Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.
One of my favorite exercises to do with youth I teach in New York City explores our body and emotions. I often tell my students the body is home for our emotions and feelings. The body has a way to collect and store these feelings and sometimes the feelings can come up at random moments; when someone touches us by patting us on the shoulder, during a back rub, or while practicing yoga or other mindful (or random) movements.
Emotions can arise unexpectedly through physical sensations and at times we might feel overwhelmed by them and not know what to do with them. Sometimes what comes up has nothing to do with how we were feeling the moment before. For example, we might have gone to a yoga class and felt pretty awesome practicing backbends until a physical sensation or an emotion comes up that changes the whole experience and our perspective on that moment. Sometimes we cannot locate exactly what it is we are feeling, what that emotion is talking about, or why that area of our body is contracting or tensing.
The body is talking to us. It might be speaking to us about something we experienced in the past, or about something we didn’t realize affected us. Our body, at times, seems to be speaking an old language that seems familiar but we don’t fully recognize or remember.
When I was young and I was practicing yoga I had no idea what these things were and why they were coming up. I felt overwhelmed by waves of rage or sadness without knowing how to channel them, harness them, safely explore them, and, finally, lovingly let go. That is, until the next time they resurfaced again.
Because of this personal experience with my feelings, I make it a point in my teaching practice to explore this topic with my teenage students, even if it means breaking the taboo of not talking about how we feel. We explore how to hold space for big emotions, loud emotions, difficult emotions— we welcome all of them. And as my students learn, I also learn—which is what a teacher is supposed to do anyway, right? It’s a win-win!
To explore these ideas and emotions, one of the exercises we do in our mindfulness class is an art exercise called Body of Emotions. We dive into this activity after a body scan mediation where we explore physical sensation in the body.
Materials needed for the exercise are color pencils (or crayons) and paper.
First, I lead students thought a body scan. I then ask students to outline the shape of a person like a ginger bread man on a a piece of paper and to color, draw, outline any observations or findings they noticed during the body scan meditation. This could look a variety of ways and I usually don’t give too many instructions. Some students create an elaborate landscape of patterns and colors throughout their whole paper, each of them relating to sensations, feelings, or emotions. Some kids draw memories that the body scan brought up in their minds. Some others write about thoughts they had while focusing on the art exercise.
I ask students to then create a key on top of the page that describes the patterns and colors on the body outline they drew. Both the art process and the writing part helps create together a vocabulary around the body sensations, as well as increase awareness on the body’s sensations.
“In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”
This exercise can be practiced multiple times throughout the course of a school year, and sometimes students request to do it as their comfort zone expands. Often kids will want to share something with the group about their drawings. I often ask the students if they noticed something new about their body, like a soreness or pain or other physical sensations that they were not aware of before. It’s really important for the kids to reflect because it takes some internal check-ins to notice how we are feeling. As we go about our mindfulness program their ability to self-reflect becomes increasingly second nature to students.
Becoming emotionally aware of our internal landscape and befriending our body has many important upsides. When we know how our body feels, we are able to make more informed decisions about what our needs are. We learn to recognize when it’s time to pause, to listen, to speak up, to leave or to stay. We learn when to rest, when to engage, what is good for us, and what is not.
Attuning to our own body also teaches us self-preservation and self-care—it’s a form of practicing non-violence towards ourselves and, on a larger scale, to practice non-violence towards others. We learn to respect and take care of the communities we operate in and engage with.
When we are given the tools to take care of our deep self, it is only natural to feel compelled to extend this feeling to others. This might sound radical but it really isn’t. Students continually demonstrate this inward and outward care every time we practice this exercise and mindfulness.
Bessel A. van der Kolk explains “mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care.” This is what we do in our classes, we cultivate a sense of agency in self-care and self-inquiry by allowing the youth to explore, share and connect with others. They learn how to have these important questions and begin to destigmatize the conversation around feelings.
It has been powerful to helps students create their own personal vocabulary around feelings and to support ways to talk about them. They develop a way to connect to their body. They become familiar to how their body talks to them about the way they are feeling. They can begin to consider why certain emotions are stored or felt in certain areas of the body. These tools and resources will serve them as they continue to learn about themselves and navigate their personal relationships. I encourage you to find ways to support your students in exploring the way emotions show up in their body.
ABOUT DANIELA POE
As a senior teacher, Daniela has delivered mindfulness-based programs in public schools, youth detention centers as well as homeless shelters. Daniela is a coach and mentor for LFY as well as part of the teaching team. Daniela leads professional development trainings on integrating mindfulness and inclusive, trauma-informed and cultural competent practices into classrooms and schools. Daniela is a program coordinator at Lineage Project as well as a mentor teacher and instructor. Daniela has over 15 years of experience teaching underserved and vulnerable children and youth in both Italy and US.
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