Setting the Stage for the Dance

Erica Hornthal

From Body Aware by Erica Hornthal, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2022 by Erica Hornthal. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.

I want to introduce you to two key concepts that I use with all my clients. They are emotional temperature and emotional efficiency. Just like a body temperature, everyone has an emotional temperature, a psychological homeostasis that can be achieved through becoming more aware of our body and its internal landscape. We can learn to regulate our emotional temperature through awareness practices such as those involving breath, a body scan, and mindfulness. This entire book can be used as a way to manage your emotional temperature. When you are body aware you acquire an internal thermostat that regulates the variations in emotional energy you experience. Essentially, the more intense an emotion feels, the higher your emotional temperature. The lower or less connected you are to an emotion, the lower your emotional temperature is. Just like our body temperature, this naturally fluctuates throughout the day and depends on the presence of stressors. With any stress we have the ability to become dysregulated and overwhelmed or dissociated and checked out. Managing your emotional temperature is about regulation of body and mind.

Maintaining one’s emotional temperature lends itself to emotional efficiency. Emotional efficiency refers to the expenditure of emotional energy. Much like a programmable thermostat in your home that conserves energy and money, when we are emotionally efficient, we conserve and preserve our mental health. Think for a moment of a time when you felt like your emotions were controlling you. All of your time and energy goes into that emotion, leaving little to no time for other activities. Don’t we all want to devote time and energy to something of value or interest, rather than having it controlled or hijacked by anxiety, fear, anger, or other emotions? When we regulate our emotional temperatures we become more emotionally efficient people, freeing up our energy for the people, places, and activities that we want to focus on.

Another way I like to think of it is using a gas tank metaphor (or battery, for those of us who drive electric cars). Emotional efficiency means getting more emotional miles per gallon. We can build up reserves that allow us to manage stressors before they arise. Rather than risk running out of “gas” and getting stuck on the side of the road, being body aware supplies us with fuel or extra battery life for emotional emergencies. Sure you can send out some flares or call AAA, but wouldn’t it feel better to have the tools to fill your own gas tank? I’ve experienced what it’s like to run out of fuel emotionally and in my car, and I have found that having reserves makes a world of difference for my emotional and physical health.

So how do we regulate our emotional temperature to increase our emotional efficiency? At the heart of it is conditioning. It makes sense for people to emotionally condition themselves for uncomfortable situations, moments of confrontation, or difficult decisions. Conditioning is the process of training yourself to behave in a certain way or to accept certain situations and circumstances. We tend to focus on physical conditioning to limit injury and increase strength and endurance, but the same idea can be applied to emotional injury. This entire book is a guide to conditioning our emotional muscles. Again, through the body we create more awareness and the ability to manage life’s stressors. There are things we can do every day to strengthen our emotional reserves, a stockpile of emotional energy to be used when needed at a later time and not just in the moment. Here are four strategies you should employ every day to build your emotional reserve tank.

BREATHING. This includes noticing your breath as well as altering how you are breathing. Noticing your current breathing pattern, how much air you are taking in, and where the air is going is the first step to becoming aware of how well you are breathing. Zab Maboungou, a French-Congolese dancer, writer, and choreographer, says, “A body that doesn’t know how to breathe doesn’t know how to think.” Bringing more awareness and dimension to our breath enhances our ability to think and cope with our emotional landscape. When we increase the air capacity in our torso, it’s like increasing our emotional gas tank, which means we get more “miles per gallon.”

Revisiting the three dimensions from chapter 5, you can invite them into your breathwork. Sitting, standing, or lying down, imagine rays of light beaming out of the top of your head and down through the space between your legs. Breathe into this vertical dimension, lengthening as you exhale. Next, with your arms out to your side, imagine rays of light beaming out your fingertips. Breathe into this horizontal dimension, reaching as you exhale. Lastly, imagine a ray of light beaming through the center of your chest into the space in front of and behind you. Breathe into this sagittal dimension, recuperating as your exhale. You can also practice breathing into different parts of your body by visualizing the places you want the breath to travel. Support the body’s ability to rest by extending the exhale as well as releasing the jaw.

Karina Kalilah, Rebirthing Breathwork facilitator and coach, offers this practice: Place your palms together, bring them in toward the chest, close your eyes if you feel so inclined, and take three generous breaths. The first breath signifies prayer for the Self. The second breath signifies a prayer for each other. The third breath signifies a prayer for the planet. I appreciate this practice as it reinforces the three dimensions and connection to Self, other, and the environment.

GROUNDING. This offers an opportunity to connect to the present moment. When we are in the present, we cannot dwell on the past or ruminate about the future. Grounding supports emotional regulation and conservation of emotional energy. Here are some grounding practices:

  • Sitting or standing, plant your feet on the floor. Imagine your feet as roots connecting deep into the ground.
  • Take a walk and notice every point of contact your feet have with the floor.
  • Practice the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise by calling to mind and body what you can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste.

STRETCHING. Stretching out makes us bigger. This is contradictory to how we move when we are in danger, physically and emotionally. We typically make ourselves smaller to decrease our visibility. Remember that pain, fear, anxiety, and stress in general constrict the body, making it harder to move. When we stretch, we increase the body’s surface area as well as the internal space, allowing us to feel and move more. Creating more room in the body creates more space to process emotional stress. Additionally, when we stretch we create more opportunity for air capacity. Deeper breaths allow us to soften and drop into our bodies, circumventing the mind, which can keep us stuck in debilitating loops. Pandiculation in particular is a wonderful way to engage in this practice. This refers to the stretching action made when yawning, such as when we awake from sleep. The feeling of tension building in the body that then leads to a long stretch and release facilitates a progressive relaxation of the muscles, which not only creates extension in the body but also a loosening of sorts.

ENGAGING IN MEANINGFUL MOVEMENT. This, I believe, is most important! Meaningful movement is any movement that makes you feel good, energized, and connected. Meaningful movement is an authentic expression of your true self, which can make it more difficult to access if you are not used to accessing the Self in an authentic manner. It is not movement that is expected of you, forced on you, or performative. It is movement that fills up your cup, gives you energy, and lifts your spirits. This can be dancing in your living room, singing to your favorite song in the car, cooking for your family, sketching, journaling, or walking to a local coffee shop. Stop reserving certain times for physical activity. There are opportunities for meaningful movement everywhere. Deepak Chopra has been attributed as saying, “People need to know that they have all the tools within themselves.”

When your body is the toolbox, you have all the tools you need for healing all the time. In fact, you are all the tools you need.

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ERICA HORNTHAL is a licensed clinical professional counselor, board-certified dance/movement therapist, and the CEO and founder of Chicago Dance Therapy. Since graduating with her MA in Dance/Movement Therapy and Counseling from Columbia College Chicago, Erica has worked with thousands of patients aged 3-107. Known as “The Therapist Who Moves You,” Hornthal is changing the way people see movement with regard to mental health. Contact: ericahornthal.com.

PHOTO @ PEXELS/Mikhail Nilov

Topic: Creativity | Mind/Body | Mindfulness

Tags: body | body and mind | breathing exercises | creative | deep breathing | emotion | mindful body | regulation | therapeutic breathing

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