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It’s 1986. I’m 27 and I have travelled to a small island off of the west coast of Canada for a five-day seminar called Come Alive.1 The two main teachers have medical degrees, one with a specialty in psychiatry and the other in acupuncture. After watching them successfully work with many others in the group, I decide to trust them. I lie down in the center of the circle and breathe deeply and repetitively. Quickly, I lose connection with my body. I am aware that I have floated away to what seems to be a safer place.
“Claim your space. Take a breath,” I hear one of the teachers calling.
I summon as much strength as I can and take a breath deeper into my body than I can remember. Suddenly, I am aware of my consciousness as life force, entering and energizing my body. Immediately, my pelvis is moving toward the ceiling, seemingly without effort, but my feet are stuck to the ground! I am overcome with a feeling of aliveness and power. I am this aliveness! My teachers apply deep pressure to my legs to free up the stuck energy there, and in a matter of seconds, I am kicking with all my might. Energy is blasting through my legs and I am giving voice to the deep emotion I have held inside my whole life. As my conscious, vital energy reenters and wakes up throughout my body, I stand up and express 27 years of emotion and aliveness that I have never allowed myself to feel or express. I am incredibly potent physically and fully embodied now—an unstoppable, living, dynamic being. In the next 20 minutes, I unleash and express enough repressed emotion, physical and verbal force to effortlessly push four men across the room.
I feel a tremendous sense of relief. I am clear, expansive, and free.
From Chinese Acupuncture Medicine to Indian Tantric Philosophy to Western Psychiatry and Physical Therapy pioneered by Wilhelm Reich,2 Alexander Lowen,3 and Marion Rosen,4 there are entire scientific and philosophical systems dedicated to understanding the movement of vital energy through the human body. Each offers a unique framework for how energy blockages in the body, mind, emotion, and spontaneous self-expression create anxiety, depression, disease, and premature death, while a liberated flow of energy invites freedom, joy, ease, and right relationship to the world and to life. In my work with people’s energetic and emotional health over the past 30 years, I have learned firsthand how this life force moves in and through the human body and about how to help people release themselves from anxiety and depression by freeing blocked emotion that keeps them from their own natural aliveness and awakened wellbeing. In this article, I will describe how attention to the natural flow of our vital life energy can reduce emotional and physical symptoms, improve relationships, increase joy and passion, and open a path toward greater fulfillment—individually and globally.
In every moment the miracle of life reveals itself to us. A seed bursts into a sprout and grows into a tree, which then blossoms in the light of the sun. All around us, we can see the very concrete movement and miracle of a vital force animating our lives. This force moves mountains and galaxies, creates the most stunning beauty, sustains us as part of its organic and organized ecosystem, and leaves our physical bodies to rot and decay—all on its own time. Although we have scientific and religious creation stories about it, we don’t really know how life and its energy came into being. We do know that without it, we wouldn’t exist. And we know that ultimately it is outside of our control. It does not require a cerebral cortex. It seems to have its own power, intelligence, and mysterious organizing principles—its own universal laws that require human flexibility and cooperation if we are to survive and thrive, both individually and collectively.
When the life force is vital and flowing in the human body, we can feel this life force physically throughout our whole body as a visceral vibration or a healthy tingling sensation. We may also experience energy as rushes of subtle movement inside the body or strong areas of heat that arise in us regardless of the room temperature. Emotionally, a healthy flow of this life force brings relaxation, passion, aliveness, and even euphoria. When a human being is open in this way, others can sense an expansive vitality that, in turn, enlivens their own being. Relationships become more fluid, connected, natural, and easy. When we are allowing the fullness and freedom of our own life force energy, we feel connected to ourselves and open to the energy and information that is all around us. Life seems to meet us with boundless opportunity. We feel, sense, and intuit the powerful alignment of our own life force with the force that moves through all of life.
But life isn’t always this easy. In a healthy infant, the breath flows freely, expanding and contracting throughout the whole body. Movement is spontaneous and behaviors are pure and clear with no ulterior motive. If we are healthy children, we express our emotion and energy very physically through our bodies. When we are angry, we throw a tantrum; when we are excited, we jump up and down for joy. But very early on, through normal social conditioning and as a response to painful situations, we begin to hold in and hold back our life energy. We are told not to cry and not to get angry. We are told to sit still, be quiet. Maybe we are ridiculed and bullied. Someone close to us may become very ill or die. Perhaps we live in poverty or violence and our very survival depends upon managing our overwhelming pain and terror. Regardless of our life circumstances, most of us learn to hold our breath, squeeze our muscles tightly around our feelings and hold them inside, cutting off the flow of our vital energy, along with dampening the awareness of our desires and needs. Eventually, when we suppress our life energy in these ways, we don’t even realize that we are doing it. As adults, we think the knot in our stomach or the pain in our shoulder is just a chronic physical ailment. We don’t notice that our throat is constricted, that we are clenching our jaw, or that we are numb or tight in our chest. But every time we tense our muscles in these habitual ways, we diminish the feelings and sensations in our bodies. We overlook our need to slow down and rest or get up and go, and we deny our desire to pursue our dreams.
Over time, emotional and energetic blockages of our life force influence the shape and posture of our body, the sound of our voice, and our subtle energy field, thus affecting our relationships and the ways in which the world responds to us. We stop knowing what brings us joy. We hardly notice that we are in pain, whether physically or emotionally. Over time, repeatedly holding back, holding in, or holding ourselves together—even in small ways—build into what Wilhelm Reich termed character armor, bands of contracted muscles that stifle our life force and our breath, affect our personality, and shape our expression in the world. This chronic holding and tension can contribute to physical disease, relationship dysfunction, and mental and emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety, two of the most common emotional disorders worldwide.
Anxiety and panic commonly occur when we suppress strong emotion by constricting or holding our breath. We breathe very shallowly in the upper chest and throat, creating the sensation that we cannot get enough air. Fear arises and then the mind creates (sometimes terrifying) thoughts and stories to make sense of the fear. These thoughts create more anxiety and panic and more shortness of breath; they may bring on a full-blown panic attack, which may include heart palpitations and even fear of death. Instead, if we breathe fully through the body, especially down into the belly and diaphragm, we can usually begin to contact the true pain that we have been avoiding. As we breathe and feel our deeper feelings, a tremendous amount of energy is released. We may weep or rage or discover fear, along with a huge sense of relief. From here, the truer emotion can be processed and resolved.
Likewise, depression commonly occurs when breathing is shallow and emotions are repressed or turned inward. Although there are a number of causes of depression and a wide range of severity, from my view, most depression is the result of years of unmet needs and desires suppressed through energetic holding. When we fail to follow our dreams and our natural inclinations, when we don’t assert ourselves or set healthy boundaries in relationships, when we fail to express our desires and to get our needs met, we slowly close down, withdraw, and diminish our life energy. If we avoid very intense traumatic memories such as physical or sexual abuse, violence, abandonment, and neglect, we may even dissociate or ‘leave’ our body and float around outside of it somewhere, not wanting to remember or feel the event. Depression can become severe when we repress our feelings so deeply and deny our needs and desires so thoroughly that our whole being or body-mind shuts down and we collapse physically, emotionally, and energetically. We may just give up and go through the motions; in extreme cases, we may become suicidal, with no idea how to access the life force that is available through our own awareness and willingness to feel and to breathe.
In humans, life force seems to be intimately related to our embodied awareness and the quality of our breathing. Embodied awareness is the willingness and ability to bring presence or conscious attention into and through every part of our physical being. The breath is a tool for relaxing muscular tension, releasing blocked energy and emotion, and opening to our vital force. When I work with individuals to help them access their vitality, I ask them to inhale deeply through their body from the bottom of their feet, through their ankles, around the calves and shins, up into their knees and thighs, filling the hips and pelvis, and then to exhale back down through their legs and out into the ground. I ask them what they feel. Can they feel any sensation in their legs? If not, then I know that they are not present in their legs and this lack of presence gives clues to what kind of energy, emotion, and movement they may be holding, blocking, or repressing.
Next, I ask them to imagine a hollow column, two to three inches in diameter, rising up through the center of their body. I ask them to imagine inhaling through this column from the base of their spine up through their abdomen, through their solar plexus, their chest, throat, head, and out of the top of their head, and then to exhale back down through and around their body, bringing awareness back through every area in reverse direction, including through their arms. I have them do this several times, noting areas of tension, pain, and contraction. This breathing and awareness practice is soothing, opening, and generally expansive.
Through this kind of full-bodied breathing and awareness, all of us can locate the areas in our bodies where we have blocked our life force. Over time, we can explore and examine these various blockages within the body, allowing emotion and memories to arise, connecting those events with current patterns of behavior and beliefs, and freeing the body-mind to allow more of our natural essence and life energy to reveal and express itself. As the muscles in the body relax, emotion is released, new skills are learned, and space is freed up in the body-mind for greater clarity and for setting boundaries and pursuing dreams. As life energy is freed, often a feeling of euphoria sets in with a stabilized sense of fulfillment and ease in life.
Once these primary blockages are released and brought to awareness, we have access to greater nuances of feeling and sensation in our bodies. We become more receptive and tuned to our environment and can receive information in the moment. We learn to listen deeply to the life energy within and all around us. We surrender to that energy and it starts to move mysteriously in ways that liberate and enliven us. Our life force becomes free and alive and we can potently express ourselves, fully and freely, in ways we never would have imagined, usually with great benefit to society and the world around us.
In order to realize our greatest potential, each of us requires the freedom to discover our particular reason for being. For many of us, this path of discovery requires that we learn to feel a full and nuanced range of feeling throughout our bodies. Imagine if more of us allowed the healed clarity and compassion of our life force to shine through us. From here, we would see, sense, and feel that our own life force is the same one that shines through all, the same one that ignites and moves all things. We would feel our tenderness, our vulnerability, and our compassion for ourselves and for those around us. We would see that our liberation is dependent upon the liberation of all humans and all of life throughout time and space. And we would feel our fierceness as an expression of life force energy that moves us in our capacity to transform our world for the better.
Venita Ramirez is a partner with Pacific Integral where she co-designs and teaches conscious leadership programs in Africa, Australia and the U.S. She brings thirty years of experience in body-oriented psychology, meditation practices and integral theory to her coaching and consulting practice, and collaborates internationally on global and social transformation. Venita’s early training included traditional […]