went. If it feels too scary or overwhelming, consider partnering with a dietitian or therapist to help you on the path towards healing.
3. You’re scared you can’t trust your body’s cues.
If you’ve been consumed by diet culture for a long time, you’ve been hearing this message in many different forms. If you’re scared that listening to your body about food will result in weight gain, this makes sense, and it’s an example of how fat phobia shows up. Making a change with intuitive eating may make you gain weight, it may make you lose weight, or it may have no impact on your weight at all. Intuitive eating is about using food for self-care, not self-control. You are learning to listen to your body, interpret its messages, and respond to these messages with acceptance, care, respect, and love.
Are you ready to practice embodiment?
There are so many options for embodiment practices; you can pick any one small thing to try and then assess how it goes. Does it help you feel more connected to your body and its sensations?
As you grow in your interoceptive awareness, reflect on how it is impacting your eating. Have you been more in-tune with your body’s needs? Are you less likely to ignore a grumbling of hunger? Do you feel more likely to keep eating until you feel a true satisfaction?
I believe that embodiment practices will help you to eat intuitively and care for your body in a new and better way. If improving your mind-body connection sounds like something you want to do but you feel confused about where to start, I would love to give you some embodiment coaching as a part of our collaboration. Book a free call with me here to discuss what it would look like to work together.
- Herbert BM, Blechert J, Hautzinger M, Matthias E, Herbert C. Intuitive eating is associated with interoceptive sensitivity. Effects on body mass index. Appetite. 2013 Nov;70:22-30. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.06.082. Epub 2013 Jun 26. PMID: 23811348.
- Carei, T. R., Fyfe-Johnson, A. L., Breuner, C. C., & Marshall, M. A. (2010). Randomized controlled clinical trial of yoga in the treatment of eating disorders. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(4), 346–351.