The back: Laying on the back encourages the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that takes in information from the external environment and creates motor action*. When lying on the back, the visual environment is wide, which encourages the engagement of the eyes. The head turns easily to orient to moving objects, and the hands/arms and feet/legs are free to wave and kick in the air. This can create movement that has lightness, ease, and spontaneity. Perceptually, lying on the back can provide an opportunity for an open, spacious, exploratory state. While on my back, I find I have easier access to my own inner "observer", the part of me that can observe what is happening in myself and the world with a sense of witnessing. (The same kind of "observer" that is encouraged through meditation practices). When the body is fully rested while lying on the back, the spine is encouraged to come into gentle extension. As gravity pours through the body, the back of the body that is touching the floor gains a sense of density and aliveness.
The tummy: Laying on the tummy encourages activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that encourages rest and digestion. When the parasympathetic nervous system is balanced and active it also supports healthy social engagement. When lying on the tummy, the visual external world is easily minimized as the turning of the head requires more complex coordination. The limbs are encouraged to push against the surface of the floor, creating movement in the spine. This can create movement that has a quality of density, fluidity, and strength. Perceptually, laying on the tummy can encourage a deep inner focus. I often find the experience of coming into myself and letting go of the outside world while resting on my belly. When the body is fully rested on the tummy, the spine is encouraged to come into gentle flexion. As gravity pours through the body, the front of the body that is touching the ground (front and inner thighs, tummy, chest, throat, face, etc.) gain a sense of density and aliveness.
Understanding the states linked with different sides of the body becomes important when we consider the world of the young infant. As adults, it is our responsibility to place them into different positions that encourage their full and natural developmental process. I recommend placing babies on all sides of the body from birth. This allows them to spend time with the different perceptual and motor experiences each surface has to offer.
It can also be beneficial for adults to rest on the floor on all surfaces of the body. Making time to fully rest and feel the body breathe and move is a wonderfully regenerative practice. Even if it's only for five minutes! Explore for yourself what you feel as you rest on the different surfaces of your body! Observe your infants as they explore the world on each of their surfaces! Report back to me :)
*This framework for movement positioning comes from the incredible work of Body-Mind Centering (TM).
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"...go into yourself and see how deep is the place from which your life flows..." Rainer Maria Rilke