(Dis)Embodiment: The Science and Philosophy Behind Modern Anxiety

Updated: May 18

This article below is taken from my published piece from CAREFULL MAGAZINE, an amazing non-for-profit online magazine aiming to help those struggling with mental health this lockdown- all the while raising money for Mind charity. Please check it out here and donate if you can! There is a load of great content and there will be more releases in the future!


Covid-19 is shining the light on another, pre-existing pandemic: that of our mental health. We have been given a mandatory break from our modern, stressful lives, and most of the social remedies we use to manage them. Such space is initially welcomed, but we may quickly find old wounds rising as we sit in reflection with ourselves and the anxieties felt by an entire planet.


This article will discuss the roots of modern anxiety, showing how easily it can be exacerbated during lockdown. It will then outline recent developments in the realm of Neuroscience which is proving what the ancient Yogis knew all along: that our bodies and minds are deeply interconnected, and how spending just 30 minutes a week practicing a form of embodied practice such as yoga or meditation, can help us re-connect to our whole selves, significantly reducing levels of anxiety. We finish with two quick and easy breathing exercises so you can feel great effects in minutes.


Disembodiment, Modernity and Depression

Modern society has conditioned us to become disconnected and disembodied.

Since the 17th Century philosopher, Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am,” we in the West have understood body and mind being separate and distinct from each other.


This philosophy has shaped the way we view and value our minds at the expense of our bodies. Reason, rationality and intellect became the seat of human intelligence, while the human body became a material substance to be objectified and understood through this reason.


“Experts” became the authority over how we understand and experience our own bodies: a one-size-fits-all approach to the human form, devoid of subjective experience, can be found in the fields of medicine, science, anatomy and, of course, popular culture.


Over time, the objectification and disconnection we have experienced from our bodies has left us stuck in our heads.


We may generally be more educated and have more “knowledge” of the world, but levels of suicide, depression and anxiety have never been higher. On a broader level, whether we judge ourselves and our bodies for the way they look, feel health anxious of a body we do not understand, or just don’t feel good in our own skin, it is all comes from the same root: the foundations of modern knowledge where the mind rules over the body.


Whether we judge ourselves and our bodies for the way they look, feel health anxious of a body we do not understand, or just don’t feel good in our own skin, it is all comes from the same root: the foundations of modern knowledge where the mind rules over the body.


The innate connection between body, mind and our most whole self became severed, leaving us in a state of collective disconnection and disembodiment.


But we are beginning to wake up.

The promise of Modernity: that we can find freedom and happiness through our intellect alone, has been shattered. The world is still unequal, and our minds have become lost in their own inner struggles. With the global Covid-19 pandemic this is becoming more evident than ever.

The promises of human progress upheld by Modernity and The Enlightenment have failed us

More recently science and research has been uncovering what the ancient Yogis knew all along: that the “mind” and “body” are deeply connected.


In addition, the unparalleled benefits of practices which seek to cultivate a deeper connection to our whole selves through the bodymind connection- dubbed embodiment practices- are being proven.


Embodiment practices are methods which use the unique sensations in our body as a tool to develop awareness and self-knowledge. Now neuroscientists are becoming interested in how practicing embodiment can help manage and reduce anxiety.


The science

Anxiety is a fight or flight response which comes from our sympathetic nervous system when it is active for an extended period unnecessarily.


Our sympathetic nervous system is one half of our automatic nervous system. The other half is our Parasympathetic nervous system: our “rest and digest” modality.


Both systems regulate our key organ functions involuntarily - we can’t directly control them. These include our breathing, heart rate, digestion, pupil dilation and secretion of digestive enzymes.


These two systems are in competition with each other: they put our body in complete opposite states.


Ideally, we would want to be in “rest and digest” mode most of the time.


The sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system prepares us for take-off by increasing our heart rate, mobilising our energy and putting secondary functions to the background. It is our instinctual survival mode. Useful, yes, when running away from wild cats in the Sahara. Not so useful, however, when you are isolated 24/7 in your room.


If you find you are highly anxious, your basic animal instincts are active when they don’t necessarily need to be. Don’t get me wrong, healthy stress is certainly not a bad thing. But feeling ready to fight or fly when you are going about daily life? Not so great.


Long term, as well as anxious thoughts, sustained sympathetic nervous system functioning can result in digestive and inflammation issues, palpitations and weight gain (and loss). Luckily, there are many things we can do to help reduce the activity in the sympathetic nervous system, and embodiment is central to this.


On a philosophical level, embodiment is about being and experiencing our truth as we become more present and aware of and in our body.


This is knowledge, but not in the way we have been brought up to understand it. This knowledge does not come from the intellect or thinking mind, but from our own whole experience of ourselves, including our sensations.


We can explore embodiment through practices such as dance, yoga, meditation and mindfulness, all of which can involve a combination of movement, breath and stillness.

Forming connection and self-knowledge in this way makes sense.


Before we learnt to speak and (over)think; breath, being and body was our first language. Through embodiment, we are re-connecting with this: our primordial essence.


The research

If you go to the doctor with symptoms of anxiety, they might prescribe you benzodiazepines. These drugs work on the brain by releasing the chemical neurotransmitter GABA which calms us down. Believe it or not, there are much more natural ways to get the long-lasting Gaba affect.


A 2007 study called “Yoga Asana Sessions Increase Brain GABA Levels” shows that yoga is one of the most effective ways to increase brain GABA levels. This study showed that exercise, in general, helps increase Gaba levels, but with yoga, it was significantly higher. Better still, the effects of just 30 minutes of practice increased Gaba for up to 8 days.


The most likely reason for this amazing result is the combination of deep breathing and bodily movement: a.k.a. the embodied connection of mind and body synchronised together through breath. If you have experienced the benefits of yoga or breathing exercises before, this might sense to you. Either way, try it for yourself!


These simple breathing exercises are just the start of becoming more self-aware and embodied. Practicing 5-7 minutes of breathing exercise 2-3 times a week, or 30 mins of yoga 1-2 times a week, will also significantly improve Gaba levels and your bodymind connection.

Breathing Exercises to Reduce Anxiety

During these short exercises, your breath should become deeper and you should feel calmer and more relaxed.


Practice 1: Coherent Breathing or Sama Vritti 1

This exercise is equal breaths in equal breathes out.

Breathing in and out through the nose, begin by inhaling for 4 seconds, exhaling for 4 seconds. Allow your breath to become deep and steady. When you feel comfortable, you can increase the length of each inhale and exhale to 5 seconds, then 6, up to 8 seconds, making sure that whatever you do does not feel strained.


If it feels good to do so, close your eyes. Complete for 3-7 minutes for best effects. Finish by closing your eyes and breathing normally through the nose. Observe the breath and how you feel without judgement. Rest in the feeling you have created.


Practice 2: The Box Breath: Sama Vritti 2 (with breath retention)

This exercise is equal part inhale, equal part retention (hold), equal part exhale, equal part retention (hold).


Practice coherent breathing or Sama Vritti (see above) for counts of 4 seconds.

This time, inhale for 4, then hold the breath for 4, exhale for 4 and hold out for 4.

Repeat, making sure to adjust if it feels strained or uncomfortable. For example, by inhaling 4, hold 2, exhale 4 hold 2.


Over time, increase the time to 6 seconds.


If it feels good to do so, close your eyes. Complete for 3-7 minutes for best effects. Finish by closing your eyes and breathing normally through the nose. Observe the breath and how you feel without judgement. Rest in the feeling you have created.


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"The sun and the moon, the individual soul and the supreme soul and in the same way, the union of all dualities, is called Yoga." Yogabīja, 87a-90b.

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