My friend wrote,
I’ve recently been drawn to and encountered the issue of stored emotion on the body and am constantly reminded of your teaching with regard to the hip flexors stretching and the emotion it brings out.
Would love your thoughts on this image. Very interested in more detail on this subject and how to create a ‘two way street’ so to speak in regard to helping people, ie. is it a chicken & egg scenario between emotional & physical tension or does one need addressing as a priority before the other.
The better metaphor is “the two sides of a coin”. Our form of medicine makes a fundamental division between the mind and the body which, when you look at it even slightly closely, simply cannot be sustained. If you think about the person standing in front of you, their mind and their body are simply aspects of the one thing. Mental and physical tension are isomorphic; you cannot have one without the other. Physical tension can be obvious, but most mental tension is unconscious and, more importantly, out of conscious control.
There is much more to this though than that simple word picture suggests. The body is, in fact, everywhere in the mind – this was the guts of a very famous book called Women, fire, and dangerous things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, written by George Lakoff who showed that all of the building blocks of thought are elaborations of only a few (six, if I recall correctly) physical metaphors which we learn as babies and children manoeuvring ourselves through the world, under and over objects. His term for these is “conceptual schema”, and even something as abstract as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, for example, is built up from these physical metaphors. And another brilliant book on that subject is The body in the mind, by Mark Johnson (and these two collaborated later, too); I’ll link you to Johnson’s PDF below. Likewise, the mind is everywhere in the physical body – that’s what the neural system is—the physical extension of the brain/mind throughout the body. How can we separate these? What we think literally structures what we see and what we feel. There is no escape from this!
My friend, the can of worms that you open with this question is honestly endless – the core problems of our culture, and the desecration of the natural world, the unequal status of men and women, can all be traced to this fundamental, flawed, division between the mind and the body, self and other, and other hard distinctions made on what is seen to be valuable and what is discarded—on the basis of being not valuable. In the West, the mind is valued more than the body, for example. Descartes was only the latest in a long line of thinkers to make this fundamental mistake. Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think therefore I am”, in fact is deeply flawed. Far more accurate is, “I feel, therefore I think”, and all the modern research in neurophysiology and elsewhere supports this. I wrote about this in a medical anthropology article 30 years ago.
With respect to stored emotion in the body, which now many hundreds of writers and researchers and practitioners have commented on, began with Wilhelm Reich. In his book, The function of the orgasm, written in German, he wrote, “neurosis is identical with muscular tension”. This, too, is a long and complex argument but the more you look at it the more sensible it is. His thesis is that every injury or insult to the child (who comes into the world with no preconceptions of any kind), is experienced, then stored, as a layer of muscular tension which he called “character armour”. As adults this multi-layer character armour walks and talks and masquerades as us. There is so much more to this but that should get you going.
And why the hip flexors? Because if we are talking about a flexible person, the last ‘refuge’ of one’s ‘shadow material’ (the aspects of ourselves we do not want to see, or deal with) retreats to the hip flexors—because as you know, these are the easiest muscles in the body to avoid stretching. Accordingly, they remain the part of the body held over from earlier times. There’s more, of course: the deepest of the hip flexors, psoas, joins the diaphragm—and hence is intimately involved with breathing (and anxiety). Because breathing is constitutive of life, and how we breathe is literally how we live, anything that has the potential to interrupt, or affect, this must be explored, and we have. Loosening psoas (itself only possible after much work on rectus femoris, which is the first major limiter of extension in the hip joint) changes the way you think and feel, and you have seen some examples of this on workshops: literal transformations are sometimes seen. And, in contrast, loosening your hamstrings will not change how you feel, and how you think about yourself at all.
And to answer your question briefly, “how to create a two way street in regards of helping people” is #1: help yourself first, and #2: teach your students how to loosen their physical bodies. You don’t need to have a conversation with them about the relationship they have with their mother – that is held in their physical body. It is held most deeply in those parts that remain un-stretched. One’s fundamental (and hard-wired) protective reflexes will tend to keep this hidden, too. When you change the body sufficiently that will also change. How much is “sufficiently” depends on the person – some people hold onto their armour with a great deal more passion than others! And that is because your armour is you. It literally is what walks and talks. The other essential part of this process is to teach people how to relax, because no one in our Western culture is relaxed even if they think they are. And all of the above is why we teach what we do in the way we do: the right kind of stretching and efficient relaxation is the only way to change ourselves from the inside out.
There is the third element (everything in this world comes in three!): to learn to be still, to be comfortable in being still, and be able to experience reality directly, rather than thinking about reality. This, of course, is what the meditation project is all about. And learning how to relax physically is absolutely essential if you want to make some “progress” in meditation. Actually, “progress” is not accurate – what we are really doing is peeling off all those layers of character armour to reveal the perfection of the being within – not adding or taking away anything. It is ‘unlearning’.
Warm regards, Kit
I’ve suffered from anxiety all my life and only known it was a ‘problem’ in my adult life. Weirdly, due to back pain, I started to stretch my hip flexors. This is always followed by an hour or more of involuntary shaking and, if I’m not mistaken, less anxiety in situation that would usually trigger it. So I really enjoyed this article, and it’s peaked my interest in the topic. Thanks Kit, keep doing what you’re doing
Keep going with the hip flexor stretch, Joe: the adverse reactions (if there are any) will usually be experienced the most strongly in the beginning. The mild panic reaction will settle, in time. And please read this article, when you get a chance; really experiencing deep relaxation means that for that time, anxiety will have ‘left the room’—they are direct opposites of each other. https://stretchtherapy.net/relaxation-wiki/
One of the most beautiful and succinct articles I have ever read. Thank you Kit
Katy! That you have read it and that you like it is the best thing that’s happened to me this week. I am very glad to hear from you. Warmest, Kit.