Run Therapy

Written by: Dina Bell-Laroche

As we enter into 2021, the invitation is to explore the hidden depths of our souls such as we can show up fully as compassionate, skillful and heart-centered leaders. Rather than running away from what scares us, what if we cultivated a quality of presence that had us turning towards it with curiosity and acceptance. What might we discover?

This blog shares what I’ve come to learn about facing our fears and how doing so has expanded my capacity to love and accept self and others.

My eldest child has been studying Human Relations and Conflict Resolution at the University of St Paul’s and is completing her 4th year of study. I’ve learned many things from my daughter and often the most profound lessons have come during our runs.

Our bodies are repositories of wisdom but sadly, and too often, we fail to invite this wisdom into our consciousness. Instead, we override what our intuition invites us to step into and silence her with reprimands and our rational mind. This approach can only work for so long until, as with any overused muscle, we get fatigued and collapse.

When in movement, my body takes over. My mind quietens. I become more connected to stillness and can access the gentle stirrings that are longing to be noticed. During these runs, we speak of everything and nothing. We explore Greek mythology and how these stories have shaped and continue to shape our lives. We connect to the ground beneath our feet and share stories of loss and hope. We speak our truth and fearless about what will be thought of us as we offer a musing about something that might mean something more if given the chance to take root. We have laughed, cried, and been so moved that we have stopped in our tracks to catch our breath and to allow the magic of the moment to be experienced.

I have learned much on our runs.

Trained in the art of asking powerful questions, we often invite magic to unfold through the simplicity of trusting our curiosity. We have discovered that in asking the question, we allow the other person to be seen, appreciated, and met in a loving and compassionate way. When running together, we meet the moment and are open to what unfolds with less judgement and self-recrimination. We turn towards what might be holding us back.

On one such run, I had an epiphany. My daughter asked me what was weighing me down. She sensed rather than witnessed this metaphorical weight on my shoulders – like Atlas struggling with the weight of the world on his. In the asking of the question, I felt my ego dissolve. I was powerless in fighting against the truth that was arising in me as we kept running. The irony is that while running, I could no longer outrun the pain of a loss that I had been carrying for so long. My body knew her breaking point and as Pema Chodron writes “when things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test of each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really s'well.”

At that moment, it was the beginning of my deepest appreciation for the wisdom of my body. Somatic intelligence is understanding how our bodies respond to danger, pain, loss, and adversity and how we can use this knowledge to better cope and be with life. Training in thanatology (the study of death and loss) has brought a much deeper awareness of how fragile we are as humans and a longing to bring more death and loss literacy to the world. One of the ways we can do so is to build our natural somatic intelligence so that our nervous systems can feel supported, acknowledged, and attended to. Once this happens, we can extend our windows of tolerance, increasing our capacity to meet each moment with more fortitude and resilience.

It is not by outrunning or avoiding our losses that we will experience less pain. It is by facing it; inviting our losses to be understood and accepted so that we can work through our grief from a place of health.

To support you in increasing your somatic intelligence over the coming months, try some of these practices, and please send me a note at DBL@sportlaw.ca or griefcoach@bell.net if you want to learn about other healthy and healing practice to metabolize your losses.

Practice 1: Deliberate breath work – we take this activity for granted. It is the first thing we take from this world and the last gift we leave. Every inhale and exhale activates the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system. Each time we breathe, we can intentionally use a rhythm of gentle breathing in and out to regulate the revving up and shutting down of our nervous system. Try it. Simply pause in this moment and focus your attention on your breathing. What are you noticing? Trace your breath from your nostrils to your throat, as you expand your chest and into your belly. Take this moment to express gratitude for this gift of breath that sustains your life and those you love.

Practice 2: Sighing – our body’s way of releasing tension. Research has shown that a deep sigh returns the autonomic nervous system from an over-activated sympathetic state to a more balanced parasympathetic state. Next time you are struggling with something, pause and take a deep breath in and as you exhale, sigh loudly. Do this a few times and notice if you are better able to shift your mindset as your body relaxes.

Practice 3: Touch – safe touch activates the ‘tend and befriend’ hormone oxytocin that creates a pleasant feeling in the body and is the brain’s antidote to the stress hormone cortisol. The power of ‘safe touch’ is critical to our well-being and safety which is why it is so natural to reach out to others and connect. Touch, physical proximity, and eye contact create a viscerally felt sense of reassurance that ‘everything will be fine’. Next time you witness someone you care about in distress, ask if they are open to you supporting them with a hug or placing your hand on their shoulder for comfort. You can also try this on yourself – see Practice 4.

Practice 4: Hand on Heart – research shows that placing your hand on your heart and regulating your breath can soothe your mind and body. Experiencing the sensations of touch with another you trust, even recalling memories of those moments, can activate the release of oxytocin, which evokes feelings of safety and trust. This is why when I work with clients who have been traumatized or are suffering from complicated grief, inviting them to place their hands on their body can bring much-needed comfort and be a stabilizing way to get grounded. Here’s a quick primer to support yourself and those you love:

  • Place your hand on your heart. Breathe gently. Close your eyes if that helps you feel into the moment.
  • Recall a moment when you felt safe, loved, cherished by another being. This could be a pet, a friend, a coach, a parent, or someone you trusted.
  • As you remember this moment, let yourself feel the moment in your body. Stay with this feeling, as you breathe gently for up to 30 seconds. Notice if you feel calmer, more soothed, more relaxed.

Repeat this practice throughout the day to strengthen the neural circuitry that will support you when you are in distress. With deliberate practice, this way of soothing yourself will help you avoid feeling emotionally hijacked.

Practice 5: Movement matters – our emotions need motion. A body in motion helps us access different states which is why athletes use movement deliberately before the competition. For instance, striking a pose can help us ‘fake it until we make it’. With some clients who are looking to increase their confidence, I’ve invited them to place their hands on their hips, with their chest out, and their heads held high for a minimum of two minutes before an important meeting. The work from Amy Cuddy on the power of shifting our posture helps us understand how we have the means inside of ourselves to deal with difficult emotions.

Being able to recognize and appreciate our body’s intelligence is part of the work we are doing as Integral Coaches. We know the world needs more compassionate, awake, and aware leaders who are unafraid to express their emotions. To be vulnerable in the face of adversity requires courage. To work through our losses from a place of self-compassion and skill requires deliberate practice. Soothing yourself after setbacks is the beginning of cultivating a more skillful and heart-centered approach to leadership and to life.

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