In Tense Times, There's No Better Time To Come Back To Our Bodies. Here's How To Do It
I'm not sure about you, but I've felt pretty overwhelmed the past year—existentially and emotionally. The social and sexual climate feels tenser than ever with the #MeToo movement, in addition to the ongoing combative debates about gender identity, bodily autonomy, and sexual freedom.
As essential discussions of consent and violence continue to run their course, it can be difficult maintaining a compass of well-being oriented toward pleasure and sensuality. So much of what we read, see, or experience regarding our bodies makes us feel we are the problem—specifically, these physical forms of ours and what we do with them—even if rationally we know this is not the case. As a sex therapist who teaches women and nonbinary people how to use sensuality as a form of self-care and resilience, people often ask me how pleasure can help in a climate as hostile as ours is presently. For some it can feel overly decadent at best, or selfish at worst, to consider such practices. Others have simply shut down and disconnected from their bodies, deprioritizing emotion and sensation entirely, because relating to them has just become too hard.
But at a time when our bodies are being debated and disregarded and when the very existence of trans and nonbinary identities is being questioned, finding our own body and voice—a sense of conscious, sensual embodiment—is an act of empowerment and resilience. Reorienting back to the body is a useful, proven way to move through trauma caused by being caged. The very act serves as a way to both acknowledge the effects of such trauma and stand up to systems whose preference is to keep us quiet and subdued. It's a signal to those around us (and ourselves) that we will not be shamed into lives devoid of sensuality. It sends a message that we are allowed to take up space as vital, sensual living beings. In an era when our value is continually being reduced or rendered invisible, self-care and prioritizing pleasure is a powerful way of reclaiming our sensual birthright in spite of adversity.
A path to conscious embodiment.
Of course, reorienting the body back in times of stress is more complicated than just massages and long baths. It requires prioritizing emotions and the sensations of the body as valuable, as well as regular, sustainable practices. It calls for ongoing acts of self-care that allow us to flourish despite the chaos in our midst. Such actions remind us and our communities that we are valuable, even if we are not treated as well as we could or should be.
Here are four approaches to reclaiming your body and your sensuality that you can begin practicing today:
1. Prioritize sensation.
Sometimes emotions are more complicated than we can name, or there are so many that paying attention to them is difficult. Instead, we can practice experiencing sensations in the body. Tightness, tension, temperature, texture, irritation, taste, smell, arousal, and so on are accessible to us any time we slow down long enough to pay attention to them. This practice is a form of mindfulness that allows the brain and the mind time to reorient itself back to the body rather than staying in the chaos of a busy mind.
By tuning into physical sensations, we allow the body to communicate information to us about what we might need but are distracted from when we are stuck in our thoughts or emotions. For example, many of us are taught that touch is something we give to others but rarely ask for ourselves in contexts that nourish us. Or we may receive touch, but it's not what we like. It doesn't feel good, but we don't want to rock the boat, and so we shut down. The chatter in our mind says, "Don't ruin the moment." But when we learn to listen to the body and privilege its needs over the chatter in our heads, it offers us a pathway to speaking up. "This doesn't feel good. Here's what I need to feel good."
2. Set boundaries.
For those of us socialized as women, it can be very easy to overrun ourselves to take care of others or do favors at the expense of our own well-being. Many of us have demands placed on us that stretch us into places where we become resentful. Taking care of the body means ensuring we have the bandwidth to distinguish what feels good in contrast to what does not. Saying no can feel difficult at first, but it is an essential skill to practice when reorienting to sensuality. When we are able to value our felt sense as worthy of consideration, we teach others to do the same. When you practice being more deliberate in your actions, words, and physical interactions, your ability to say yes to pleasure also gets stronger.
One day long ago you came inside from playing with your friends without realizing that would be the last time you would do that together. If you could have that time back, what would you do differently? How would you make it special?
When was the last time you did something just for fun? It needn't cost money. Make it just for sheer enjoyment. Make a point of scheduling play once a week: paint, run, dance, karaoke, have a food fight, swim, turn off your computer and phone. Make like a kid and just do it.
4. Do something good for your body each day.
When we get caught up in our racing minds, it can be easy to neglect our bodies. Computer work, meeting deadlines, sitting or exercising excessively, and making food choices that are always restrictive and rarely pleasurable—these are all ways we cut off from the pleasure and sensation in our bodies. In cutting off one set of feelings, we cut off all of them. Instead, pay attention to what makes your body feel good daily, and start to trust its wisdom again in telling you what it needs rather than continuing in the habits you've formed as a means of survival.
5. Practice feeling the body.
Something as simple as breathing can change the way our bodies' feel. Set a reminder on your phone every hour during your waking day to stop what you're doing momentarily and deliberately take three deep, full breaths. Notice what that does to your mind, your body, and your sensations. Many people will describe a light, tingling, relaxed feeling. Adding an emphasis on the exhale enhances this further. As more oxygen finds its way into the bloodstream this way, we are automatically creating a context for the body to feel more. Use this moment to recalibrate the body before you go back to what you were doing. Making this a habit allows a regular practice of feeling the body.
You can level up by taking this into a more intimate context. The next time you are enjoying solo intimate time or intimacy with a lover, incorporate deeper breaths to see how it affects your sensations. Perhaps you notice a tightness, numbness, or blockage in a particular body part. Try sending breath to that part to allow for more room. Remember, in this context we are not forcing anything but rather using breath as an expansive tool. Learning to pay attention sensitively is part of the reclaiming process toward pleasure.
6. Spend conscious, intimate time with your body.
That might mean creating a breathing ritual like the one above, or it could be as simple as creating space in your week to lie in bed and run your hands over yourself, either for pleasure or simply for exploration. These rituals allow us to become more familiar, comfortable, and close to our bodies—and thereby remind us that our body is ours and no one else's.
When we continue to withdraw from our sensual lives in response to societal tensions, we become tricked by omission into thinking that sensuality is not an important aspect of being human. It's useful instead to reflect on what we are actually preserving by remaining silent: By refusing to care for the body's nourishment, we privilege the status quo. This can be habit-forming, which over a lifetime can lead to numbness, disconnection, and a lack of vitality in the physical body.
But sensuality is a crucial part of well-being. No matter what's happening in our world, we have a limitless capacity for sensuality. We always have the power to tap into our sensual being, as long as we make the conscious choice to do so.
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Cyndi Darnell is a clinical sexologist, sex therapist, and psychotherapist with over 15 years of experience. She has a master's degree in Sexual Health from the University of Sydney, a master's degree in Narrative Therapy and Community Work from the University of Melbourne, and post-graduate diplomas in Applied Linguistics and Counselling & Human Services from La Trobe University. She's also trained in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with Russ Harris, Trauma and Fragmentation with Janina Fisher, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) with Marsha Linehan.
Originally from Australia and now based in New York, she offers workshops and private counseling to people globally face-to-face and online. She’s faculty at New York's Omega Institute and also the creator of the acclaimed Atlas of Erotic Anatomy and Arousal video series. Visit her at her website and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.