Movement has always been an integral part of Noa Belling’s life. At four years old she started ballet, growing up to have a professional dance career. Movement, even before she realized it, was Noa’s way of finding comfort, personal strength and centering herself. But it was doing her yoga teacher’s training, after ending her professional dance career, that helped bridge movement with mindfulness. That was further expanded during her training in somatic psychotherapy which is the science behind your mind body relationship. An interest in how to use your body as a resource for personal empowerment and as a vehicle for social change, has manifested into her work as a psychologist and author. She has penned two books, written with the intention of helping people harness the power of their bodies to improve health and happiness.
Noa’s first book, the international best seller The Mindful Body, explores how the mind and the body live together and provides processes for working with emotions and listening to your body. Her latest book, The Happiness Workout focuses on how to use your biochemistry to optimise confidence, creativity and you brain. It empowers the reader to take control of their own happiness by explaining the biochemistry of happiness and how each one (serotonin, dopamine, testosterone, and oxytocin) impact happiness. It provides practical tactile exercises and physical skills that stimulates your biochemistry, which in turn affects not just your happiness but resilience, compassion, confidence, and creativity.
Recently, I sat down with Noa over Zoom to discuss The Happiness Workout and the ways in which movement can be used to boost energy and creativity and create space that allows your body to breathe, relax and move through feelings of anxiety and stress.
If you come into your body, it doesn’t sort out your problems; but it puts you in a much better frame of mind to be able to sort out your problems.
Do you believe there is a connection between happiness and one’s body and that you are able to trigger happiness through your body?
Yes, our bodies can be used in all sorts of ways to literally influence our biochemistry. The happiness workout was an opportunity for me to delve into the specific research, which for me was always intuitive. I looked at the family of biochemicals and how it links to the way our bodies operate. Take for example what happens to you mind when you spend 30 minutes walking on the beach. Taking that further, earthing, connecting with nature, coming out of your thoughts and into nature is all connected to the idea of grounding. There’s research that this calming effect is helpful for the production of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that boosts a quieter, more introverted happiness). Meditation which teaches you to sit still and be quieter with yourself also simulates serotonin.
Happiness is multi-faceted. Inner peace, content and joy is linked to serotonin. Grounding is linked to serotonin and by grounding yourself you are able to soothe yourself no matter what you’ve been going through. It is not instant, it takes time. You need to practice – building in a few minutes over the day to practice.
There is a link between science and how we are physically occupying our bodies. When we mobilize and move about it can ease anxiety. Getting physically active helps frees up your body, gets your blood flowing and breath moving so you don’t feel so trapped and can think more clearly. This is this is dopamine at work (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that boosts extroverted happiness and motivation to achieve). There is a link between dopamine and energy levels. Even simple actions like stretching can wake you up to bigger perspectives. When we are moving (walking, or just moving a limb) it is more conducive to the brain centres of novelty and new ideas being sparked than when you are sitting still. But when you need to focus you need to keep still. You need to balance inspiration with grounding – it’s very physical. Your body is an information treasure chest, and The Happiness Workout is saying let’s use it. There’s so much uncertainty and stress right now, let’s use what we can to help keep ourselves healthy.
What is the easiest way to ground yourself when you are feeling uncertain, stressed, anxious or find yourself overthinking?
Place your two feet on the ground, making sure that each part of your feet is touching the ground. Keep your feet flat on the ground and make sure you are centered on both sitting bones. Feel your whole body’s weight a little heavier, sinking, while at the same time your head rises up. Next, take a deep breath in and out through your mouth as long and slow as you can. Breathe it out, like you’re blowing out your tension and anxiety. Repeat those long deep breaths three times.
The above exercise quietens your body and relaxes the gut area which is the largest producer of serotonin. It helps settle you. In the book I include many ways to ground yourself whether it’s by breathwork, movement or visualization.
How does sleep impact happiness?
Sleep is the number one most important way to maintain health and sanity. Sleep is so easily affected by stress levels, habits. Sleep is a big and challenging topic, but I will speak to it in terms of grounding. When you have a good night’s sleep your ability to feel more in touch with your calmness, serenity and the earth will be 100 times easier.
What are you sleep tips?
Do your best to have a routine – even if it’s half an hour before bedtime to unwind and shut down. Our ability to stay up late is because we keep ourselves stimulated. Keeping your room dark and removing screens removes that stimulation.
If the time before bed is your leisure time and the time you have for yourself do what you need to do to relax. I’m a mother and that time is mine so if I want to watch Netflix for a bit I do it. Provided that I have a short space of time to transition between that and sleep. If my mind is buzzing, then I like self-holding which is a sequence of holds that allow you to come into you body and calm your nervous system. [Editor’s note: Along with the self-holding exercises in The Happiness Workout, a weighted blanket can help calm your nervous system and improve sleep]
The gold standard in sleep is to watch what leads up to sleep. Find ways to trigger your relaxation response and take responsibility for your hours of sleep.
If you wake up during the night, lie your body down because it quiets your cortisol and adrenaline levels. Techniques like meditation, self-holding and mantras can be useful.
Lastly, napping during the day, even short naps, can help you make up what you are lacking and quieten your mind.
How do you maintain creativity now, when most of us are still stuck at home and during a time where the future is uncertain and opportunities for spontaneity are rare?
The challenge now is to find the spontaneous and the new. Spontaneity is the favourite food of dopamine – of creativity, enthusiasm, and excitability. When you go for a walk or run, choose a slightly different route – that’s novelty. Get experimental and cook something completely new once a week. Switch up your exercise [yoga is a huge part of my life but recently I found myself bored and looking for something new]. I discovered, Ci Gung, a type of Chinese Martial Arts and this was a new way for me to experience novelty. Doing something new adds background excitement, and that can be incredibly uplifting.
Movement also helps increase dopamine. Even when you’re in front of your computer – take moments to introduce movement. I have exercises in the book that helps bring fluidity to you workday, which encourages creativity. Novelty and movement are two ways to help stimulate creativity. Staying freer physically can help you stay freer mentally.
What is happiness for you?
Happiness is feeling well, feeling grounded, feeling able to tap into inspiration when it may be helpful for me. Being able to flow with my excitement when it comes and being able to settle into my inner joy. I try to live from a place of inner contentment and quiet joy and allow everything to rise up from there. From the book’s point of view, happiness is something you can take charge of – it is any way your feel-good biochemistry flows more than your stress biochemistry.
We’re so tired mentally, but our bodies are always there, always ready and always available to be tapped into. But you have to also recognise when you’re exhausted and need a nap – not to accomplish something, not to be active – to rest. Part of maintaining sustainable happiness is to say “I’m not going to always be beating the drum of feeling on top of the world and jumping up and down. As a matter of fact, the world can do with more calm inner peace right now.”
Noa Belling is an international bestselling author and psychologist who uses her many years of experience in intellectual and physical discipline to guide others in enhancing vitality and life fulfilment. Noa holds a master’s degree in somatic (body-mind) psychology through Naropa University. Her background includes over a decade of teaching applied somatic psychology skills as part of psychology training and continuing education programs, running a private psychotherapy practice and presenting talks and workshops in the corporate sector. Her second book The Happiness Workout is out now.